by Heather Sauer
I have always been intrigued by Shifu (cloth woven with paper thread) and during the World Washi Summit, I had the pleasure of attending a demonstration by Hiroko Karuno that completely blew my mind and opened my eyes to a world of possibility.I was completely intimidated by the traditional process, as it required so much focus and patience – not to mention equipment I did not have access to. In a serendipitous twist, we had a customer come into the store named Beth Showalter, who had a background in spinning and weaving and was looking for some information about papers for her contemporary take on spun paper thread. We decided to invite Beth to run a workshop here at the store where she showed us how to prepare the papers and demonstrated creating paper thread on her spinning wheel. The part that caught my attention was when she showed us the same process using a drop spindle. This seemed accessible to me in terms of my lack of spinning experience and from a cost perspective, seeing as I was new to this art form.
I ran out the next day and bought a drop spindle and attempted to replicate the spinning we were taught the night before. It was a bit of a disaster, as my trusted papers were not behaving as I expected. I chose from the strongest Washi that we have and still they were breaking on me. I tried konnyaku to strengthen them, but even that did not work. Eventually, after some research, I decided the spindle was too heavy and called the lovely folks at Gemini Fibres. Although we spoke of different fibres, there was enough common ground that they were able to recommend a spindle and all that was left was the wait for it to arrive in the mail.
When the spindle arrived, I started spinning immediately. I went through small samples of my favourite papers to see how they would behave and eventually decided on Matsuo Kozo #7. It has a lovely crispness and the colour reminds me of aged paper in an old book. I cut the paper into 1/8” strips using the technique that we were taught and spun away. Now, what to make……
Around this time I saw the movie Coraline and, as a knitter, was fascinated by the miniature knits featured. I did some internet research and found BugKnits, run by Althea Crome who did the knitting for the movie. Much to my delight, I discovered that she sells her miniature knitting needles and I immediately hatched a plan to knit a miniature dress from the thread that I had spun. While I waited for my needles to arrive, I selected a vintage christening gown pattern to knit and continued to spin to make sure I had enough thread to pull this off.
When the needles arrived, I cast on immediately and was intrigued to find that this was the opposite of knitting as I knew it. The needles were so thin that they were quite flexible and the thread was a bit rigid, the opposite of what I was used to. This was a bit of a challenge in parts of the dress as there were some lace knitting sections, but I was able to sort it out in the end. I was fascinated to watch the dress take shape and was very pleased with the results.
This project came into my life during a time that I needed to rediscover the virtue of patience, and spinning paper thread and knitting in miniature will definitely teach you some!
The completed dress was shown at the ‘Inspired by the Summit: Further Explorations with Washi’ exhibition at The Japanese Paper Place. The show featured work in washi by artists who had been inspired by the events of the summit to create new work in this fascinating medium. It was an honor to be included in this exhibition with artists who I have admired for years.