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Learning to Spin Paper Thread with Susan J. Byrd

by The SpinArtiste on January 4, 2015

ShifuBook3_1024x1024Several months ago, during an online spinning session, the group and I started to discuss making yarn out of paper and one of the participants mentioned the book on the Japanese art of making paper thread and weaving with it, A Song of Praise for Shifu by Susan J. Byrd.  Straight away, I ordered the book.  After it arrived, I happened to have the rare chance to have almost a whole Saturday to read the book.  As I read, I became increasingly fascinated by turning hand made paper into beautiful, fine thread to be woven into cloth known as “shifu”.  By the end of the book, my overarching thought was to find out whether I could somehow take a class from Susan Byrd.  And, then, to my delight, I discovered that Susan is located in Arkansas…only 90 miles away from where my mother in law lives.  Upon looking over Susan’s website, I found her contact information and a little nervously called her.  I was thrilled to end the phone call with a plan to come for a visit and a lesson in making paper thread right after Christmas.

TeahouseMy visit began with a cup of tea in Susan’s Japanese style teahouse built in homage to shifu.  Inside the teahouse are beautiful examples of shifu and paper threads as well as other related artifacts.  It was the perfect way to set the stage for learning how to make the paper thread. 

From there, we entered Susan’s studio where she began to go over more details regarding paper thread and weaving with it.   Susan showed me various samples of shifu and explained to me her desire to ensure that this lovely art form is preserved and continues. 

wallets, etc
My hand spinning background proved to be very helpful in terms of understanding many aspects of the process resulting in fine paper thread.  As in spinning protein fibers, “fiber preparation is everything” — all the decisions and steps leading up to the actual spinning are critical to getting the desired outcome. 

For paper thread used in traditional shifu, the selection of quality handmade paper is essential.  Susan referred me to the Paper Connection, International in order to order the correct papers.  In advance of my visit, I ordered a variety of sheets, all made from the mulberry tree.  The use of mulberry fiber seems no accident to me since the ancient Hawaiians and other natives of the South Pacific favored mulberry bark for creating their bark cloth.

To begin, Susan showed me how to fold the paper sheets for cutting and then how to cut the sheets:

Folding Paper

Cutting paper strips

Note that the sheets are not cut all the way to the end. This allows the spinner to more easily handle the cut strips throughout the rest of the process.

The next step was to dampen the cut paper strips:

Straightening cut paper

Once the strips were slightly damp, the strips were rolled over concrete blocks.  In protein fiber spinning, this was like a pre-draft action.  This step twists the fibers and prepares the thread for the final step of spinning.

Rolling paper 2

Twisted paper on concrete blocks

The thread is almost done! Here is what it looks like prior to spinning:
Twisted paper

Next, the twisted strips are carefully ripped off of the uncut edge to create a continuous strip and then coiled into a basket to be stored for spinning:

paper thread in basket

Now to spin!  First Susan showed me how:

Susan spinning paper thread


Then it was my turn:

ART spinning paper thread

The spinning is different than what I’m used to in that the wheel is turned a specific number of times for each arm’s length of thread being created.  On Susan’s wheel, the correct number of turns was eight.  I will have to determine what the correct number of turns is for the wheel I will be using at home or use a drop spindle. 

The resulting thread was light, soft, and strong.  It will be perfect to incorporate into my saori weaving projects! 

I am so grateful for Susan’s generous hospitality and taking the time to teach me something of this timeless and intriguing fiber art.  If you are interested in learning more, I strongly encourage you to read Susan’s book and reach out to her as well to discuss your interest.  We have just started a new Facebook group, “Paper Threads, Yarns and Textiles”, to explore all things related to making and using paper threads and yarns.  Please join us!

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