Shifu Weaver Hiroko Karuno

During Japan’s Edo period (1603 – 1868), in what is now the country’s northern Miyagi Prefecture, hand-made paper was woven into a cloth so supple, lightweight and refined that one of the area’s most powerful clans paid tribute to the shogun by presenting him with garments made from this luxurious paper cloth known as shifu. Woven from a paper weft against a silk warp, the production of shifu was tightly controlled and its process a well-guarded secret.

Today, Hiroko Karuno is one of a handful of weavers in Japan who practices the art of shifu weaving. In her Kyoto studio, Karuno spins washi paper into thread so fine that her cloth rivals that of Edo period – however her take on shifu is a personal one: as she says, “Mine is an original shifu.” Karuno’s shifu is more than cloth, it is the complex conveyance of her love of paper. The purity of the material is the core inspiration for Karuno, whose attraction to paper is embedded in her Japanese cultural identity. “I like paper. Paper is a part of our lives; we have shoji, we hang paper scrolls in our tokonoma alcove, that’s how we grow up – paper is close to us. It seems natural for me to work with it.”

shifu 1

Kadoide city in snowy Niigata Prefecture is the source for Karuno’s paper, which is made by a master papermaker from the pulp of the inner bark of paper mulberry or kozo. Each hand-made sheet is dried in full sun on a wooden board, and each must weigh a standard ten grammes to insure uniform thickness for thread making. Yasuo Kobayashi, the papermaker, releases his paper after ageing it for two years; Karuno then waits another three years before turning this cured paper into micro-fine thread. Ageing the paper simply, “makes it better” and she prefers her paper to come from a cold region because “the fibre is stronger, the paper is crisper, yet the thread itself is very flexible.”

Transforming large, flat sheets of paper into thread of hair-fine thinness is less magical and more the result of extreme concentration, deliberation, and, of course, tremendously practiced skill. To maintain her focus as the thread making begins, Karuno must shut out the world and its quotidian distractions.

hiroko karuno

A stack of four sheets of paper are folded laterally and marked into quarter sections. Karuno works on the floor of her tatami-matted studio; a large, glass window provides diffused natural light. With a home-made, heavy steel T-square and a razor-sharp cutting blade, Karuno bears down on the folded Kadoide paper and with precise repetition, working right to left, she begins slicing the stack of folded paper into strips, each an impossible 2 millimetres wide. One quarter sheet of paper cut into these minuscule widths yields an amazing 60 metres of thread. “When I first started making shifu,” Karuno says, “I thought 2 millimetres was far too narrow, but now it makes sense.”

The sliced paper is unfolded and shaken to separate the strands from another. In order to soften the material and make it pliable and ready for the next step in the process of thread making, the paper is set to rest for eight hours between damp towels. The dampened paper is then opened, the outer edges are gathered in Karuno’s hands, and the bundle is shaken to gently dry and further soften the paper. Karuno explains, for this process “you have to use your hands and your ears.”

shifu 2

Again, sitting directly on the tatami in front of two concrete blocks, Karuno rolls the damp paper under her hands as one would do if one were making pasta. “Traditionally, this would have been done on a large, flat stone, but I couldn’t find any good ones from the Kamo River, so I use concrete instead.” Karuno then picks up one end of the bundle, gently unfolds it and begins shaking it; the bundle is then flipped and the process is repeated. This rolling, shaking and flipping softens the fibres and separates the strands. Each quarter sheet of paper is massaged for half an hour. “It’s easier to work in a dump climate, especially or rolling. It makes sense to work with this in Japan because the climate is right.”

Sitting upright, Karuno is now ready to release the joined ends of the sliced paper to create a continuous thread. The pinching off the ends, tearing and rolling, she nimbly begins disengaging a thin thread from the still-joined ends of the bundled paper; she goes back and forth, pinching away at top and bottom, repeating these actions, and suddenly a long, thin filament of paper appears.

The unravelled paper threads are coffered in a deep bamboo basket and form a high, soft heap; ready to be spun into shifu thread. Karuno clarifies, “I always say ‘spin’ but it’s actually twisting. Spinning is different.” The prepared thread is then expertly spun onto the bobbin of her spinning wheel before being reeled onto a spool and steamed to set the twist.

shifu 3

Karuno dyes the threads herself, using only botanical dyes such as safflower, gardenia, loquat, indigo and chestnut. The dyed threads, when formed into skeins, are so incredibly light that they almost float from the palm of one’s hand.

For a traditional tanmono, a 12-metre bolt of cloth – enough for one kimono, Karuno needs to prepare 120 sheets of paper when weaving moro-jifu, a shifu woven from paper warp and paper weft. Moro-jifu is her preferred variant of shifu, which historically was woven with silk warp and a paper weft. Weaving with a paper warp and weft is a challenge for even the most skilled weaver. The end result is Karuno’s ‘original’ shifu: a cloth of such integrity and unassuming beauty that it is the embodiment of Karuno’s deeply personal affinity for hand-made paper.

Ironically, Karuno has no desire for her shifu to ever become a garment; “I believe fabric is beautiful as it is – by itself. You don’t have to make enything; I want to show people how beautiful shifu is. In Japan people know fabric is beautiful, but in other parts of the world that is not necessarily true. People want to see the final product; for them, fabric is just a material for making something, like paper. I think paper itself is beautiful.”

In the masterful hands of Hiroko Karuno. shifu is not at all difficult to appreciate for ‘what it is’. karuno’s shifu is a sublime contradiction; the humblest of materials elevated to one of the planet’s rarest cloths.

text by Stephen Szczepanek

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