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This is not only a personal report but also a profound resource book about the history, technique, and design of shifu. Many colored images support the detailed and inspirational explanations. — anon., Textil Forum Textile
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in fiber, dyeing, weaving, paper, or Japanese culture in general. —John Marshall
Byrd has joyously and rigorously pursued her passion, and with this book she has become shifu's devoted advocate and foremost expert. T Pick up a copy. It will impress. —Sukey Hughes
This is an extraordinarily generous book. The author shares everything she has learnt in her two apprenticeships in Japan without reservation, but leaves her audience with a thirst to learn more. It deserves a place in many libraries, personal and public. —Liz Powell
Susan Byrd has assembled a valuable resource that makes Shifu, an historical Japanese fabric made using paper thread, accessible to a new generation of papermakers, spinners, weavers, and textile artists…. —Beth Showalter
shifu woven by Susan Byrd
shifu kimono by Yasuko Shimada
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Eva Hovde Douthit: “It is a delight to discover and review Susan J. Byrd’s thoroughly researched and spirited celebration of shifu, the Japanese art of weaving with paper thread traditionally made from the inner bark of trees. As a college senior, Byrd’s interest in making washi, Japanese paper, took her to Japan and to a live-in apprenticeship with Sadako Sakurai, a skilled shifu weaver. At the end of a year of shifu immersion, she approached the task of creating her own exquisitely beautiful shifu kimono using a 40/2 cotton warp and a 3 mm wide paper-weft thread. By publishing her book twenty-five years later, she has shared her lifelong commitment to help preserve the shifu tradition, now recognized by the Japanese government as an intangible and cultural property.
Shifu initially earned respect for being lightweight and breathable in heat and humidity, while also protecting the wearer against rain and wind. Shifu almost died out in Japan after the industrial revolution, but was fortuitously and somewhat ironically revived in the 1930s and 1940s, decades plagued by warfare and a shortage of natural resources. Byrd provides a complete geographic and historical overview of the development of shifu, giving credit to artists who helped revive the skills, as well as describing samples in museums around the world.
Byrd also answers all the questions that immediately come to a Western weaver’s mind. Can you really wash paper without having it fall apart and, if so, does it survive a dyebath? Will it be strong enough for a warp? Byrd sees no reason why her readers cannot also sing the song of praise for shifu as long as patient care is taken to create good weavings that are strong, soft, and washable. She takes readers through each step of the process from papermaking to weaving and everything in between. The text is generously supported by photographs, drawings, and tips for weaving success. While paper is not a forgiving fiber, it offers many rewards in return for overcoming its challenges.
Byrd’s appendices stand on their own as models for good research, storytelling, and textbook standards. In addition to celebrating contemporary paper artists around the world, she includes instructions for natural dyeing; measurements and procedures for the fibers; and an exhaustive list of resources, suppliers, and museums. Every student of Japanese language and culture will appreciate Byrd’s glossary of terms with both English alphabet and Japanese characters. The first edition of five hundred copies includes a sample of handmade paper as well as a shifu sample woven by Byrd’s mentor Sadako Sakuri. Read, touch, and be inspired.” Handwoven (March/April 2015): 15.
Anon: A Song of Praise for Shifu is the story of a young Western woman and her travels into the world of the traditional production of yarn and textiles made from handmade paper. In it Susan J. Byrd tells us how she came into contact with Japanese culture. After attending a workshop, she was determined to find out how to produce washi and textiles from it. She traveled to Japan to study the culture and handcraft. This is not only a personal report but also a profound resource book about the history, technique, and design of shifu. Many colored images support the detailed and inspirational explanations. Toward the end of the book are works of the famous world renowned shifu artists such as Mäti Müller, Christina Leitner, and Lis Surbeck among others. (Translated from German). Textil Forum Textile no. 144 (April 2014): 18.
John Marshall: Japan is a country well known for its exquisite textiles, leading the world in both quality and variety. One of its lesser-known textiles is shifu, fabrics woven from paper. When I was first presented with this book, I was prepared for a pretty, introductory survey of the technique. Much to my delight I was very, very wrong.
Susan Byrd has managed to produce a textile lover's dream come true—a book that takes you into the lives of the local textile artists, allowing you to know them as individuals as they share every detail of this fascinating process. With nearly five hundred photographs and an abundance of illustrations, she has generously presented every imaginable step in the process—from growing and collecting the fibers to make the paper, to spinning, dyeing, weaving, and knotting techniques.
The author also intersperses each section with samples of every possible variation, for example textiles woven with paper yarns combined with other fibers, shifu used in both traditional and contemporary contexts, and a chapter touching on the production and use of shifu in countries other than Japan.
Susan Byrd is one of those rare individuals who lives her work. She went to Japan and immersed herself in the culture, the people, and the techniques with the expressed goal of learning all she could about the topic and sharing her love and insights with the rest of us. Approaching her subject matter with a solid background in fiber and natural dyes, she has been able to achieve that goal through her straightforward writing style. Her sense of gratitude and love of the process is apparent throughout the book.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in fiber, dyeing, weaving, paper, or Japanese culture in general. Thank you, Susan! Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot 45, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 12.
Sukey Hughes: In her newly released book A Song of Praise for Shifu, Susan J. Byrd breathes life into what once, in my days of paper research in the 1970s, promised to be just one more Japanese craft doomed for extinction. This volume, dense with information on what would seem to be an obscure subject, is in fact a delightful and exhaustive study of everything shifu.
Shifu is cloth woven from spun or twisted paper, mostly from special kinds of washi (Japanese handmade paper). Some shifu is made not entirely of paper, but with a silk or cotton warp. For centuries in Japan, shifu has been put to many uses, but primarily it has been sewn into clothing. Although its manufacture is labor intensive, shifu has been a material cheaply had—you could weave it out of any old account book. As clothing, shifu keeps the wind out and the warmth in. If it gets wet, the paper threads expand and also seal in heat, very useful if you are, say, a fisherman. But this unaffected cloth can also be, like the paper from which it is made, gentle, humble, humane—and exquisitely beautiful.
A Song of Praise traces the possible origin of paper cloth to spies in Japan’s feudal era who supposedly cut and wove secret missives into cloth in order to pass through enemy territory. Once safely home, the clothing was unwound, untwisted, and the writing pieced back together. Byrd’s historical knowledge of shifu centers on the Shiroishi (Sendai) area, the place she learned shifu making and about which the noble Katakura family kept an exhaustive history. This, by the way, is a region in Japan deeply and traumatically affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Byrd’s love affair with shifu began in college when she made her first sheets of washi. She took a workshop with paper artist Amanda Degener, and was hooked. Byrd created a bamboo and handmade paper installation that recalled a very airy paper house, apparently a premonition of things to come.
Around 1984, Byrd found herself in Japan staying in paper and book artist Asao Shimura’s “A Paper Thatched House,” a one-hundred-year-old farmhouse decorated throughout with handmade sheets that he laid wet onto walls, floors, and ceilings as he made them—Shimura’s own paean to washi. But it was at a Mini Micronesia Conference in Guam where Byrd had her first close encounter with shifu, making breadfruit fiber into paper that participants wove into cloth.
Back at the farmhouse, Byrd discovered shifu makers living nearby, Sadako Sakurai and her family, with whom Byrd eventually lived and studied under a National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts Apprenticeship Fellowship Grant. Her Japanese improved quickly. Sakurai taught her how to select the perfect papers for shifu; how to soften, roll, and spin cut paper into delicate threads; how to dye them; and finally how to weave the threads into sublime cloth. Tucked into an envelope at the back of the first 500 issues of A Song of Praise is something quite special: a sample of Sakurai’s incredibly fine silk-and-paper shifu (along with a sample of gossamer shifu paper). In the book’s sad preface, Sakurai writes it is difficult for her to continue with her work, as she must compete in sales with makers of thicker, less refined paper cloth.
When she returned to the States, Byrd continued to make shifu, entering weaving exhibitions and working for the famed Kasuri Dyeworks textile shop in Berkeley. Two years later, on a third and last trip to Japan, she further researched this volume by traveling the country visiting more shifu makers. Her book’s romantic title is an homage to her teacher, Sadako Sakurai, who confided to Byrd that she felt her life was a dedication, a “song of praise” to her own Shiroishi shifu.
Byrd includes a very thorough chapter on the making of washi in general and shifu paper in particular, and it is mostly accurate. The book has a chapter each on making shifu paper, shifu thread, dyeing, and finally weaving this magical cloth. If you want specifics, you will be well rewarded. It is not the type of book you decide to put in your lap and read from cover to cover. The book is too dense with information for that. You will want to dip into one section for a feel of what it is actually like to study a craft in Japan; at another reading you may graze through the history of Shiroishi shifu. You might put it down and pick it up later, marveling at a swift reference to wabizumai (refined poverty and solitariness). At another time, you will be entranced with photos of the sublime work of traditional and contemporary international shifu artists. Hiroko Karuno’s shifu, dyed softly with wild raspberry, is refinement itself. Check out Carolina Larrea’s stunning self-portrait transfer onto her own woven paper cloth.
Appendices in the back give maps, charts, supplier resources, lists of museums where shifu is shown, as well as shifu craftspeople and artists. There are even appendices of Byrd’s Japan journals, including charming photos and sketches that I assume the author created herself. Throughout, the book is richly illustrated with color photos....Throughout, Byrd expresses her love for and gratitude to all the Japanese craftspeople who shared their work and knowledge so unstintingly. Byrd has joyously and rigorously pursued her passion, and with this book she has become shifu's devoted advocate and foremost expert. The resulting volume is our reward. Pick up a copy. It will impress. Excerpted with permission from Hand Papermaking 29, no. 1 (Summer 2014): 45–46 © 2014 by Hand Papermaking, Inc. (www.handpapermaking.org). All rights reserved.
Anon: "Susan Byrd began her exploration of oriental art as an art student. Captivated by Japanese paper-making, her interest extended to handmade paper cloth: shifu. Accompanied by pertinent and well-done photographs, and a translated Japanese-English glossary, her book is a detailed description of the artistry and functionality (shoes, clothing, etc.) of weaving paper with other natural fibers such as cotton and silk. Shifu, however, is more than art. It is an integral part of Japanese culture and history, and after taking us through that history from the Edo period (1603–1868) to the present, Byrd introduces us to the people, resources, and international aspects of paper cloth—for example, France and Korea have their version—that leave us sharing her dismay at the dearth of handmade paper makers and appreciative markets. Byrd has proven herself an excellent weaver of words, pictures, and personal experience with facts and directions." "2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award, Micro Press Award," U.S. Review of Books: http://www.theusreview.com/USRhoffer.html; retrieved May 2014.
Liz Powell: "This beautifully presented and lovingly crafted book really is a song of praise to shifu, a traditional Japanese craft that turns handmade paper thread into woven cloth. This however is a deceptively simple definition of the technique. The book encompasses in depth explanations of how shifu is created and used, where it originated and why, and what is happening with it now.
Byrd and other practitioners admit the techniques are punishing, hard on the skin, hands and back, but a quote from Yasuko Shimada tells us, “Nevertheless I cannot stop handling the threads everyday”. Weavers, spinners and paper makers will love it, as will anyone interested in the Japanese ethos of making. Growing demand has apparently led to a resurgence of the craft.
The book takes the approach that one must start from the very beginning of the process and proceed to through the descriptions, history and photographs of plant fibres used, their preparation, the making of the paper thread, getting it onto the loom and turning the paper into cloth. Every aspect of the fibre preparation has its own tools, traditions and methods, all beautifully illustrated with large clear photographs that are inspiring in their own right, accompanied by extensive notes.
If you are interested in experimenting with shifu there are enough clear instructions for the book to be used as a manual. For paper makers there are directions for producing washi (a generic term for Japanese paper) as well as specific shifu paper. Weavers are supplied with clear and detailed directions on traditional Japanese methods of warping, preparing the threads (for example sizing with seaweed to increase strength of fibres), and with weaving patterns. For those who don’t actually want to make shifu there is still a rich vein to mine.
A detailed history of shifu, which of necessity includes a history of paper, is enhanced by an excellent gallery of photographs of traditional and historical examples of stencils, clothing and objects made from shifu, both the ‘Refined ‘style and Folk Shifu, where recycled common household items like account books are used to make the paper threads.
Contemporary practice also gets a substantial mention and again an excellent gallery is supplemented with notes on artists, along with a photo documentary of one of the Washi Tours the author did with Asao Shimura to Shikoku Island. There is also documentation, via excerpts and drawings from Byrd’s journal of a project of Shimura’s that went on for many years “A Thatch-Roof Farmhouse” involving the production of thousands of sheets of paper (inspired by Christo’s wrapped landscapes). The images alone make these appendices worthwhile.
By the time I got to photographs of plants and seeds to dye and make paper with, I was ready to get out my pots and start boiling. In the first 500 copies there is even a little envelope with samples of shifu paper and shifu. This is an extraordinarily generous book. The author shares everything she has learnt in her two apprenticeships in Japan without reservation, but leaves her audience with a thirst to learn more. It deserves a place in many libraries, personal and public." Textile Fibre Forum no. 14 (February/March 2014): 62.
Velma Bolyard: "A Song of Praise for Shifu is a book that transcends its subject, shifu, actually becoming a song. It’s a joyful journey into Susan Byrd’s personal exploration of Japanese craft and practice into the exquisite world of washi and shifu. This is a book about the journey of a young Western woman seeking her own way into a peculiar Japanese craft, which ultimately celebrates with joy and deep respect the work of many shifu makers. I could feel what it must have been like for this young woman embarking on a huge solo journey to find out more about washi and then shifu. I found myself delighted with tiny details, including which warp yarns were combined with paper-weft yarns of particular kinds and then woven for specific purposes.
There were “aha” moments for me on almost every page. Susan places particular emphasis on the generosity of her teachers and also the friends who helped her during her times of study in Japan. I found fascinating the thorough historical context in which she places the development of shifu and felt I could use her research to follow up areas of particular interest to me. Susan traces historical references about shifu and explains the cyclical popularity, the differences in approach, and the aesthetics of many shifu makers throughout recorded history.
Susan has approached this sometimes homemade and sometimes skilled artisan-made craft with enormous respect and love and has given every detail her utmost attention. Each chapter has numerous endnotes that form extensive supplemental material but do not detract from the flow of her narrative. The appendices give all kinds of important supplemental information, and I found many possible tangents to pursue on my own. Interesting and pertinent and beautiful photographs are a rich and important part of A Song of Praise for Shifu. It is a rich song indeed."
Beth Showalter: "When Susan Byrd wrote to me that she was going to write a book about Shifu based upon several essays/articles she had written, I was quite interested. In doing my own research on Shifu, I knew that information available in English was both scarce and rare. Having seen the end result of A Song of Praise for Shifu by Byrd I am thrilled. The research presented is comprehensive, thorough, and intensive. Byrd uses her personal experiences in learning and working with Shifu to explore the historic, cultural, and highly skilled processes required to create this textile. Clear, descriptive photographs are as equally important as the text that illustrates Byrd’s journey in bringing Shifu to a new audience. A Song of Praise for Shifu is a book that I have been waiting for. Susan Byrd has assembled a valuable resource that makes Shifu, an historical Japanese fabric made using paper thread, accessible to a new generation of papermakers, spinners, weavers, and textile artists. It will be interesting to see how a new audience interprets and explores the possibilities of paper thread as a result of Byrd’s passion for Shifu. What an amazing find [The Legacy Press] is, by the way! The other books that they are currently publishing are really interesting, and I love the fact that the publisher is an authentic bookmaker who values well-made and beautiful books with high quality details."
Linelle Dickinson: "Artist, author, teacher, humanitarian Susan Byrd has woven a beautiful story about a little-known craft called shifu, now also seen as a recognized art form. Ms. Byrd's book is the first definitive work on shifu to incorporate (in detail), the history, process, and craft over past centuries to the present. By sharing stories of the past along with stories of her own experiences in Japan, Ms. Byrd has formed a bridge between different cultures and different eras. With her talent, perseverance, and passion for shifu, Ms. Byrd has given us a gift, wrapped up in the dedication and time-consuming process called shifu. Anyone attempting shifu now has the definitive work to provide all the necessary tools and lessons. However, it is also a fascinating read for anyone interested in learning about shifu from its humble beginnings through its ascendancy to decline and resurgence. The stories will grab you and pull you into the process. It is an appreciation for the people who loved the craft and for contemporary artists who want to carry on and add their own history to shifu. Through her book, Ms. Byrd is honoring all those artisans who devoted their lives to this most fascinating craft/art form called shifu."