Shifu: A new spin on paper thread

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.

Spun Paper Skeins by Beth Showalter

Spun Paper Skeins by Beth Showalter

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.

Drop Spindle

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……

Shifu Ball

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.

Knitting in progress

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.

Taking shape

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!

Dress detail

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.

Framed Dress

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17 Responses to “Shifu: A new spin on paper thread”

  1. [...] the Samurai class. Most other hyotan do not have such detail. The wood stopper is attached by a shifu cord (cloth woven with paper thread) When travelling, picnicking informally or just going out on the [...]

  2. [...] the Taisho Period (1926) in Japan. The unique binding of the book is produced using thread called shifu(cloth woven with paper thread). It’s remarkably strong and durable, which is evidenced here [...]

  3. [...] to Taisho Period (1926) in Japan. The unique binding of the book is produced using thread called shifu(cloth woven with paper thread). It’s remarkably strong and durable, it certainly kept these [...]

  4. [...] My final sample was Matsuo Kozo #7, this was my definitely my favourite! It spun into a delightfully thin thread that I eventually used in my miniature knit paper dress featured here. [...]

  5. heather says:

    Thanks! I am embarrassed to say that I don’t know the maker or the weight of the spindle. I purchased it over the phone from Gemini Fibres after a conversation about what we thought would work best with Washi. They might be able to help you with some more information, you can reach them at http://www.geminifibres.com/

  6. theresa says:

    I love the dress! and the “yarn.”

    Do you know the artisan and weight of your lovely spindle?

  7. Thanks for the post! I’m both a fibre artist and a bookbinder, and spent yesterday learning how to make paper, including processing kozo. While whacking it with the mallet after boiling, I was instantly taken with how the fibres separated out, and obtained a small amount of beaten pulp. My plan is to squeeze as much of the water out as I can with my hands and then spin the fibres on my spinning wheel much as I do with flax, which I use as bookbinding thread.

    If I get enough, I will also try knitting with it!

  8. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Japanese Paper Place. Japanese Paper Place said: Our good friends at the Paper Place have posted a great article about shifu – and a tiny dress knit from it! http://bit.ly/dfiMPg [...]

  9. heather says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments! Adele – I am not sure how I avoided it, this was my first time knitting with shifu and it didn’t seem to cause me any problems. Perhaps it was beginners luck, I will have to see how it goes next time. I don’t know of any groups dedicated to shifu – that would be fantastic! If anyone else is aware of one, please let us know.

  10. Adele Harvey says:

    Absolutely fantastic! I’ve been experimenting with sifu for a few years now, and found knitting it a challenge. The singles biased. How did you avoid this?

    Is there a study group or other type of organization for those interested in shifu?

  11. Liz says:

    Wow, Heather, truly amazing. Incredible.

  12. ali says:

    the dress is absolutely amazing!

  13. becky says:

    what a captivating post. working small makes me feel crazy, but your patience really paid off.

  14. Carolyn says:

    How interesting. Since I am not a “spinner” with all the equipment, I too have been spinning my shifu with a drop spindle. I’ve used some linen tape from a store in new your, some washi, old patterns, and even coffee filters. I’m still experimenting and plan to use my shifu either in a small weaving piece or in mixed media collage. Still learning…………

  15. arounna says:

    very beautiful – I love it.

  16. m says:

    Thank you for sharing your story and the beautiful result.

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