Shifu : the Japanese art of making paper thread
One fine morning, a fashion designer walks in and asks ‘do you carry shifu fabric’ at the studio? While we have heard of the great Japanese shifu fabric- made from paper yarn, we could not find anyone dealing with that in India.
Then the interesting thought occurred: why not spin some shifu yarn and weave a fabric out of it.
So, what is shifu fabric? Apparently, Japanese have been making paper yarns since 10th century AD. Silk was for the high class, there were no sheep in Japan to get wools and cottons made entry much later as it was not an indigenous crop. Historically, flax (linen) & hemp were used for making fabrics however paper yarn also was used for certain fabrics including clothes fit for Samurais & traditional kimonos !
Interestinlgy, the shifu fabric which is made from paper yarn is very durable and washable!
After some search and research, we could import a few rolls of the hand made washi paper from Japan. When the parcel arrived, we could not wait to lay our hands on the paper! The smooth hand made paper we are told is from mulberry plant. We are told the pithe of the mulberry plant (kozo) is retted in water and made into sheets of paper with some vegetable root glue to aid the process of paper making.
We laid the paper on a table and started making slits of 5mm width, retaining the edges for a simple zig-zag cut and then sandwitched the paper between 2 damp Turkish towels overnight.
Obviously, it was not a comfortable feeling leaving paper overnight with moisture, but it turned out well next morning with paper in tact and a little supple. To make it more supple and the paper strands to gain some ‘strength’, we rolled the paper onto a concrete block. Kept doing it for about 20 minutes or so. Then we started the zig-zag cut with fingers snapping alternate ends of the paper to make a continuous strand. It was a little tricky to get a good edge with the fingers but managed to do it OK. The Japanese call this the ‘nomu’.
Once we had a long strand of paper strip collected in a basket, it was time to spin!
We set up the Ashford e-Spinner with slightly more pull than regular spinning and started spinning at a slow speed. It was cool, no trouble with spinning, no breaks! Then comes the ‘hard to execute’ part. We are asked to immerse the hank of paper yarn into hot- really hot water followed by cold water to set the twist…. Well well well… so far so good. But immersing the paper in hot boiling water?? That too, after all the hard work we have done so far?! We had to bite the bullet and do it! Voila! Nothing happened! The yarn emerged out of the bath in tact and softer! Washable paper yarn!!
The yarn doesn’t have a lot of strength but we are told that in traditional shifu fabrics, the warp is cotton/ linen and the paper yarn is used in weft.
Right now, we have just about 75m of yarn. May be we will spin more and then try weaving it!
You may check our tutorials page on how to spin using Spinning wheels