The good news is that I’m making sense of the stitching process. Here are four tiny temari, 14cm in diameter, stitched in pearl cotton 8.

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The bad news is that I’m not making any progress at all in making bases for the thimble rings. These are approx 3cm in diameter; the stitches are visible and the surrounding bias binding is rucking at the join.

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Here’s a photo of tiny temari balls, complete with a centimeter ruler so you can get an idea of their size.

The ones at left are from Japan; the mari is made of rice hulls and the stitching thread is very fine silk, approx. 12cm circumference.

The ones at right were made by me several years ago. The formal term is temari obi yubinuki, or ‘temari made with an equator band in the style of a Japanese thimble ring’. Like most stitchers attempting this style of temari, I was disappointed at the time by the uneven edges. There are all sorts of different obi designs possible, but these ones are  are taken directly from the yubinuki thimble ring tradition: the purple/orange and red/green are ‘bicolor scales’ (the Japanese use the word uroko, evoking dragon scales which is a common design element in yubinuki and kumihimo). The mari  are approx 18-18.5cm circumference and have been stitched with thick pearl cotton 5. The three are all based on D8 or have 8 equal divisions or segments around the ball.

For anyone with the Takahara and Oonishi yubinuki books to hand, the beginner ‘bicolor scales’ pattern is at page 22 ring 13 and page 81 (Takahara) and page 29 and 60-61 (Oonishi). The chequerboard pattern in orange and white is a slightly more difficult pattern – see page 37 and 81 (Oonishi).

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I’ve made teenie temari on occasion, admittedly in a hurry and not with very fine thread. Probably the smallest ‘proper’ tiny temari  I’ve made (that is, with any degree of finesse) is a white flower with purple obi, second from the left, at 15.5cm circumference, done entirely in pearl cotton 8.

Creeping up stealthily on stitching yubinuki thimble rings, I want to develop my competency with fine thread by practising on temari obi yubinuki first. So my next step is this: work up a dozen or so small temari at 14cm circumference with pearl cotton 8, progressing eventually to pearl cotton 20, 40 and 60 if I can find colors which aren’t light pastels, given I’m entering the (Western) domain of crochet.

To this end, the black temari in the centre is a S8 or Simple 8, chosen specifically because the basic yubinuki thimble ring patterns are based on 8 divisions/segments. Why black? Yubinuki stitcher ‘Chloe Patricia’ notes that while red is often a very common color for thimble rings, she prefers black, presumably because the highlighting effect it has on the stitched thread colors.

Previous experience with temari obi yubinuki has taught me several critically important things. These issues are tucked away in Ginny Thompson’s thorough discussion of temari obi yubinuki at http://www.temarikai.com, but are worth singling out here:

* limiting the width of the obi as much as possible – the stitching looks more convincing on a flatter rather than strongly curving base; the temptation for any temari stitcher is to go for a third the way up from the equator to the poles (the common aesthetic ‘rule’), but that will make for too wide a band;

* add (and secure by tacking) division lines marking the desired width of the band – these can in fact be removed when the ball is finished – but above all make sure they are as parallel as possible at all times (since they affect the finished look of the edges);

* stitch above (not around) the outer additional division line marking the width of the band;

* the division lines and equator (here in a gold pearl cotton 20) need to be very securely tacked so they don’t move;

* a pin in the north pole position has to be in position the whole time I’m stitching the ball – knowing which direction is “up” is critical;

* the start position (koma 1 or “1” in the printed instructions) and the direction for stitching around the ball has to be unambiguous – so a green pin will be going above koma 1 and a red pin further away (the one denoting “start” and the other “finish” will become permanent reminders of the correct stitching direction: needless to say, these pins will stay in position until I’ve done with stitching the ball.

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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.

 

Queste due palle temari sono piu’ piccole – circonferenza 18 e 18,5cm; cotone di perla #8. Un disegno tradizionale: <due scaglie, o doppia scaglia>.  20 punti per ogni sezione o ‘spicchio’; in questo disengo, ci sono 8 sezioni.

Takahara               Ohnishi

Vedete  Takahara, Yubinuki to hana-temari-cho, pagina 81 (foto pagina 22, #13); il kit di yubinuki per le principianti, C.P. Hayashi, sul suo sito, www.etsy.com (cerca: “yubinuki thimble ring”); Ohnishi, Yubinuki (ISBN 9784140311400), pagine 60-61.

I continue to step down from big to medium to small temari (and thinner threads) eventually to yubinuki proper. The ‘double-scale’ or ‘two-scale’ pattern is advocated by Hayashi as a good vehicle for a beginner to develop and judge skill; obviously one has to keep looking all over the surface as one stitches, to groom threads and constantly assess the visual geometry as you go. Following Chloe Patricia’s advice on her weblog and having read the hundreds of emails on the yubinuki Yahoo! Group, I’ve paid special attention to the width of each segment and to an equal number of stitches per section.  In working these two, I’ve come to a standard working method for finishing off a thread and starting with a new one. The tension at the edges is perceptibly altered through these starts and finishes – I can tell at a glance by looking at the edges of the finished temari where I have started and finished a thread. Certainly working the two-scale surface design has prepared me for the Chloe Patricia beginner’s kit.  I feel quite at home with weaving ‘scales’ in this way; it brings back very fond memories of braiding very similar uroko (dragon-scale) designs. 

Capitolo 1. Le palle temari <stile obi>

Cucire i yubinuki piccolissimi? Tanto per cominciare, ho cucito due palle temari <stile obi>. Piu’ tardi, le palle diverranno piu’ piccole, da cotone di perla #5 a #8 alle file piu’ sottili. Arrivero’ ai yubinuki, ditali giapponesi <d’arte>, cuciti da mano con la fila di seta, cironcferenza cerco di 5cm. I yubinuki sono ditali tradizionalmente portate sul dito medio, a meta – non alla punta del dito – per spingere l’ago attraverso qualche strato di tessuto.

Come la cintura dei kimono formali, le palle temari possedono spesso un obi. Quando questa cintura divienne larga, complessa e importante,  abbiamo le palle temari stile <obi>, un disegno <equatoriale> al centro della sfera. Sappiamo che la palla temari sia un tipo di bambola sferica – la palla divienne un vestito con una cintura; le palle temari divengono ogni tanto guerrieri <samurai> o imperatore/imperatrice (per le feste delle bambole in Giappone).

 

Queste due palle che ho cucito –  circonferenza, 27 cm; fila: cotone di perla #5.

Disegno: Yoko Takahara, Yubinuki to Hana-temari cho (Yubinuki e palle temari dei fiori/Yubinuki and Flower Temari). ISBN 9784837703082.  Pagine 28 e 29.

Every temari-maker eventually tackles the obi style. The “rough” edges of the obi can be confronting for some; some temari-makers go to great lengths to conceal these edges, for example with overstitching. This overstitching tends to draw attention to the obi edges and has the look of covering up something underneath. One can instead draw the eye away from these edges by an elaborate design at each of the two poles, or one can be more judicious about the colour of the background mari. Certainly going for less tonal contrast helps disguise the stitching. Ultimately though, there are two things to note: firstly, the edge stitching improves with practice and secondly, the stitching is absolutely fundamental to the tradition of ‘hand-stitched silk thimble rings’, the newest incarnation of the humble kimono embroiderer’s needle, here raised to the level of miniature embroidery ‘art’ yubinuki.

I did the yellow one without first consulting the temari literature – it was done with the obi stretching half the distance from equator to pole, with the result that it looks rather like a bizarre, plump grapefruit. The second one, left incomplete because of the unevenness in the obi width, has an obi of smaller width, just a third up from the equator to the pole. What’s critical in this size temari is the fact that it’s very difficult to tack the obi’s jiwari/division lines without affecting the stitching. Working in a “traditional” way (tensioning or pulling on each stitch) means the jiwari are bent out of shape very easily; instead with obi style temari, the stitching has to be very much lighter. No attention was paid in these temari to the number of stitches per section, there being eight sections or segments in each. What becomes critical in smaller temari or yubinuki is maintaining exactly the same number of stitches per section, which in turn is based on sections which are of identical width – as close as one can possibly make them.