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Photograph of an elderly Japanese lady smiling


Fusako Aizawa worked hard for most of her life. She lost her husband when her daughter was still in primary school, and as a single mother, her priorities were providing for her family. Then at the age of 60, when she finally had a little more leisure time, she decided to take up a hobby. She went along to a workshop to make Japanese craft balls called temari. And it was love at first sight.

Te (hand) and mari (ball) originated in China, and arrived in Japan around the 7th Century AD. They were made with scraps of kimono silk wrapped in other fabrics, and were given to children to use as a toy. During the Edo period (1603-1868) temari-making gradually became more of an art form. The functional stitching gave way to highly decorative embroidery and – because of the expensive silk thread used – became a pastime reserved for the nobility.

An old photograph of three girls in traditional kimonos playing in a courtyard

Japanese photographer Kusakabe Kimbei's image of girls playing with temari and other traditional toys (credit: The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)

When cotton was introduced, the art of temari-making started to be accessible to the general population, and it became a tradition to give the balls as gifts – particularly from a mother or grandmother to a daughter or granddaughter – during New Year celebrations.

The embroidery grew more intricate and delicate, and giving the gift of a temari ball became a symbol of friendship and loyalty. Mothers would often write a wish for her child on a strip of paper and encase it inside the layers of fabric and silk thread. The wish would remain a secret but it was a given that it was made with the utmost of family love.

Giving the gift of a temari ball became a symbol of friendship and loyalty

From the first moment she started making temari, Fusako Aizawa was hooked and even got a diploma in temari-making in Tokyo. She made hundreds of them, each more intricate than the last, in vivid colours and elaborate geometric designs. Depending on the complexity of each piece, she could spend anywhere from two weeks to three months to complete them.

On Fusako’s 88th birthday, her family put together an exhibition of her temari balls. In Japanese culture, the 88th birthday is particularly significant. Known as beiju (rice celebration) the characters (kanji) for 88 resembles the characters for rice when written together. Rice is considered a fundamental part of Japanese life and society, and symbolic for purity and goodness.

Brightly coloured thread balls in blue, red and oranges

Temari were embroidered with complex geometrical designs (NanaAkua)

Craft works

Her granddaughter – graphic artist NanaAkua – decided to individually photograph nearly 500 of her temari balls as a special gift to her.

NanaAkua is herself a crafter and so has a great appreciation of the expertise required to create these balls. “Her temari style is called ‘sosaku (creative) temari’” she says. “It is not [a] traditional temari design, sosaku temari mixes traditional and new design.”

She uploaded her images to the photo-sharing website flickr in 2009, and after a few years of circulating only among the crafting community, suddenly in 2013 the images went viral.

“Before my Temari pictures, there was no pictures [of] that volume,” she says, but is still stumped as to why they took off so quickly.

A selection of colourful thread wrapped balls

NanaAkua photographed hundreds of her grandmother's temari balls (credit: NanaAkua)

Despite her razor-sharp mind and nimble fingers, Fasuka didn’t know what the internet was

Soon they were contacted by people wanting to buy the temari, use the images in advertising campaigns, and one British company even featured Fusako’s temari balls on the front of mathematics textbooks.

“She was proud of not using any glasses when she thread a needle,” NanaAkua says, and incredibly, the former teacher never used a calculator when she was dividing the highly mathematical geometric shapes.”

Despite her razor-sharp mind and nimble fingers, Fusako didn’t know what the internet was, so was baffled by the sudden attention in her craft. She was 92-years-old when the images of her work exploded online.

Flowers made out of coloured plastic

NanaAkua has written 11 books on shrink-plastic crafting (credit: NanaAkua)

And perhaps it’s not just a talent for crafting that runs in the family, as NanaAkua too experienced internet success after she posted her own modern take on craft.

She makes jewellery out of a type of shrink plastic, known as Pla Bang, where designs are painted on to a very thin plastic sheet and then heated in the oven to shrink. NanaAkua was one of the first people in the world to make 3D shapes this way. Her career took off – she now gives workshops around Asia, and is the author of 11 books on shrink-plastic crafting.

Both NanaAkua and Fusako get something different out of their respective crafts. For Fusako, it was a sense of freedom. NanaAkua describes how her grandmother wore sensible sober-coloured clothes, conforming to the society she lived in, but her temari were vibrantly colourful. “I think she was free on the temari,” NanaAkua says. For NanaAkua, it’s about a love of craft that knows no boundaries of age, gender or borders. The attention to her craft changed her life as well as her art.

a split image of a large temari ball and an elderly Japanese lady working on a temari

Temari balls require a high degree of precision to make (credit: NanaAkua)

Fusako on the other hand didn’t change much, she continued to make her beloved temari until she gradually lost her power with age. In February of this year at the age of 97, Fusako Aizawa, the world-famous temari grandmother, passed away.

Now her temari balls are kept on display in a room in her daughter’s home. And NanaAkua continues to receive hundreds of emails from people who were inspired by her grandmother’s temari balls. Which just goes to show, it’s never too late to learn.

Read this article in Japanese

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