Nyonya Beadwork and Embroidery

Category: Traditional Craftsmanship; Social Practices, Rituals and Festive Events

Nyonya beadwork and embroidery are craft forms specifically associated with the Peranakan community, and are found in decorations for everyday household items, as well as more ornamental pieces for special occasions such as weddings.

Peranakan beaded slippersPeranakan beaded slippers. Source: Roots.sg

Needlework (beadwork and embroidery) was traditionally regarded as belonging to the woman’s domain, although a number of leading practitioners in Singapore today are men. Nyonyas (female Chinese Peranakans) would learn needlework skills from their mothers or grandmothers from a young age. In the past, a potential bride would often be assessed by her needlework skills and ability to create beadwork and embroidery items.

Nyonya beadwork comprises small, coloured glass beads, metal seed beads or sequins, measuring between 0.5mm to 2mm. These beads are typically imported from Europe or Japan. The techniques for beading are wide-ranging and may include stringing, threading and stitching.

The colours and motifs for Nyonya beadwork often reflect a combination of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European influences, and popular motifs include flowers, fruits, birds and butterflies. While Nyonya beadwork can be found on a variety of worn or ceremonial textiles, its most famous products are arguably kasut manek (beaded slippers).

Nyonya embroidery borrows largely from Chinese and Malay embroidery traditions, and shares similar materials, motifs and stitching techniques. Nyonya embroidery work may be found in worn textiles such as kebaya (traditional blouse) or wedding robes, as well as everyday household items such as pillow and bolster cases, and on more ornamental pieces used during ceremonies and rituals.

As beading and embroidery involve intricate needlework that require long hours, the practice has been dwindling. Nevertheless, there are a number of enthusiasts who have taken up the craft through classes and workshops organised by associations and private businesses in Singapore.


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