Jul 24, 2016 - Jun 18, 2017

Nyonya Needlework

National Heritage Board, Singapore

Discover Embroidery & Beadwork in the Peranakan World

Nyonya Needlework
Created with gold threads, silk floss, and tiny beads, nyonya needlework is typically associated with Peranakan Chinese women. It is one of the distinctive features of Peranakan Chinese culture. This exhibition explores the richness and diversity of this Peranakan Chinese art. Intricate details and immaculate workmanship are hallmarks of nyonya needlework. Designs, methods, and embroidery styles show how embroiderers worked within traditions while embracing the transformations inspired by contact across cultures. Visitors are invited to enjoy the microscopic details of these objects to discover the innovative spirit, craftsmanship, and stories embedded in this rich Peranakan Chinese art.  
Auspicious Emblems & Status Symbols
Ranging from slippers to large bed-curtains, nyonya needlework functioned as gifts, dress accessories, and most prominently, decorative textiles for major celebrations. Many important ceremonies were conducted within the home, and embroideries helped to transform a mundane interior into a symbolic space for rituals and festivities. By following established formats and designs, such imagery reinforced a sense of identity and continuity. Innovations in form or design conveyed novelty and dynamism. Chinese auspicious images – phoenixes, qilins, lotuses, and sea creatures – expressed wishes for good fortune and marital success. Sustaining the family line was crucial, and many motifs refer to fertility and progeny. Early 20th-century designs included flora and fauna inspired by European embroidery patterns. Romanised script was introduced into beadwork and embroidery as access to education in English or Dutch expanded, and more nyonyas learned to read and write. Other non-Chinese motifs reveal the impact of popular culture.

Woman’s slippers
Malacca or Singapore, 1920 to 1940

The cartouches around the motifs are derived from Chinese textile designs. The curly brackets at the sides of the women’s slippers are a simplified version of the curvilinear cloud or fungus decoration on Chinese shoes.

This is one of a pair of matching set of slippers probably for a wedding couple. Their luxurious materials, intricate details and rich textures are hallmarks of nyonya needlework.

A Peranakan Chinese nuptial couple with a bridesmaid
Jogjakarta, early 20th century

Note the gold embroidered boots of the bride, and her embroidered handkerchief.

Ceremonial handkerchief
Malacca, late 19th century

Silk velvet embroidered with silk floss (raised satin stitch, knot stitch, and bullion knots), cut metal beads, melon-form metal beads, glass beads, and cordonnet; edges of buttonhole stitch.

This handkerchief stands out for its exquisite figures. Xiwang Mu, the Daoist Queen Mother of the West, rides on her phoenix; the reverse has Shoulao, the God of Longevity.

At the top of the handkerchief is a horseshoe crab. It can be distinguished by its shape, greyish colour, and spiky tail. Since the smaller male clings to the female for long periods, the pair represents marital fidelity.

A pair of curtains for the wedding bed (bang ta)
Penang, early 20th century

These embroidered curtains would hang at the front of a four-poster matrimonial bed. The design comprises some 50 different birds, plants, Daoist and Buddhist symbols.

Some motifs can have more than one auspicious meaning. The paired fish, for instance, is a Buddhist symbol for freedom and an emblem of marital happiness.

Wedding chamber
Penang, early 20th century.

Nikko Studio. The Peranakan Association Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

Panel, probably for a pillow
Penang, early 20th century

Roses were a favourite motif in nyonya beadwork and embroidery in 20th-century Penang, but the oversized blossoms here resemble earlier designs on Indian trade cloths imported into the region.

Panel, probably a table cover
Penang, around 1910
Needlepoint canvas embroidered with glass beads


This charming panel must have been considered modern and stylish for its time. The patterns were adapted from European needlepoint. The domesticated animals, baskets of temperate flowers, and blond-hair children were much favoured by the Peranakan Chinese.

Around the border is an unusually long tribute to the newlyweds. These verses are from the book Toasts and After Dinner Stories (1900), and show the social conventions of Peranakan Chinese society.

Creative Hands: Makers and Methods
The art of nyonya needlework is embodied in its stitches, embracing both imitation and innovation. The works displayed illustrate the main materials and methods, and selected comparisons highlight the techniques borrowed or adapted from other practices. Chinese stitches provided the basis, while similarities with Malay and European techniques suggest the transmission of craft skills across cultures. Although much beadwork and embroidery was carried out by nyonyas, it was not strictly gendered or culturally constrained in practice. Alongside domestic embroidery for personal use, it also flourished as a cottage industry, which probably included male workers as well. 

An embroiderer
Java, 1870s

Woodbury and Page
National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands

Stand for an embroidery frame
Probably Singapore, late 19th or early 20th century

Specially-made wooden stands supported the frames on which the embroidered fabric was stretched to keep it taut while sewing. These stands often had built-in drawers for needlework equipment, or for containers of beads and tinsel.

This stand must have belonged to a keen beader, for its drawers contained an array of samplers.

Fabric with a design for embroidery
Penang, early 20th century

Flat satin stitch embroideries from Penang bear a striking similarity to Chinese needlework. But the proportions of the figures, compositions, and the dominance of secondary colours in Penang silk embroideries are distinct, and suggest how Peranakan Chinese tastes transformed Chinese-style needlework.

Purse
Malacca or Singapore, late 19th or early 20th century

Small purses were usually worked in several techniques. The flat metal thread couching produces a brocade-like surface. It is often combined with tekat timbul, a type of raised metal thread embroidery, in a basket-weave pattern.

The relief effect, created with padding, mimics the raised patterns in repoussé metalwork (designs hammered from the back).

Indonesia
As a shared heritage, beadwork and embroidery linked the various Peranakan Chinese communities. This is apparent in the continuities in the designs and methods of nyonya needlework. But local conditions and crafts contributed to the diversity of embroidery styles, which varied across the Archipelago and sometimes within a region. We can be sure of the geographical source of only a fraction of nyonya embroideries through documentation, inscriptions, and family provenance. Most works are attributed to a place on the basis of style – on how they look. But regional associations can often be ambiguous. Sometimes it is not even clear if a work was indeed done by a nyonya. These challenges force us to reconsider the historical context of nyonya needlework and its relationship with the other embroideries. In the process, we see that nyonya needlework is part of a wider continuum of traditions of the urban populations in Southeast Asia. Some of the earliest known dateable examples of nyonya needlework are gold and silver embroideries from Indonesia. Batavia, Surabaya, and Semarang on the north coast of Java appear to have been key centres for this type of embroidery in the late 19th century, serving both Peranakan Chinese and other patrons. 

Ornaments for the sweetmeat box
Java, Batavia, late 19th century

These unusual and delightful beaded figures reflect the nyonyas’ fondness for classic Chinese stories. Replete with “feather” headdresses and weapons, they represent male and female generals from Sie Djin Koei, a tale about the exploits of the Tang dynasty general, Xue Rengui.

The figures were used to decorate the chien-hap (or bit-chien), a box for sweetmeat offerings placed on the altar in Peranakan Chinese homes.

A Peranakan Chinese wedding couple
Indonesia, early 20th century

Peranakan Museum, Gift of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee.

Dowry tray cover
Java, possibly Semarang, late 19th century

Semarang, a major port on the north coast of Java, had a sizeable Peranakan Chinese population. This panel, possibly from the area, must have been a doily, or cover for the trays or boxes for the wedding gift exchange between the bride’s and groom’s families.

Perhaps inspired by batik designs, the coiled creature at the centre of the panel resembles a centipede, rather than a dragon.

Belt
West Sumatra, 1912

Flat colors and stiff repeating motifs suggest that this belt is from West Sumatra. Two hands point to a Chinese name, Kwee Ng Soen. Dutch flags flank the year “1912”. In the preceding three years, the nationality of the Peranakan Chinese became a contested issue between the Chinese and Indies governments, resulting in a Dutch decree in 1911 where locally-born Chinese would be considered Dutch subjects.

This belt is a powerful reminder of the questions of identity that faced the Peranakan Chinese in the Indies.

Man's sash
Sumatra, Palembang, late 19th century

Silk tabby worked with silk floss in satin, running, double running, speckling, and eyelet (pulled thread) stitches; metal thread laid and couched.

Handkerchief or dowry tray cover
Sumatra, Palembang, second half of the 19th century

This handkerchief is a masterpiece of nyonya needlework. The embroidery, inspired by drawn batik (tulis) handkerchiefs, illustrates how inventive needle-workers borrowed ideas from other textile media.

The pattern at the centre resembles intersecting coins, but seen as a whole, it simulates the repeating squares and circles of ceplok batik patterns. The colours echo costly tiga negri (three region) batiks that were highly regarded by the Peranakan Chinese. Stylized flowers in double running stitch resemble indigo batik borders.

The pattern at the centre resembles intersecting coins, but seen as a whole, it simulates the repeating squares and circles of ceplok batik patterns. The colours echo costly tiga negri (three region) batiks that were highly regarded by the Peranakan Chinese. Stylized flowers in double running stitch resemble indigo batik borders.

Peranakan Chinese bride and groom
Surabaya, Indonesia, ca 1900

In Java, at the turn of the twentieth century, affluent Peranakan Chinese women donned velvet boots with gold embroidery for formal occasions, and their weddings.

Woman’s ankle boots
Java, late 19th century

These boots are embroidered with traditional auspicious images, but their shape follows European women’s ankle boots that were fashionable in the 1880s.

Non-Europeans were not permitted by law to wear European clothing in late 19th-century Indonesia, and nyonyas generally wore Chinese shoes or slippers. When wealthy nyonyas wore boots like these, they made a fashion statement and declared their privileged status.

Malacca & Singapore
Close family and economic ties between the Peranakan Chinese in Malacca and Singapore are reflected in the similarities in their embroidery styles. Designs tend to be relatively small and delicate, and figures are generally not to scale. But, many features are not unique. The deep, rich colours and embroidered velvet borders are also shared with the needlework from Java and the Palembang region of Sumatra. As in Penang, many of the smaller embroideries from Malacca and Singapore combined multiple techniques. Not only does this add to the sense of luxury, it also demonstrates the prowess of the embroiderer and the connoisseurship of the patron. 

Headdress for a bridal attendant

Malacca or Singapore, late 19th or early 20th century

Silk velvet worked with cut steel beads and melon-form metal beads, metal purl, sequins, metal thread (couched and attached with buttonhole stitch), cordonnet; fringe of netted or plaited glass beads, attached pompoms; needle-woven edges


Elaborate headdresses were part of the ceremonial outfits of young girls in Malacca and Singapore. Some had an additional pointed crown that differentiated them from the baxian (Eight Immortals) headdresses worn elsewhere in the archipelago.

The dominant images include Xiwangmu, Queen mother of the West, on the beaded piece; and a bird, perhaps a phoenix or crane, on the gold embroidered headdress. The maker has ingeniously stitched overlapping sequins to suggest ruffled feathers and flower petals.

Chinese children in New Year's dress
Singapore, ca 1900

Child’s shoes
Malacca or Singapore, early 20th century

Silk velvet embroidered with metal thread, silk floss (raised satin stitch), cordonnet, metal purl, and sequins

Ceremonial accessories for Peranakan Chinese children were often lavishly beaded or embroidered. Children’s shoes were modeled on booties with an ankle strap. Decorations were no different from those for adults’ garments, relaying the desires for wealth, health, fertility, peace, and longevity.

Child's collar
Singapore, late 19th or early 20th century

Satin silk worked with silk floss in Pekinese and satin stitches; metal threat laid flat and couched; applied warp-patterned trim; edge bound with silk bias; attached knot work fringe with metal discs. Figures padded with cotton wadding.

Cheang Hong Lim in official dress
Singapore, late 19th century

Boden-Kloss Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Cheang purchased the title of Dao Yuan in 1869.

Mr Teo Eng Kiat and Miss Wee Kim Tian
Singapore, 16 June 1936

The Peranakan Association Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

Embroidered square for a bridegroom's surcoat
Singapore or Malacca, early 20th century

Modeled on the Chinese embroidered square (buzi), this two-part panel was attached to the front of a man's wedding surcoat. In the late nineteenth century, some wealthy Peranakan Chinese purchased or received honours from the Chinese government.

This entitled them to dress in official's robes, with an embroidered square emblazoned on the surcoat. Such surcoats were also worn by Peranakan Chinese grooms in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Fan case
Probably Malacca or Singapore, late 19th to early 20th century

This example represents a particularly delicate style of beadwork from the Straits Settlements, characterized by detailed workmanship and softly merging colours.

Motifs worked in this style are mostly Chinese. The dragon and tiger on this unusual beadwork fan case may relate to the Chinese zodiac.

Woman’s shoulder-piece
Malacca or Singapore, late 19th or early 20th century

The nyonyas in Malacca and Singapore wore arrow-shaped embroideries with their baju panjang blouse and sarong. They were draped over the shoulder with the pointed end to the front, probably inspired by the large handkerchiefs that doubled as key-holders.

Many shoulder-pieces (sangkut bahu) consist of two parts, but the rectangular upper panels may have also been worn on their own. Some surviving examples resemble Chinese women’s embroidered sleeve bands, suggesting that the latter may have provided models for the designs.

Penang
Close family and economic ties between the Peranakan Chinese in Malacca and Singapore are reflected in the similarities in their embroidery styles. Designs tend to be relatively small and delicate, and the figures are generally not to scale. But many features are not unique. The deep, rich colours and embroidered velvet borders are shared also with the needlework from Java and the Palembang region of Sumatra. As in Penang, many of the smaller embroideries from Malacca and Singapore combined multiple techniques. Not only does this add to the sense of luxury, it also demonstrates the prowess of the embroiderer and the connoisseurship of the patron. 

A pair of vases
Penang, early 20 century

Cotton worked with glass seed beads stitched one-by-one; probably stiffened with cardboard.

Eight-panel table screen
Penang, early 20th century

This exquisite table screen was probably a gift or a commemorative piece for a patron well versed in Chinese. It was modelled on Chinese table screens, which counted among the “treasures” of a Chinese scholar’s table and provided privacy and decoration.

The long Chinese inscription, referring to Daoist deities, is highly unusual for nyonya embroidery.

Hangings for the bed
Penang, early 20th century

The Peranakan Chinese matrimonial bed was usually dressed with sumptuous embroideries. These reached their apogee in Penang.

Tie-shaped hangings, called kiam tua (sword hangings), were suspended at the front of the bed as symbolic protection for the newlyweds. Netted or plaited beadwork took the place of knotwork fringes. Large bed covers may have been stitched by professional embroiderers. The techniques of these pieces are reminiscent of Chinese embroideries, but the sharp jewel-like colours are typical of Penang nyonya needlework.

A pair of curtain tie-backs
Penang, early 20th century

Roses with rosebuds were one of the most popular subjects in early 20th-century Penang needlework. Sets of furnishings were embroidered with the same designs, and these panels and tie-backs (bang ta gao) for wedding bed curtains illustrate the consistency in the beadwork aesthetic.

Table cover
Penang, early 20th century

The exuberance of Penang nyonya needlework is epitomized by this table cover. Worked in minute and closely-spaced knot stitches, phoenixes and peonies are surrounded with pineapples, grapes, finger citrons, peaches, bottle gourds, and melons.

In the outermost band, birds and flowers metaphorically bring a wealth of good wishes to the nuptial table.

Plaque presented to Wu Lien-teh by the women of the Wu family

This plaque was embroidered for Penang-born Wu Lien-teh in 1897 by the women of his family. It is a nyonya interpretation of the crest of Emmanuel College in Cambridge where Wu was a medical student. The original rampant lion is replaced by a bushy-tailed Fo dog playing with a ball.

Credits: Story

Donors:
Edmond Chin, Jeffrey Eng, Koh Putt Poh, Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee, Mr and Mrs Andy Ng, Mrs Seah Cheng Siew, Agnes Tan Kim Lwi, Father Robbie Wowor

Lenders:
National University of Singapore Museum, National Museum of World Cultures/Tropenmuseum, National Museum of World Cultures/Volkenkunde; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Hall of the Phoenix and Peony, Singapore; Vanessa Chan, Chris Hall, Don Harper, Dr Roger and Mrs Betty Mariette; Jenny Lee Soon, Peter Wee, Daven Wu

Guest curator: Dr Cheah Hweifen
Peranakan Museum curators: Jackie Yoong, Dominic Low
Exhibition: Muhd Noor Aliff, Woo Mun Seng
Editorial: Alan Chong, John Teo, Richard Lingner
Design: Henry Yeo, Charlene Soh, Jeff Chong

At the Peranakan Museum: Bernard Tan, Maria Khoo Joseph, Charlotte Chow, Shiya Zhuo, Mazlan Anuar, Hanafi Ahmad, Mei-Yi Wee, Sharinita Ismail

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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