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Fascinating Temari, a Traditional Japanese Thread Art

Threads #224, Winter 2023

Temari, from the Japanese for “hand” and “ball,” are embroidered spheres with a long history. Balls for playing a kicking game were first made of animal hide; the game, “kemari,” was played starting in the 8th century. When the nobility adopted ball games, the toys were made from silk fabrics and thread salvaged from kimono. After cotton cultivation was introduced in Japan, in the 16th century, temari were stuffed and wound with scrap cotton.

It was in the 17th century that decorated temari became popular. Prized by the noble and affluent classes, they were embellished with intricate stitched patterns. When rubber balls and other modern toys became readily available, temari evolved from toy to art form.

Although there are many traditional designs and motifs for temari, the method for creating them lends itself to infinite interpretations. Perhaps surprisingly, these complex designs are devised without measuring. A core, made from waste fabric or a Styrofoam ball, is wrapped in batting, then yarn, and finally fully covered with sewing thread. With the help of a narrow paper band called an “obi,” the ball is evenly divided and marked with pins and, typically, metallic threads. Then the artist applies decorative silk, cotton, rayon, or metallic embroidery thread, following the divisions.

Temari continue to hold an honored place in Japanese culture, and they are often given as presents between women, or from mothers and grandmothers to daughters. Placed on a child’s pillow on New Year’s Eve, the ball is the first thing a girl would see upon waking on New Year’s Day. Its bright colors symbolize a wish for a happy life.

—Carol J. Fresia is Threads’ editor.

From Threads #224


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