Fun From Scraps: Temari Balls

You might have seen these round ornamental balls hanging from a Japanese person’s bag. You could have also seen these colorful balls clumped together hung from the ceiling or displayed on a coffee table. These decorative balls, with distinct and striking patterns, are called Temari. Temari is a traditional folk craft that has evolved from a thing of function to a treasured art form. Contained within these balls are thousands of years worth of rich history and culture and with each unique design, these balls show creativity and skill of the creator.

Photo by Nullumayulife

The History of Japanese Temari Balls

 Temari is an ancient cultural folk art of Japan. Its name is derived from two Japanese words, te and mari. The stands for hand and mari stands for a ball. This ancient toy has been carefully preserved by tradition and through the efforts of the Japan Temari Association for over 1400 years.

The Temari’s origins have been traced back to the ancient Chinese game of Kemari, a game that is reminiscent of football or kickball. Brought to Japan from China during the Asuka period (mid 6th century up to the early 8th century), these balls were originally made from deer leather. It is believed that the Buddhist missionaries that journeyed through India, China, Korea, and Japan brought over not only the Buddhist beliefs but also the cultures of these lands, which includes the Temari. The originally robust ball later own incorporated many Japanese aesthetics. It soon became a trend to decorate these balls with beautiful patterns. It was during the Edo period, which spanned the 17th century up to the mid 19th century, where the women of the Royal Court had changed the traditional Kemari into the Onna Mari (which later became the Temari). These Onna Mari were brightly colored balls which were typically given to young girls. The Temari also became part of the gifts given by daughters of the higher class families to their betrothed. It was during the middle of this era that the Temari balls saw a big boost in popularity. During this time the matron of the family would often craft ornate Temari balls for their daughters or granddaughters who are of marrying age. It became a symbol of beauty and perfection. The older generations wanted the younger ones to be as beautiful and as perfect as the ball they crafted with care and precision. Temari was also used as a form of attraction and competition among women during this time. The crafting of these balls was used as an opportunity to highlight one’s skill in Kagari, which means stitch. These were also used to attract the attention of men.

The Temari balls were being made all over the country. The craft had evolved to incorporate more materials such as paper, cotton, and fabrics which were then decorated with embroidery.

As this was originally a home craft done by women for their children, the tradition had begun to waver during the industrialization of the times.

Originally the balls were made with a tougher and coarser exterior as they had a served the purpose of being a child’s toy. Modern versions of Temari balls now show more colorful and intricate patterns and are used primarily as ornaments. These balls were originally made out of, silk threads, called kakagari, and were limited to the women of upper-class families. This all changed when cotton threads became easily manufactured and available to the everyday Japanese person. The common people all over Japan started using cotton threads, as well as other materials such as linen and wool, in creating their own toys. This lead to the provinces of Japan establishing their own recognizable designs that highlighted the culture and materials of the area.

Aside from the aesthetic aspect of the Temari, these balls are also valued for the symbolism attached to it when given as a gift. It is often used as a sign of deep friendship and loyalty. It is also used as a way to convey well wishes to those who receive it. Mothers would also create Temari balls to give to their children during New Years. In crafting these balls, the mothers would often hide little strips of papers containing their wishes for their children in the weaving of the threads. The children would most likely never know what their mothers wished for them but would understand that it was given to them with all the best intentions and love.   

The Japanese Temari Cultural Association

With the invention of modern rubber and mass-produced plastic balls, the need for creating these intricate and elaborate balls had declined. It was through the efforts of the Japanese Temari Cultural Association, known locally as the Nihon Temari no Kai, that the interest in these ornamental toys had begun to resurface.

It all started in 1968 when a publication called the Temari Jinokagatsu, by Chiyoko Ozaki, had sparked the interest of Temari lovers all over the nation. The want for bringing back this tradition had grown so much that the Temari Cultural Association was established 9 years after this publication. The promotion of the art of Temari crafting is primarily being headed by the JTA. Located in Tokyo, the JTA has an office space and museum for the public. The JTA main office also contains a library, supply shop, and museum shop (from which one can buy pre-made balls). The Temari that are displayed in the museum and shop are all curated by the Association and come from both students and masters of the craft. Typically the association takes in the Temari submitted by applicants for Temari Shihan and Kyoujyu (Teacher and Professor) levels and use them to generate profit for its operating capital. The Japan Temari Association also offers structured courses that aim to develop the skills of students into that comparable to the masters.

By Kokorico568 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Since 1968, over 20 books about Temari crafting, techniques, and designs have been distributed. Temari crafting has also piqued the interests of those outside Japan. This had allowed the Temari Cultural Association to hold yearly workshops and exhibitions all around the world. It is free to apply for the membership to the association is free and, as of 2014, membership has risen to 1200.

Different Looks of Japanese Temari Balls

 The tradition of crafting Temari balls often start by the usage of discarded materials. These might include old clothing, broken household items, reusable threads, and even materials from nature. The earliest known material for Temari balls was deer hide. The deer hide would be stuffed with pine needles and sewn into a sphere. As time flew by, more and more materials started to be incorporated in the crafting of these balls. Typically strips of fabric and used thread. The ball would then be firmly wrapped tightly and stitched in such a manner that the ball would bounce. Sometimes these balls would contain a few pebbles, rice husks, and other materials in order to produce sound when using them for play. Others would incorporate bells to the temari as a symbol of good luck. Japanese design and arts often pushed the integration of beauty in everything. It was natural for the Temari to evolve from a plaything into an object of art.

Temari balls often use symmetrical geometric patterns for its designs. The traditional designs of these toys often draw inspiration from nature. It is not uncommon to think that these designs are somewhat like the patterns seen through a kaleidoscope. Generally, there are two ways to make a pattern on a Temari ball, by using a lot or as little thread as possible. By using a lot of thread one aims to create patterns using colors. By using little thread, one aims to create patterns using the negative space created by the thread.

By State Library and Archives of Florida [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

The size of a Temari ball is really dependent on the one who creates it. Any size and design of the ball are now considered to be beautiful and treasured, as originally these balls were meant for play but have grown into an art form. Smaller sizes of Temari balls are typically used for accessories such as keychains, bag accessories, and jewelry. Larger sizes are often reserved for display or collection pieces. Temari is often displayed in groups, whether hung from the ceiling or displayed on a tabletop. They are considered to be unique and thoughtful gifts and are often treasured when given to a newly wed couple. 

Creating your Own Temari Ball

Creating a Temari ball is both a fun hobby and a craft that is taken very seriously. Temari artists often undergo special training to become certified in the art. There are special schools and associations in Japan where students may study the craft and eventually get certified. Typically, training under a master Temari artist takes years. There are also special workshops headed by these masters all around Japan. It is by tradition that the student would spend most of their years just observing the master at his craft while performing chores. This is a process where one learns by observing and is taught nothing. If the master sees that the student is earnest and sincere in their willingness to learn, then he will take them in as an apprentice. During this time, the apprentice may only repeat the patterns that the master has made. Tradition states that students are not allowed to create their own patterns while their master is still alive. It is also only during the death of the master that the apprentice may be recognized as one himself. This process often starts at a very young age and students often become masters after 40 or so years.

For those looking to try and create their own Temari ball, the basic steps are as follows.

  1. Create the core base: Called the mari, the core of the Temari ball is usually made of discarded materials such as old fabric and rice husk.

  2. Wrap the core base: These are then tightly wrapped around with yarn to the desired size. A thin layer of regular weight sewing thread then tops off the mari. A hand sized ball typically required around three hundred years of the thread.

  3. Divide the wrapped core base: The ball is then prepared for the design. Typically a paper strip is used as a marker from which the geometric patterns are based on. Using pins and marking threads, called jiwari, one is able to make the integral parts of the pattern. If one were to attempt to create a pattern using negative space, it is advisable to use the same color of thread as the mari.     

 The designs are typically embroidered with a variety of colorful threads. The most common type of cotton thread used in Temari ball crafting would be the perle cotton. Other designs are made of silk, ribbons, metallic, and rayon threads. Tassels may be added as an extra detail. This in itself involves other skills such as braiding and knotting. The process itself is time-consuming but the end-product is worth all the effort. Any Temari design is only limited by the skill, patience, and time put into work by the crafter.  

There are many resources out there that may help those interested in creating their own Temari ball. The growing global interest and the increase in globalization, thanks to the Internet, has introduced many resources for those who do not speak Japanese. From videos to books, everything one needs to learn the craft is there for the taking.

All of the Temari balls are made solely by hand. It is through the tradition of crafting beautifully embroidered toys that thousands of years of culture from both China and Japan have been so carefully preserved. It is through these decorative toys that one may see the culture and art of different areas of Japan. It is through these decorative toys that people have put their emotions and wishes into creating. It is through these decorative toys that people have given the best of wishes to their loved ones. It is amazing that such a small and robust item contains so much rich history, culture, and emotions.