Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Temari Embroidered Thread Balls

In researching Heian era Japan, I came across the traditional art of Temari, which is basically a thread ball that's been embroidered over. The exact start of the art is questionable, but it seems to date back to the court game of kemari, which is sort of like modern day hackysack. While the men folk were outside playing, the court women would make balls for their children out of old clothing scraps wrapped in thread. It's said that these balls would be wound so tightly that they would actually bounce!

The modern version of the art really got its start in the Edo period (1603-1868). While there had surely been embroidery on temari balls before then, this is when the modern version of temari really got started. Ladies of the court would compete against each other to test their embroidery skills, leading to the elaborate patterns we see in temari now. The original patterns seemed to lean more toward natural themes, like flowers, pine needs, waves, etc. Modern patterns have a great deal of geometry in them, though the natural themes are still present.

Since the origins of the art can be traced back to the Heian era, then I think it's okay for SCA arts and sciences. I'm still trying to hunt down some early embroidery designs, but as I do that, I've started making some temari balls, just to get some practice with the stitching.

The original way to make one of these balls was to use fabric scraps to make the core, and to then wrap that in thread to create the final ball that would be embroidered. This is what I ended up doing for my first ball. I have so many scraps in the sewing room, and I'm always loathe to throw fabric away because I feel like I could use it for something in the future. So, I had plenty of material for a ball!

I wrapped the fabric core in some 4-ply thread, which I then wrapped again in cotton serger thread. I then embroidered over it in the "wave" or "swirl" pattern, using this tutorial. I was pretty happy with it, especially for my first try!

The second ball I made was done with more modern techniques - instead of a core of fabric scraps, I used a styrofoam ball. I wanted it to be lighter (the first ball was pretty hefty for its size) since it was intended to be a Christmas ornament for my grandmother.

I did the wave pattern again, but it didn't turn out that great. My spacing is pretty terrible. But, practice will eventually make perfect, so I intend to do one more ball with the wave design before moving on to other patterns. Also, I think that if I got my hands on a temari technique book, it would help a great deal.

Having made temari using both the traditional core and the styrofoam core, I have to say that I definitely prefer the traditional core of fabric scraps. The ball feels more substantial, so I feel like I can actually handle it while I'm embroidering it without fearing I'll squish it. The styrofoam ball certainly has it's pluses - it's lighter, so good for making hanging ornaments, and styrofoam balls are easily available and take away some of the production time. On the down side, it felt so fragile while I was working the embroidery that I was afraid I was going to crush the foam and distort the ball. I think that from now on, unless it's a special case, I'll stick to making my own core.

For a look at some really wonderful Temari balls, check out the Pinterest board I made for them.


  1. Really fun! We have an SCA event coming up in March with a Cherry Blossom Festival theme and I've been trying to do similar research on just what early balls would have been like. (Haven't gotten very far with that yet.)

    1. It's proving very difficult to trace back the embroidery patterns to see which ones are the oldest. :-/ I have a sneaking suspicion that the kiku (chrysanthemum) pattern is likely one of the oldest patterns, since the chrysanthemum has long been associated with the imperial court, so something like this ( could be entirely plausible. If you're able to find some info on the age of temari patterns, please let me know! :)

  2. It isn't much, but this chronology has some enticing info

    1. Ah, yes, I've seen that! :D It lead me to a couple of really good books that talked about kemari, and some references to it in Heian era literature, so that was something, at least. :) It's definitely a good place to start.