Several years ago I joined with a few other local weaving guild members in ordering some washi, or paper, yarns from Japan. My order included 3 yarns: a very thin all-paper yarn made from twisting and spinning a 2 mm wide strip of paper, a thicker yarn made from plies of paper and rayon, and a flat, ribbon-like strip of 2 mm wide paper wrapped with criss-crossing cotton and rayon threads. The goal was to weave shifu, or fabric woven from paper yarn.
While twisting and spinning the paper yarn does make it stronger, it is not usually recommended for use as warp yarn, because it will not often stand up to tension on the loom. Shifu is frequently woven from cotton or other fibers in the warp and paper yarn in the weft only. I used my paper yarns primarily as weft in a variety of projects: a couple of scarves with Tencel and cotton warp, one length of fabric with cotton and linen warp, and one with an overtwisted rayon in the warp to get a crepe effect.
Later, on the advice of another weaver, I did try warping with the flat, ribbon yarn, which was a little stronger than the other two. To my surprise, it stood up to the tension of my Baby Wolf loom, so I was able to weave a fabric of approximately 95% paper.
I had enough of the flat yarn to put on a warp 3+ yards long by 24 inches wide. I wove alternating rows of the thick and thin paper yarns for weft, and got about 2.5 yards of this fabric before running out of the paper weft. I wove the remaining 24 inches or so with alternating thick and thin rayon yarns. I took the fabric off the loom and separated the two fabrics by cutting between rows of machine zig-zag stitching. Having already woven and washed some other paper yarn projects, I fearlessly wet-finished, line-dried and ironed my paper fabrics. They held up beautifully! Then I wanted to dye them in indigo using shibori methods.
On a warm summer day, I got my indigo vat set up outdoors and did some folding and clamping for itajime shibori. I wet out the fabric bundles and dipped them in indigo numerous times for a dark shade and high contrast with the undyed portions. Then came the rinsing and soaping and more rinsing. Who would have thought that paper could withstand so much washing? Not me, but I was very happy to learn what a strong fabric paper can make. I dyed a few other shifu pieces as well that day, so now all my paper projects have indigo shibori patterns on them.
Now I am taking the next step: cutting and sewing the handwoven paper fabric into garments. I made the largest piece into a top using my favorite old Burda pattern (See my previous post New Work from Old Fabric). The fabric of linen and cotton warp with paper weft has a texture and hand very similar to canvas. This will probably be made into something utilitarian, such as a bag or table runner. I will have to ponder the other small pieces for inspiration.
Learn more about the time- and labor-intensive craft of creating handmade paper yarn and shifu: Susan J. Byrd has written a book and posted online videos about making paper yarn. Hiroko Karuno also has authored a book and articles on making paper thread and shifu.