Thursday, 30 December 2010

A Feast For The Eyes: The Artful Geometry of Japanese Temari Thread Balls

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The tradition of Temari threadballs is centuries old and found in both, Chinese as well as Japanese cultures. It spans almost 1400 years and have transformed from play objects to objects of art, evolving from a rough, leather-ball foot game, to a child's toy, to an opulent and courtly activity, then back to a children's toy again, and finally, to an ornamental object of elaborate design once more.  

In its earliest stages, Temari probably began innocently enough in China as a leather game ball made for kicking around by adult male players, the first mention of which was noted at the Imperial Court of China.

In a popular game that dates back to 644 C.E., the ball was constructed of two spheres, in the shape of buns and seamed together at the centre. The ball itself was probably stuffed with horsehair or it may have been leather stretched over a bamboo frame, inflated by an interior bladder. The game was played within a court measuring ten square feet and required four, six or eight players who stood in a circle while the ball was kicked high with the inside of a player's foot without allowing it to fall to the ground. It was noted that more than seventy different types of kicks were used in the game with rigid etiquette rules surrounding its play.  

Prevalent from the 600s to the 1300s and after enjoying tremendous popularity, the game eventually evolved into a children's tossing ball game. Wrapped around a wadded core of paper or cloth, recycled  remnants of discarded textiles, kimonos, and other woven goods were used; colours were carefully separated and applied by deliberately wrapping the strips of fabrics to create surface patterns.  (Source: Vandervoort, D.,, 2008)

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Later on in the 17th century, when the noble ladies of the Imperial Court took up Temari, they challenged one another to contests to determine whose ball was the most intricate, the most opulent and with the most beautiful use of colour. Ball surface patterns evolved and developed one from the other - the once  functional stitching used to create sturdy game balls matured into more decorative and detailed form, displaying intricate designs - and were embroidered using traditional Japanese stitching techniques and employing silk floss and metallic threads, normally used to embellish court dress. In addition to some of the symmetrical and geometric patterns seen today, natural scenes were also favoured in the 17th century and included flowers, trees and garden figures. Then, as today, intricately embroidered Temari balls reference the symbolic association of  the Chinese Flaming Pearl of happiness and prosperity - historically depicted clutched in the talons of a dragon.

But the ornamental thread balls originally used for games at Court came to be regarded as folk toys, with a core of paper covered with thread and embroidered with beautiful designs, suggesting that the status of Temari had declined from a courtly pastime to a more domestic and conventional one. As such, Temari falls under what is known as "mingei" - meaning art of the people or folk craft. Mingei refers to functional yet beautifully made items created by  hand and before the onset of mass-production of the industrial age; it includes collectible items such as ceramic wares, hand-woven and bamboo goods,  toys, games and even furniture - most of which are unsigned by the artisan or craftsman. (Sources: Vandervoort, D.,, 2008; Thompson, G.,, 2010)

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As with many hand-crafts, Temari thread balls, hitherto created at home by mothers and grandmothers to occupy and amuse young children, lost some of its appeal with the introduction of modern rubber and plastic balls and toys. Prior to its decline, Temari balls were made all over Japan and reached their peak during the Edo Period of the 1600s at the court of Shogun Tokugawa (Temari balls were introduced to Japan about five or six hundred years ago from China). Whereas they were originally intended for actual play and appear coarse and rough by contemporary standards, today's Temari balls are created more for ornamental and decorative purposes with complex designs and highly intricate patterns.

These days, Temari balls are given as formal commemorative gifts much as plaques are in western countries. A formal Temari ball usually has a dragonfly knot and includes intricately braided and knotted foot-long tassels; Temari balls are also symbolic of loyalty and deep friendship among individuals. But remnants of its past tradition as token of maternal love (especially between a mother and her daughter) is still practiced when, upon awakening on New Year's morning, a child finds a brightly coloured Temari ball lying on her pillow, so that when the child first opens her eyes, the first object she beholds is something beautiful - the first happy vision of the new year. (Sources: Vandervoort, D.,, 2008; Thompson, G.,, 2010)

"Young Grass"

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Modern day creations may begin by using either a Styrofoam ball or a large wooden bead (the "mari" base) at its core. Then it is wrapped in yarn and then by a layer of regular weight sewing thread - both yarn and thread must be applied smoothly to the surface of the core to ensure the perfect, spherical roundness of the ball. The ball is then divided with relational geometry using a thin paper strip. The divisions are indicated by pins and then marking threads are used as guidance. If the marking threads are to be incorporated into the finished design, then they will often be of gold or silver thread; if not, the marking threads are usually of the same colour as the base thread used to wrap around the mari, so as to eventually blend into the background. Once the ball is wrapped and marked, the designs are embroidered using different coloured threads. The patterns are accomplished by using either stitching - a few simple, basic stitches are employed - or by wrapping techniques. In the past, when Temari balls were created as toys for children, it was traditional to place some grains of rice in the mari core to create a rattle when the balls were handled and played with; today, jingle bells may be included in their centres as good luck charms. (Source: Thompson, G.,, 2010)

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"Cosmo 6"

"Fish Temari"

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"Bluestars Temari"
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"A Holly Jolly Temari"

"Wintry Mix"

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"Christmas Chrysanthemum"

"Rose Garden"


"Rose Garden"

"Red-Pink-White Flower"

"Planet Peacock"

"Jenny's Ball"

"Polystar 1"

"Little Green"

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"Blue Poinsettia"
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"Filigree Blue"
"Cranberry Harvest"

"Electric Blue"

"Pumpkin Butterscotch"


"Illusions of Blue on White"



"Midnight Cranberry"

"Gold Ribbons ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Ribbon ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Red & Green Symmetry ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Christmas Diamonds ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Candy Cane ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Deck The Halls ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Twin Stars ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Little Midnight Star ~ Christmas Ornament"

"Starry Night"


"Jewel's Gold"


"Razzle Dazzle"

"Blushing Pink Symmetry"


"Fall Mums"



"Fresh Berries"

"Garden Swirl"
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Tips on learning how to begin making a Temari ball, please visit:

Suggested Readings:

Temari: How To Make Japanese Thread Balls (1992), by Diana Vandervoort: Oxford University Press

Temari Traditions: More Techniques for Japanese Thread Balls (1995), by Diana Vandervoort: Oxford University Press

Temari Treasures: Japanese Thread Balls and More (1997), by Diana Vandervoort: Japan Publications Trading Co.

Temari: A Traditional Japanese Embroidery Technique (1999), by Margaret Ludlow: Sterling

Japanese Temari: A Colorful Spin on an Ancient Craft (2007), by Barbara B. Suess: Breckling Press

The Simple Art of Japanese Temari (2009), by Dominique Herve & Alban Negaret: Search Press


  1. I think it very odd that you use the phrase "courtesy of" when you have not asked to publish these photos.

  2. Dear Ms. Suess:

    There is nothing "odd" about it; it's merely good manners to give credit - as far as it is possible to do so - where credit is due. It's common courtesy. I find it odd that you seem to think it "odd."

    As for asking permission to use images on my site, I have & do, on occasion, approach[ed] photographers & site owners about possibly using their work on my blog. Having said that, however, it's humanly impossible to approach/contact each & every single site about including an image on here (I don't & wouldn't have the time to publish anything otherwise - who would?). The world wide web is a very big place; who has (legal) right to all these images?

    Just for the record, I have also had other sites and bloggers borrow images from my site & even direct quotes from my research & writing (one blogger even copies each posting, top to bottom, and posts it on her site, translated into French, verbatim). With the exception of one instance, I have never been contacted or approached for permission.

    The internet is there to gather & share information, including images. At least that's how I view it. Life is too brief & there are other, more important things to fret about, Ms. Suess - live & let live.

    Thanks for your comment, nonetheless ~ ₵. Ð.

  3. All the same, some of your citations are totally uninformative. For example, you said courtesy of "" which does not provide any information about the owner or creator. I noticed in a quick search while during my current research that one of the sellers you used from etsy is - which would have been just as easy to specify, and much better. Also I believe I recognize one of Mrs. Seuss's own temari (she was the previous commenter, what a small world the temari community is xD) from her website (, although you cited it as coming from flickr. I have no doubt that's where you located it, and flickr probably didn't cite where they got that photo from, so that's their fault. But anyway, with a small amount of research (I basically did none) you could have cited your photos much more fairly, and I assume you wanted some degree of fairness due to the fact you cited them at all.

    1. Dear Ms. Petra:

      By the looks & sounds of it, image citation seems to be an (ongoing) issue within the temari community; but seriously speaking, I hear what you're saying. True, I do cite where I find images, but that's a personal choice, I suppose; some sites & people do not.

      That said, when I posted this particular article, I had not yet learned how to link text with a site so, out of fairness to the site (& courtesy), I would only mention the site where an image was found - if you were to view my more recent articles, you will see that the citation links directly to where the image (and/or information) was found (that is, if the image there has not been deleted, as does sometimes happen). More than that I am not willing to do.

      Still, having quickly looked over your site, it would be the least that you could do - namely, take your own advice & cite the photos & images where you happened to have found them. As you mention above, "...with a small amount of research (I basically did none [obviously you didn't]) you could have cited your photos much more fairly...." (Source: Petra, January 19, 2013).

      It's a great big cyber world out there, Ms. Petra, so I caution you to be careful. I shall leave it there.

      With that, I bid you (& Ms. Suess) all the best in all of your ventures.

      Thank you for your comment & best regards ~ ₵. Ð.