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The Art of Shifu: Hiroko Karuno’s Original Interpretation of Traditional Woven Paper

Written on November 2, 2009

In the Japanese language, the word shifu refers to woven paper.  Shifu can mean the fine-as-silk paper weaving that was given as tribute to regional rulers during the Edo Period, or the very rustic, utilitarian cloth woven by peasants by shredding leftover ledger books and weaving this against a bast fiber warp.  This post, however, is about a contemporary shifu artist, Hiroko Karuno, whose shifu weaving draws on inspiration from the past.  Karuno’s interpretation of this rare yet traditional weaving technique, however, is her own.

Hiroko Karuno lives in Canada and she spends part of each year at her family home in Kyoto, where she was raised.  Below you’ll see a photo of a room in her Kyoto home where her minutely shredded paper is laid.

Karuno’s paper comes from an artisan paper maker in Kadoide, Japan, in Niigata Prefecture.  In order for this paper to be seasoned properly, Karuno will store it for five years before using it in her shifu.


Once the paper is properly aged, she folds it and slices it in 2 mm strips: this process of folding and slicing requires a period of sustained total focus and a pin-point concentration: there can be no distractions during this process.  Below you will see the paper after it was properly sliced.Karuno1f

The paper is then shaken free and dampened overnight.  Again the paper is opened and shaken; keep in mind that this process is in no way “mechanical.”  Karuno needs to use all her senses–touch and sound chief among them–to manipulate the paper as she sees fit: imagine that she needs to “listen” to the paper in order to properly manipulate it.  Ambient weather conditions, for example, weigh in on the shifu yarn making process, so Karuno needs to be keenly in-tune to her materials during this entire process.  After this, for quite some time, the sliced paper is rolled to and fro on a rock, under her open hands: again it is lifted, shaken and rolled again.  Rolling in this manner softens the fibers and separates the strands.  After this process is finished, Karuno will release the bundle and unfurl it carefully, taking care to pinch off some stray bits of paper on its folds, and then she will let go a long filament: the special manner in which Karuno folds and cuts the paper allows her to be able to create one, extremely long piece of yarn.  This now-freed filament is coffered in high, soft mounds in bamboo baskets (below).



The paper is ready to be spun into yarn: Karuno is quick to say that the paper is not “spun” but “twisted.”  Karuno “spins” the yarn on a traditional, Japanese spinning wheel.


Karuno dyes her precious yarns using only botanical dyes: indigo, loquat, safflower, gardenia and chestnut are among the dyestuffs that lend color to her specialized yarns.



Earlier in this post I mentioned that Karuno’s shifu is original.  What I meant is that Karuno’s shifu–which is featherweight and exceedingly fine–is woven with a paper weft against a paper warp: most shifu was woven using either a silk or cotton warp, and in the case of country shifu, the cloth was structured on a bast warp.  Karuno’s shifu is a sublime confection and weaving one full bolt of shifu can take up to one  year.

The shifu of Hiroko Karuno is woven into full tanmono, or a 12 meter length from which a traditional kimono can be fashioned: it is dyed–or not–and if dyed, Karuno sometimes will tie the yarns before dyeing and create kasuri or ikat cloth.

The cloth, above and below, are views onto a finished tanmono.  Words and these photos cannot describe the tactile sense of this cloth: it is ethereal as vapor, and it is woven with a super-human precision.  The amount of care which nourishes this cloth is unquantifiable. Please know that these tanmono will never be cut to make a kimono: they themselves are the finished artwork.


For those of you in the Toronto area, Hiroko Karuno will be giving a lecture on shifu and Japanese paper on 11 November at 7:00 PM at The Japanese Paper Place: information is here, and once on The Japanese Paper Place’s website, scroll down to see Karuno’s talk mentioned in the November events.

If you’d like more information and photos on Hiroko Karuno’s work, you may want to order a back issue of Selvedge magazine, where Karuno’s work is the subject of an article I wrote in Issue 22.

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  1. Comment by Jessica @ The Japanese Paper Place:

    What a wonderful article about Hiroko’s work – and thank you for the mention! You and your readers might be interested in the pictures with descriptions we posted here from her talk on the 11th, including some interesting ones of magnified shifu weave.

    November 14, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  2. Comment by Velma:

    i am in awe of this work. the beautiful dyed skeins, the yardage…

    November 16, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

  3. Comment by Carolyn DuPont:

    How I wish I could have seen this talk!! I have been researching shifu for about two years. I did meet with Lezlie King in Santa Fe and learned a bit from her. She “spins” a linen paper tape from Habu and weaves beautiful garments. Recently I found an 89 year old woman here in Tucson who has done some shifu weavings using coffee filters and old pattern paper to spin into yarn. I have ordered the linen tape from Habu and experimented with Kozo, coffee filters, and pattern paper. I will use my shifu threads in a mixed media piece with handmade papers which I made from plant materials gathered in different parts of the United States.

    November 21, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

  4. Comment by Mary Hanlon:

    Absolutely beautiful! Thank you for sharing this.

    December 9, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

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  6. Comment by Marilyn A. Chapman:

    What a delight to find this email page. I look forward to seeing your latest work.

    March 4, 2010 @ 7:36 am

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  8. Comment by Renee':

    I just found out about shifu and Hiroko Karuno, and this article was beautiful. I have so much to learn. Thank you.

    January 18, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

  9. Comment by ceca georgieva:

    Thank you for amazing article about shifu and Hiroko Karuno!

    February 8, 2011 @ 6:47 am

  10. Comment by Toni Sinclair:

    I have been spinning shifu for the past month according to what
    information I have found available, and I must say that it is
    absolutely amazing. I’m able to average 4mm wide but am
    looking to try 2mm. I began with medium to thicker Kozo
    paper but have found that the finer papers are amazing. Anyone
    out there working on this as well?

    February 26, 2011 @ 1:43 pm