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Temari is a Japanese symbol of perfection. It is a gift given in joy and happiness. It is sometimes called a “mother’s love ball” by old timers. In its most recent history, c. 1800 to 1950, temari was a toy ball made for young children. Previous to that, it seems to have had a colorful past.

The Symbol of Perfection
In Chinese symbolism, The Flaming Pearl is seen clutched in the claw of the Dragon. The pearl is a symbol of prosperity attained or the egg symbol of the dual forces of nature. In the Chinese New Year’s Parade, the Dragon is tempted along with a brightly decorated ball. At the entrances to buildings in China, there is often a pair of Lions guarding the door. The female lion traditionally has her front paw on a cub. The male lion his front paw on an elaborately decorated ball.

Temari probably began as a leather game ball made for men to kick high in the air. It probably originated in China and closely resembled what is called “Hacky Sack” today. In an ancient game dating back as far as 644, its first reference in history is at the imperial court. The ball was shaped like two thick buns joined around the center with a seam. It was probably stuffed with horsehair or may have been leather stretched over a bamboo frame and inflated with an interior bladder. It seems to have been popular from the mid 600s to the mid 1300s. It was played in a court that measured 10 feet square. Four, six or eight players stood in a circle. The ball was kicked high but not far with the inside of the foot and kept from hitting the ground. Seventy different types of kick were noted and the outcome of the game seemed to be less important than the etiquette of playing. 

Eventually the ball evolved into a children’s tossing ball. When feudal warlords ravaged the countryside, children were made to play inside or behind garden walls for their protection. Made to occupy children, the balls were probably made with fibers recycled from discarded clothing or woven household items such as tatami mats or other woven goods. Colors were probably carefully separated and applied to the surface by wrapping directionally to create patterns. The core was probably of paper or fabric.

Ladies of the early 17th century Imperial Court challenged each other to contests to determine whose ball was the most intricate, opulent, brightest or most subtle use of color. Ball patterns developed one from another, like generations or were embroidered in the traditional Japanese Embroidery techniques, a superbly refined style, that was used to embellish courtly clothing of the period using silk floss and metallic threads. Realistic scenes of figures in gardens with recognizable varieties of flowers and trees seemed to be favorite subjects as well as some of the traditional geometric patterns that we know today. Those highly embroidered temari balls of the 17th century and those of today seem to mimic the ornate perfection symbol of the Chinese Flaming Pearl of Happiness and Prosperity.

In Japanese Toys: Playing with History by Sakamoto Kazuya and Charles Pomeroy, published by Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1965 “A cloth Kuke ball from Hachinoe, Aomori Prefecture is shown. Balls like this, still produced by elderly people today, are made of scraps of cloth around a paper core and finished with a characteristic colored-thread pattern. Another type, the Tsugi ball is finished with cloth strips. The Goten ball, made of cloth and thread, from Yamagata Prefecture is an ornamental cloth ball made with a cotton, cloth or paper core and finished by wrapping with thread. Once made by court ladies-in-waiting, balls like these were made and sold as decorations.”

Hugo Munsterberg in his book, The Folk Arts of Japan, published by Charles E. Tuttle Co., discusses typical Japanese folk toys. “The thread balls originally used for games at court… are now thought of as folk toys. They are made of paper and covered with thread, which is often embroidered into beautiful designs. The effect is somewhat like that of a colorful textile.” 

These descriptions suggest that temari had a glamorous past at court that faded into folk craft and home craft as time passed and court life became more conservative.

The word “mingei” means art of the people or folk craft. Temari is considered to be within this realm or genre. Mingei is a hand-crafted item made to serve a purpose, beautiful, functional, commonly used by a broad range of people and rarely signed by the artist or craftperson. Included in this category are ceramic wares, hand woven goods, dyeing and printing techniques, bamboo household articles, toys, games and furniture. These pieces became collectibles after the beginning of the industrial age of mechanical mass production. They are also the foundation upon which the Arts and Crafts Movement in western art was based at the turn of the century. Many of these pieces were collected and greatly revered in America and other parts of the world for their exquisite simplicity of design.

As a home craft made by mothers and grandmothers to occupy young children, temari’s most recent tradition began to fade even more by the invention of modern rubber and plastic balls. Preceding this decline, balls seem to have been made all over the country of Japan. These toy balls were made of a paper, cotton or fabric core wrapped with strips of fabric or threads, then decorated with embroidery. The ball’s tough exterior was intended for semi-rough play and the balls, though brightly colored, were generally coarse in appearance by today’s standards. Modern day balls show a great deal more complexity of design, but are now made as ornaments and no longer for play.

In today’s world, it appears that there is an attempt at reviving the look of balls of the courtly days of the Edo Period - the 1600s at the Shogun Tokugawa’s Court, the period made popular in the novel and movie series for television, “Shogun.”

Today’s temari balls are often given as a formal commemorative gift, like a “plaque” given on a notable occasion. A formal presentation ball usually has a large dragonfly knot and foot long tassels. But the tradition remains as a mother’s love ball too, when a child awakens on New Year’s morning to find a bright and beautiful temari lying on her pillow, so that when sleepy eyes open, it is the first happy vision of the New Year.

The development of temari covers a span of almost 1400 years from a leather game ball, to a children’s toy, to an opulent gift of ornamental splendor, back to a child’s toy ball, and then again to a modern day revival of an ornamental ball now possibly surpassing their past glory. If you would like to read about ancient Japan and the atmosphere into which temari was conceived and developed, read a translation of The Tale of Genji, the Shining Prince by Murasaki Shikibu, written around the 9th century. It is recognized as the first novel in history, a romance, and written by a woman. Also look for The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby, a novel describing the life of the lady author of The Tale of Genji. Both give insights into the extraordinary creativity and artistic sophistication of the lifestyle of early Japan.


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