Q&A with Steven Bowe and a beginner how-to for a beautiful temari ball!
Fabric artist Steven Bowe has been “playing with string” for more than two decades, but it wasn’t until last year that he taught himself the ancient art known as temari. Temari balls originated in China and were introduced to Japan in the 7th century. Historically, temari were crafted from the remnants of old kimonos and other previously used materials: discarded clothing and household items were taken apart, and as much as possible the fabric pieces and threads would be reused. Over time, temari has become an art and Bowe’s creations, each ball displaying a staggering level of intricate embroidery, are a testament to that. Bowe says he spends days, sometimes months, on a piece—depending on its complexity. “For about six months I had collected short pieces of scrap threads that were left over from previous projects I made. I separated these into color families, and then started stitching diamonds with them. I loved watching these beautiful designs emerge from thread scraps that I normally would have thrown out,” he said, about one particularly special project. Remarkably, Bowe does so in his spare time: he works a day job doing IT work at a medical college. “A typical day for me is to go to work, come home, give my bunnies their dinner, feed myself, and then relax on the couch and stitch temari all night while half-watching Netflix,” he said.
AS: What drew you to fabric arts?
The draw to fiber for me is that it’s magic. It amazes me that these short fibers growing from plants or animals can be harvested, twisted to form yarn, and then that one continuous thread can be transformed, with only a series of loops or knots, into fabric, that can then be shaped into garments, blankets, art or other accessories. Each one of these steps is an art form in and of itself. I’ve washed freshly-shorn wool, carded the fibers before spinning them into multi-ply yarn, dyed that yarn (with both natural and synthetic dyes), and then knit, crocheted or woven it into fabric. Each step becomes a series of decisions that affect the outcome of the product. The fact that I have the ability to perform each one of these steps satisfies the very deep and instinctual DIY part of my personality. It’s empowering.
AS: How did you learn to work with fabric?
SB: I had strings around me from an early age. My grandmother was a seamstress by profession, and knit and crocheted in her free time. My mother crocheted and sewed, but was more passionate about needlepoint. She made wonderful pieces that were hung around our house, and it was inspiring to see the pride she took in her work. I was probably around 15 when I started crocheting lace doilies. I asked my mother to show me the basic stitches, and then I got some pattern books and was quickly addicted. In my early 20s, a friend showed me the knit and purl stitch, and then I taught myself the rest from books.
AS: Tell us about the process of creating a temari ball.
SB: Temari is a fairly new medium for me; I’ve only been making them about a year. I find making them quite mesmerizing and rarely have trouble staying focused; in fact, I often find myself consumed by a given project, and love watching the patterns emerge as I continue embroidering them. There are somewhat simple patterns that only require dividing the sphere into quarters, and those require some math. However, other patterns can result in hundreds of divisions being created, and those require a lot more math/geometry.
AS: Where do you find inspiration?
SB: I’m very inspired by many of the Japanese artists whose work I’ve been able to see online and in books. The pieces I am drawn to the most are the ones that make my brain hurt when trying to figure out how they were made (magic again). I hope to have half of these artists’ talent one day. Inspiration for color palettes is rarely conscious to me. I recently made a piece using the color palette of a movie character’s wardrobe, but that was the exception. Usually I pick one color from my thread stash and then build a palette around it.
AS: You work with both fiber and clay. Is there one you prefer over the other?
SB: I prefer working with fiber over clay. Logistically, it fits my personality better. I can embroider temari balls or knit something when and where I want to. Ceramics I’m forced to be in a studio at a pre-determined time. They’re very different mediums and I enjoy the contrast—one hard, one soft. If I had to name a surprising similarity it would be that I’ve been most successful with each when I take the time to plan a project before starting it, but then let it evolve as I’m working on it, allowing the project to change organically.
AS: What is your dream project?
SB: I don’t really have one. More than any one project, I want to learn different skills. My dreams are to learn glass blowing, furniture design, bonsai, 3D printing, and metalwork, and then mix those mediums as the inspiration strikes me.
AS: What's the best piece of advice given to you that you’d share with others?
SB: A very talented fashion designer friend once shared his most important lesson that he’d learned after years of work: when you’re struggling with a project that is just not doing what you want it to, abandon it. And if it’s still haunting you, destroy it. I’d generally prefer not to avoid a challenge, but I have found this to be incredibly liberating advice. At the time, I was struggling with a ceramic piece I was working on. I hated what was coming out, and I was trying to force it to become something it wasn’t going to. It was weighing me down and dampening my spirits. After speaking with my friend, I took the piece outside of the studio and smashed it on the sidewalk. I immediately felt relief; the burden of seeing this project to completion (as I’d imagined it, at least) was lifted from my shoulders, and I was free to pursue the next project.
Steven sells his temari balls HERE
Get tons of inspiration in Sweet Paul Magazine:
Temari with interwoven wrapped bands
You will need:
¼” thick yarn to initially cover ball (will not be seen)
sewing floss to cover ball (will be seen)
white and black pins
perle 5 cotton embroidery thread in colors of your choice
- Wrap Styrofoam ball with yarn. The yarn layer should be about ¼” thick.
- Wrap with sewing thread until surface is completely covered.
- Pin paper strip to ball using a white pin. Wrap paper strip around the ball and back to white pin, cutting off excess paper.
- Remove paper strip but return pin to same spot. Fold paper strip in half and cut a small notch in the paper. Fold in half again and cut another small notch. Return paper strip to ball.
- Wrap paper strip around ball again. Place a black pin in the notch opposite the white pin. The north and south poles are now defined.
- Place red pins in the notches between white and black pins. Rotate the paper strip 90 degrees and place two more red pins in notches.
- Remove paper strip (returning white pin to same spot). Pin strip so it lies next to the red pins around the ball. Using the same notches on the paper strip, adjust red pins so they’re equally spaced around the ball. Remove paper strip. Equator is now defined.
- Using first color of perle 5 cotton embroidery thread, wrap around ball 2.5 times and cut. Thread needle. Starting a couple of inches from the white pin, push needle under tread wrap and come up exactly at white pin. Pull thread until the end is buried under the thread wrap.
- Wrap thread toward one of the red pins at the equator, laying thread to right of pin. Continue toward black pin at south pole and the next red pin, keeping thread to right side of each. At white pin, move thread to left side of pin and wrap another layer around the ball, keeping to left side of each pin. The threads should be right up against each other. When you return to white pin, insert needle into thread wrap a couple of millimeters past the starting point, exit needle a couple of inches from white pin, and cut off excess thread. First layer of first band completed.
- For second band, repeat the same process, starting at the white pin but using the other two red pins. This band should overlap the first band.
- For the third band, start at a red pin. Repeat the same process, only wrapping adjacent to the red pins at the equator and overlapping the first and second bands.
- Repeat this sequence with subsequent colors, first doing one wrap on each side of the first band, then the second and third. Each time you should overlap the previous threads – this creates the woven effect at the intersections.
Made it? Tell us about it–