Horsetail hair embroidery, the unique craft of the Sui people of China

Horsetail hair embroidery, source

Every ethnic group of China has its own unique way of designing and adorning their costumes and textiles. An ethnic minority of the Sui (Shui) counts just about 400 thousand people. For centuries a special traditional type of embroidery has been kept alive by the Sui women. This unique kind of embroidery uses horsetail hair for the needlework.

A Sui woman in traditional costume embroidered with horsetail hair, photo  source

Sui legend says that when one of the ancestors groomed his horse prior to a race, a lot of horse hair fell to the ground. His wife thought it would be a shame to leave these strong and glossy hairs unused. She collected them and started to use those hairs in her embroideries along with silk threads. What does this legend tell us about the Sui people? First, that they really love their horses; second, they are really practical people who don't like to waste any material; and third, their women are really proficient in embroidery.

Working with horsetail hair, photo source

Horsetail embroidery is a hard, time-consuming craft.  Girls begin learning embroidery at about 5 or 6 years old. Some of them spend 10 years on a single embroidery piece, which is specially prepared for their wedding. 

Horsetail hair embroidered baby carrier, photo  source

Detail of horsetail hair embroidery of a baby carrier, photo source

Besides decorating with embroidery all parts of their traditional costume - blouse, trousers, apron, headdress, shoes and even insoles - women use the horsetail hair for embroidering baby carriers, tablecloths, wall hangings, bags and wallets. 

Horsetail hair embroidered insoles, National Museum of China, Beijing

Horsetail embroidery, source

Horsetail embroidery, source

The most popular motifs of the Sui embroidery are dragons, birds, moon and stars, and fish. As another Sui legend says during an ancient flood , a brother and a sister were saved by fish. Their descendants multiplied to become the Sui ethnic group and the image of double fishes became one of the favourite motifs of the Sui artisans.

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  1. I've never heard of this technique before but its beautiful and very green , what could be better? x

  2. Beautiful pieces. Horse hair is quite wiry and hard, I bet it's tricky to work with but the items will last forever! xxx

  3. very unusual embroidery! So intricate and colorful. Thank you for your post -- I've learned something new again.

  4. Wow!!! Very beautiful embroidery! I would never have thought it was made from horse hair!!!! Those women are creative and imaginative to have thought of this!!! I think embroidering something out o horse hair for the wedding would make the wedding even more special and unique! Nice tradition!

  5. Hmmm...ten years on the one piece. No thanks! I love the embroidered insoles that probably were never seen! Did they practice on that?
    I am once again floored by the exquisite work people have managed in more patient times.
    Thanks for letting us know! xo JJ

  6. Horsetail embroidery is something which sounds new to me! Those items are works of art!

  7. unique and beautiful embroidery...on one show I saw a wedding dress on which the embroidery was made from camel hair...it was magical! I think the designer of that dress was Korean.