Kumihimo & Temari: Pine Needles, Pine Straw

January 8, 2012

The pattern is Makiko Tada’s; the hand movement annotations are mine.

Pine and bamboo are popular among the Japanese because as evergreens they have come to symbolise steadfastness – pine rather gloriously connoting “unflinching purpose and vigorous old age” according to Japanese Gardens, an online handbook. Plums, pines and bamboo (the Three Friends of Winter) are auspicious, going by the Chinese name sho-chiku-bai, and are found in e-gasari ikat weaving (as explained by Moeller) and in traditional Japanese embroidery. Historically, the rise of Japanese confidence and independence from the 8th century Nara Period onwards was reflected in the arts and crafts in a move away from the heavy Chinese influence. Such things as cherry blossoms and pines replaced Chinese flowers. Certainly the texture of pine bark as a geometric pattern is reproduced by marudai braiders.

Live pine vegetation, as clipped sections of pine trees, are represented in Japanese textiles as bumpy half-circles resembling, to this Westerner, mushrooms. The penny fell when I stopped to admire the branches of manicured pine trees outside Osaka Castle in the autumn of 2007 and recognised these “bumps” as sections of pine tree vegetation. It turns out these dense pine branches are called “kasamatsu” or “cloud pruning”.

On kumihimo braids

It took me ages to work out what these abstracted, three-pointed scratchings were when I first saw them in Makiko Tada’s braiding book devoted to double-layer takadai braids. They are of course dried pine needles or pine straw and are an obvious motif for Winter among the Japanese. Makiko Tada braids them as white on a maroon background and they come without instructions; I’ve drafted the bobbin movements, as above, but have yet to braid it. I’m still deciding on an appropriate colour scheme. I’ve noticed on a website a link between pine straw and bad luck, a conclusion drawn from their presence in an important Noh play. I think it’s really odd that someone would suggest mothers embroider symbols of bad luck on gifts for their daughters, or that women would encircle their bellies with an obijime braid with this design. It also contradicts its presence (whether alive as green pine needles or dead as pine straw) linked to that other symbol of fidelity and longevity, the crane. I can only think this is a mis-reading of the Noh play and that pine straw is simply a Winter symbol.

On temari balls

Temari stitchers spend a lot of time and effort translating traditional Japanese design motifs to the rounded surface of a ball. Cranes, bamboo branches, tortoises, fans are all represented on temari. Temari stitchers like to imitate other Japanese textiles by including sashiko stitching in the form of areas of asanoha or hemp-leaf design. With attention turning to TAST 2012 weekly embroidery stitches (Week 1 was the fly stitch), I thought I’d note how temari stitchers have approached pine needles/pine straw and then decide which I should emulate.

There also exists in temari a matsuba kagari or “pine needle stitch” (matsu being pine). In the West, we refer to this as starbursts for fireworks, which it resembles of course. For the Japanese, it’s the pointy ends of the ‘pine needles’ which matter, not the fireworks coming out of the centre. See www.temarikai.com, Pattern 1104/page 10, though for a more comprehensive treatment of the stitch, see http://temarimath.info (‘Let’s talk about starbursts”, September 2011). I also recommend Takahara’s book, Flower Temari Beginner’s Course, page 19 (note especially the stitching on the left for those straight-stitched ‘petalled’ flowers, e.g. p.63).

While the starbursts derive more obviously from the larch tree, pine straw can be seen in somewhat random position on a temari ball in Ozaki, Cosmo 7 (colour photo 6, instructions pp.40-41), I have seen them placed evenly around the sides of a pentagon, as a white-on-blue design on Japanese printed fabric, in the style of a traditional heraldic design.

In one of Ozaki’s Lovely Temari designs for cranes, the obi looks like a series of (live) pine needles, wrapped together so they resemble greeting noshi.

Pine is linked with cranes in the two of the most recent temari books: Ozaki, ISBN-9784837701101, page 2 ball 2, instructions 48-49 – here as cloudburst topiary, and Kanke, Tomita, Shikina & Toyoda ISBN 978-4-8377-0199-6, page 13 ball 2, instructions  pp.68-69 – here as free-embroidered pine straw.


Dusenbury, Mary M.  Flowers, Dragons and Pine Trees: Asian Textiles in the Spencer Museum of Art (Manchester, Hudson Hills Press, 2004).

Moeller, Ann Marie. Prosperity, Longevity and “Happily Ever-After”: Symbolism and the Sophistication of Implication in Japanese E-gasuri (picture ikat) Textiles. Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Symposium, Sept.2008.

http://greygoat.limewebs.com/kimonomotifsplants.html. Ruby Kimono differentiates clearly between kasamatsu and matsuba pine needles.

http://www.japanesegardensonline.com/Site/Quintessential_flora.html. Japanese Gardens, an online handbook. A marvellously comprehensive description of all things ‘pine’!

http://www.pintangle.com/ TAST 2012.


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