Hailed as a "unique skill of the world", hair embroidery is one of the gems of Chinese embroidery art, together with Su embroidery, Xiang embroidery, Yue embroidery and Shu embroidery. As the name indicates, hair embroidery refers to embroidery where human hair is used as a thread instead of other materials. Since Chinese people generally have black hair, embroidery is also called "Moxiu" (black embroidery).
The origin of hair embroidery can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when girls cut their long hair and used it to weave the image of Buddha to show their piety. However, this skill declined during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). In the 1970s, the ancient skill was revived and has since been explored and studied in detail.
Today, the art has by far surpassed its past attainments in color and variety. The color is no longer limited to black. Others, such as blonde, amber, auburn, white and gray of various shades are also used, totaling dozens of tones mostly collected from ethnic-minority areas. Occasionally, to give the lips of an ancient beauty their usual rosiness, white hair may be dyed red. But, on the whole, works embroidered with hair retain their natural hues.
To produce hair embroidery, three steps must be taken. First, the long hair of a young girl is collected, washed and dyed different colors using chemical treatments. Finally, the colored hair is used as thread to embroider a woven textile. The cloth may be dyed or undyed linen, cotton, wool, or luxurious silk.
It takes more painstaking efforts to complete a piece of hair embroidery since the skills required are much more meticulous and precise than in other kinds of embroidery. Since hair is a special material, the finished product will have a strong sense of vividness and reality, and the colors will not fade.
Hair embroidery generally falls into two categories: monochrome hair-embroidery and colored hair-embroidery. Unlike monochrome hair embroidery, where human hair of the same color is used, colored hair embroidery incorporates hair of different natural colors collected from people of different races. In this way, the product is fine, with a subtle variation in color. In addition, it is also richer in gradation and more flexible in terms of skill than monochrome hair embroidery, making the pictures more vivid.
This embroidery technique produces various designs, including different kinds of plants, living creatures, landscape paintings and historical figures. Many of them have symbolic connotations. For example, cranes, pines and peaches symbolize longevity; hats are for happiness; and five-clawed dragons for imperial rank.
The embroideries are usually framed and used as elegant ornaments or given as gifts among relatives and friends. They are regarded as the best gifts and most precious pieces for collecting.