Yvette Irvine learns how to embroider a silk picture at XQ Nha Trang Su Quan on October 28, 2011
Yvette Irvine heard about Vietnamese hand-embroidery before coming to this land, but like the rest of her party she only knew embroidering with a machine.
She couldn't imagine how Vietnamese women manually created those exquisite silk pictures that had gained an international reputation.
The 45-year-old Yvette got an inkling of how it was done when she and 31 other Australians visited the renowned XQ Embroidery Company's workshop in Nha Trang late last month for some free lessons taught by XQ's finest embroiderers.
Founded in 1996, XQ has many imitators these days, but none of the competition comes close to matching it for quality.
That's why hordes of foreigners visit the company's workshops to see silk pictures being produced by unrivalled hands, and why some of the visitors spend a few days taking XQ's free embroidery lessons.
To date, nearly one hundred visitors from abroad have learned the rudiments of mixing colored thread and working with needles to produce silk pictures, according to XQ Vietnam's general director, Vo Van Quan.
"XQ Vietnam's workshops always have their doors wide open to welcome visitors who want to learn free of charge," said Quan, who co-founded the company with his wife Hoang Le Xuan.
"We feel great pride in Vietnamese embroidery when foreigners come to learn how to embroider pictures by hand. That's why I always welcome any tourist to XQ for training."
One of his guests was Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, who in November 2009 stopped by XQ Da Lat Su Quan, the company's founding workshop in Da Lat Town in the Central Highlands.
Quan well remembers her words of praise. "Here, you retain the precious skill of hand-embroidery that I believe contributes to enriching the art as well as the renaissance of Vietnam's old cultural values," the Danish monarch said.
The Nha Trang workshop that Yvette's party visited gets a lot of foreign attention thanks to the cruise ships that call at Nha Trang with increasing frequency. Often the company is the first stop on the passengers' tour of the town.
It was a scene of hectic preparations when the 32 Australians arrived on the morning of October 28 to learn how to embroider by hand.
They were given a formal reception and made to feel welcome by XQ Vietnam's co-founders, Vo Van Quan and Hoang Le Xuan, in the presence of two thirds of the workshop's 150 embroiderers.
The most eager-looking of the Australian party included art dealers who busied themselves taking picture after picture.
Before the lessons began, four Australians representing their group dressed up in traditional costume and took part in a ceremony at the shrine dedicated to the embroidery sector's founders, as all new learners must do.
The knowledge and skills they gained from their lessons were priceless.
"Learning how to embroider pictures by hand at XQ is not easy but it is a great experience for us during our visit to Nha Trang," said tour party member Jeanne Hermans, who was surprised to learn that some of the silk pictures on display had taken a year to make.
Another grateful student, 50-year-old embroidery teacher Leanne Beasley, expressed similar sentiments.
One of XQ's most successful students was an American painter who lived in Mexico.
Rueffert Daniel went to the Nha Trang workshop in June this year and applied himself to learning embroidery for 10 hours every day for a week.
When asked what he liked about Vietnamese hand-embroidered pictures, he replied that he wouldn't use the word like.
"I was deeply impressed by your artistic embroidered paintings. As a painter, I use paint to mix the colors. You don't use paints, but your work with color yarns produces very impressive pictures. When I saw them, I decided to learn how to mix colors with colored yarns," Rueffert said.
Some 3,000 embroiderers work for XQ Vietnam in Hue, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
XQ Vietnam's co-founder Hoang Le Xuan, a veteran artisan from the famous embroidery village Thuan Loc in Hue, has built up a strong team of hand-embroiderers, many of whom worked together to create the massive silk picture Thang Long - Hanoi's 1,000th Birthday Anniversary in a thousand days.
One of them, 26-year-old Vo Thi Ngoc Ha of XQ Da Lat, said the work had transformed her and made her "really gentle".
Similarly aged Nguyen Le Hoai Nhi of XQ Nha Trang extolled the artistic side of her work. "An artist's movements of needles and yarns are not ordinary. They are the soul of life. Each of our embroidered pictures at XQ is a reflection of our emotions," she said.