Yubinuki, Japanese “thimble rings”

December 30, 2013

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Here’s a yubinuki in the making. From left: an embroidery needle, a blank yubinuki ready to be stitched in white and dark brown silk thread. The first row of stitching in both brown and white has been done. Below it is a functional (as opposed to a purely ornamental) yubinuki in brown plastic. Next is the white and black thread, Japanese silk, thickness #9. Far right is a 40m skein of said Japanese silk #9. The ruler below is in centimeters: we’re talking very fine embroidery stitching!

What is yubinuki?

Yubinuki refers to a traditional paper-and-silk thimble ring used by Japanese stitchers, often around 5cm in circumference. In Japanese, there is just one word, but in English it becomes two: thimble and ring. Like a thimble in the Western sense, it’s worn like a ring on the middle finger to help push a needle through stiff fabric or multiple layers of fabric. It’s used in traditional sashiko stitching (which involves ‘quilting’ two or three layers of cloth in one stitch) and is useful for stitchers of temari balls. Western sashiko stitchers wear a sturdy plastic thimble ring in dull brown plastic or leather; from time to time, Western temari stitchers are prone to using inelegant pliars to pull the needle, rather than pushing it. Traditionally, Buddhist Japanese would have shied away from using leather – a product from an animal – so silk fibre and paper would have been preferred.

Yubinuki – the practical and the ornamental

There is an interesting trend in Japanese textiles and handcrafts for sturdy practical originals to develop, over time, into a non-functional ornaments. Items lose their original functionality and become non-functional decorative pieces. One classic example is kogin and sashiko stitching: this form of stitching has moved from functional, wearable clothing specific to the rural Tohoku region of Northern Japan, to two-dimensional framed ‘paintings’ on walls in urban homes.

This also applies to yubinuki.  Non-functional ornamental yubinuki are fashioned these days out of traditional washi paper and silk fiber, over-stitched in fine silk; they curve outward and are no longer flat. They are most definitely not made as working thimbles, because any amount of pressure on the silk would degrade it very quickly. These ornamental thimbles are designed to be admired for their embroidery skill; they operate on the level of nostalgia, evoking the ‘lost’ skills and artisans of past generations. While yubinuki are still made by hand, as in times gone by, they are less likely to be made specifically for an individual stitcher’s finger size: the specificity of size for a particular person is lost and becomes a ‘generic’ standard size.

There is also a simpler-looking functional yubinuki where a lot of the paper is exposed and silk thread is at a minimum, forming a sparse-looking ‘lace’ over the paper base. The ring is flat and this flatness combines with the paper, between the silk stitched threads, working as a strong and secure source of pressure against the end of the needle because the paper covers a base of silk fibres.

I notice at least one enterprising contemporary yubinuki maker is creating thimbles to be worn as finger rings, made with a plastic core instead of paper so it can be washed and dried with ease.

Yubinuki these days have progressed from being working thimbles to become focal beads in jewellery, napkin rings, wrist bracelets and stands for temari balls and miniature pincushions. In Japan, series of them are arrayed like jewels in traditional paulownia wood boxes.

Two challenges in one

There are two aspects to making yubinuki: the paper base and the silk stitching. As with other Japanese textile traditions, it’s all about trial-and-error and endless practice, a slow, time-consuming process of adjusting hand-eye coordination to ever complex levels of fineness. I notice the Japanese yubinuki stitcher and author, Yukiko Ohnishi, will have as many as fifteen blank paper bases on hand at any one time. There is logic in perfecting the making of the reinforced paper before tackling the separate skill of silk embroidery stitching.

The silk stitching challenge

Yubinuki stitchers often come to the craft, especially in the West, from temari stitching. One specific type of temari is an obi temari, where the temari is made up almost entirely of a large stitched band around the ball’s equator, equivalent to the obi of female and male Japanese dress.

One way of moving gradually to ever smaller and finer stitching is to start with an obi on a large temari ball then slowly reduce the size of the ball and the band, moving from, say, pearl cotton 5 to pearl cotton 8 to something like pearl cotton 20. Proficiency with close stitching of pearl cotton 20 will allow the stitcher to progress to fine Japanese colored silk, eventually. Gutermann thread is slightly thicker than the fine Japanese silk.

Here are two attempts at a wide obi around a small temari ball (18 and 18.5cm circumference):

yubi-2 yubi-2a

The obi design isn’t terribly sophisticated but you can see where the challenge lies: getting the edges just so! But hopefully you can see the similarities with other Japanese textile traditions: the same limited color palette as kumihimo and temari, the premium put on optical illusion and sinuous pattern typical of long, thin weaving and braiding.

These two are “steps down” from larger temari ball – 27cm circumference done in thick pearl cotton 5:

yubi-11 yubi-1a

Inherent in the stitching is a foundational structure. The obi equator on the temari ball is divided into equal sections, e.g. most common 8,10 or 12 (called “segments” by yubinuki stichers or “divisions”, a term borrowed from temari) and the stitching winds between those marked-off sections called koma, a term familiar to kumihimo braiders as “bobbins”. Narrower or fewer sections are relatively easier than wider/more numerous ones.

Information sources for Westerners – hardcopy

There are no books in English devoted entirely to yubinuki, but I can recommend two in Japanese. Beware of a Japanese children’s book with “yubinuki” in the title.

yubinuki books

The first (left) is a paperback of mainly advanced temari ball patterns but with an excellent section on making yubinuki from scratch – how to make the reinforced paper base and then how to stitch. It’s by Yoko Takahara, Yubinuki to hana-temari-cho (Tokyo: Macaw, 2008), ISBN9784837703082. An English translation of the title is “Thimble Ring and Flower Temari”.

The second (right) is a hardback book devoted to yubinuki only: Yukiko Oonishi, Kinuito de kagaru kaga no yubinuki (Tokyo: NHK, 2006), ISBN 9784140311400. There are lots of luxurious photos and step-by-step instructions on how to stitch them. The information on the paper base is somewhat limited. You’ll note the reference to Kaga yubinuki. “Kaga” is a common prefix on textile traditions and other handcrafts referring to products and traditions originating from the town of Kanazawa in central Japan. Yukiko Oonishi is at http://experience-kanazawa.com/culture/yubinuki.html

Information sources for Westerners – digital

There are two I can recommend: one is the yubinuki special interest group on Yahoo! Groups, where the common language is English. The other is a weblog in English by master yubinuki stitcher, ‘Chloe Patricia’ at http://mamercerie.blogspot.com.au/ She is also an administrator of a Flickr photo gallery devoted to thimbles and yubinuki.

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