First attempts at (three dimensional) asanoha

November 11, 2012

I’ve stitched asanoha (hemp leaf) two-dimensionally as part of my experimenting with sashiko (natural cotton stitched on indigo fabric), but not on temari stitch balls till now.

The stitching order is the same as in sashiko – it’s just that it looks so formidable on temari balls. I’ve managed to overcome this fear by reading Barb Suess’ excellent new book on temari techniques.

It’s worth following Barbara’s instructions to the letter, moving through her three examples. I’ve “Jumped around a bit” as you can see, inevitably regretting my lack of self-discipline.

My first go was the top one, a 25cm circumference wrapped in a light tan/brown-grey nicked from my recent teddybear making stash. Barb Suess has a natural affinity for brown and brown is often combined somewhat surprisingly with other colours in the traditional Japanese colour palette. We normally associate browns with sombre colour schemes, but the Japanese have a propensity to combine it with quite bright colours and you can see this to good effect in Barb’s use of red, white and blue, combined with both the light brown and a light blue. These additional lighter colours make all the difference and create a much more subtle effect than just the standard red-white-and-blue. So it was the red highlight that inspired me as much as anything else. Nothing to write home about concerning the process involved in stitching it, except that you obviously improve with practice the placement of the three-spokes in each small triangle. For an intricate-looking ball, it took surprisingly little time to stitch. Don’t pull the red stitches too tight otherwise they distort the bands underneath.

My second attempt took me to the next level of complexity, stitching #8 perle cotton instead of the thicker #5 perle cotton.  The blue (light and dark) bands between the poles were the same as the previous one, but here I opted for #8 perle cotton in white, given that it too was only 25cm circumference. Here I got a little bit ahead of myself by not doing the white asanoha stitching right up to the seams, but a few millimetres beyond the blue bands (which I added after the white, not before). To “tidy up” the outside of the white stitching, I added two “framing” stitches right around the edges, something I’d seen in other examples. This allowed me to vary the width of the main blue bands. I have done one hemisphere of the white stitching, but the other half is still to be done. While the all-over white effect is lacey, I prefer Barb’s use of two colours (white and dark blue) just to create that extra bit of visual interest. Instead of red, I crossed the bands in a light green.

My third attempt at 26.25cm circumference is a copy of one by sensei Ozaki who stitched the whole thing in orange and white. I liked the Barb Suess colour combo that I stick with that. The spindles need to be nice and thick and I feared they’d be too big to allow much of the red to show – just go for it! The red is not a spindle, but involves taking the needle over and under the diamonds. The effect looks more complicated than it is in reality, which is half the fun of temari. Because the ball is so relatively small, I have started stitching the asanoha in white #8 perle cotton.

One can’t expect perfection when learning the technique, but it was easy to unpick those hemp leaves where the stitching was the most dodgy without having to do masses and masses of re-stitching. The longer I look at my work, the more mistakes I find – not mistakes exactly, but potential to improve by re-stitching. I’m better off leaving these initial attempts alone and simply getting on with stitching new ones; practice makes perfect.

A bit more on “framing” or putting a border around the geometric leaves. You can either have the band running over the asanoha regardless (do the leaves then run the bands over the leaf pattern compromising the geometry of the outer row of triangles all round) or you can have the asanoha criss-crossing right over the bands or you can have them “seamlessly” butting up against each other. It looks rough on the ball at the time, but I found it possible to simply run two stitches of white around my leaf patterns when you finish the asanoha stitching.

Asanoha – the pattern motif

In terms of background, we often forget that cotton was introduced very late into Japan (one can only marvel how the Japanese got through their summers without it) and that hemp was the mainstay of Japanese clothing right up until the 1900s (even well into the 1960s in some parts), especially in those parts of the country where rice couldn’t be grown. Farming people high in the mountains (and where isn’t it mountainous in Japan?) ate buckwheat and millet and clothed themselves in hemp. Taima or hemp in the West was vilified by a certain World Power during the last century (imagine, say, cotton being suddenly made illegal) but may one day be rehabilitated and regain its former position as an excellent fibre source. In the meantime, it makes sense that this mainstay of existence in Japan should be honoured in the star-like pattern of its leaves, asa-no-ha (lit. “hemp-of-leaf”). In Japanese pattern motifs, used not just in textiles but also in bamboo and woodwork, military insignia and ceramics, the fibre of wild wisteria (fujiWisteria brachybotrys Seib et Zuss.) is also honoured with its pendulous flower in the same way as paulownia wood is honoured in its three-part flower-plus-leaves.

Of course, hemp and wisteria are but two of many bast or plant fibres, which include ramie (choma), wild ramie (yamaso or karamushi) and nettle (miyamairakusa – akaso being a member of the irakusa or nettle family, with its red leaves, Boehmeria tricuspis Makino). Ohyo (elm; Ulmus lactina Mayr) was exploited by the Ainu in their atsushi clothing; linden (shinaTilia japonica) was harvested for its fibre up until the 1920s.

All of these jimpi or bast fibres, originating from the inner bark of trees, vines and grasses, had different qualities – nettle not so strong, wisteria very very strong, etc. The warp had always to be nice and strong (the weft could be whispy and fine) and that’s where the strength of the weaving lies. Hemp was probably native to Japan, while ramie (and its processing technology) were imported from the continent in the late Jomon or early Yayoi period. Certainly hemp and ramie were the easiest to grow and treat and they won out against the weaker, poorer and thicker ones.

In the West, where linen was a mainstay, “flax” is used a a descriptor, approximating asa in colour and texture.

I’m inspired now to go back and read a bit more about asanoha in its initial, two-dimensional form as sashiko stitching. Temari stitchers honour their weaving and embroidery counterparts by copying features of those arts in temari stitching: weaving (both in textiles and bamboo work) is honoured through band-weaving on temari, folk stitching is honoured through replicating white-on-blue sashiko stitching.

Susan Briscoe’s book is an excellent one since it provides, as its title suggests, a compendium of historical information, practical technical advice and inspiring use of contemporary work alongside more authentic historical stitching. Susan says the asanoha design motif came from China (as did almost all aspects of culture in Japan – it took the Japanese hundreds of years to break free and develop their own individual aesthetic) and that its radiating star represents the inner light of the soul. Buddhism is endemic in Japanese culture,even today; the extraordinary team spirit and compassion of the people is at odds with the individualistic selfishness of Western Christians, by comparison. With Buddhism came literacy, so the Japanese have this sense that culture, religion, literacy are all bound up into a single entity. Susan mentions the relationship between clothing and hemp, as opposed to cotton, and she also mentions that asanoha as often used in children’s clothing in the hope that the child would grow up strong like the hemp plant. Thus asanoha symbolized a wish for good health.

Susan presents three variations on asanoha: a kuzure asanoha which is a fragmented hemp leaf pattern, an elongated asanoha (kawari asanoha) and a “scattered” hemp leaf design (tobi asanoha), where the snowflake-like leaves don’t all touch each other at all points, i.e. there’s lots of negative space around them. This last has an Islamic look about it, and Susan mentions this being used in Islamic art.

My next post involves translating asanoha to a C10 and a 20-face temari where it’s combined with naturalistic flowers.


Barbara B. Suess, Temari Techniques: A Visual Guide to  Making Japanese Embroidered Thread Balls. 2012: Breckling Press.

Shin-Ichiro Yoshida and Dai Williams, Riches from Rags: Saki-ori & Other Recycling Traditions in Japanese Rural Clothing. 1994: San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum.

Susan Briscoe, The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook: patterns, projects and inspirations. 2005, KP Books.


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