Hari-Kuyo—A Memorial to Broken Needles

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My broken needles from this past year—apparently more than I would have thought!


Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle?
Oliver Schreiner

A few years ago I began reading about the Japanese Buddhist/Shinto festival day called Hari-Kuyo, also known as the “needle mass,” or “pin festival.” In some parts of the country it is held on December 8th, while in others, on February 8th. The day is traditionally celebrated by kimono makers who gather at the temple to lay needles and pins to rest in beds of soft tofu as a way of giving thanks for their service. They make prayers for improved skills as seamstresses/tailors as part of this 400 year old ritual that seems as funereal as it is celebratory.

I’ve been trying to find out more about it and would love to be able to witness it in person one day. It seems as though it may be diminishing in popular practice just as the needle arts become less common. The ideas that are so central to this festival day struck me as ones I already held dear—that there is joy to be found in small things, practices of economy v. wastefulness, and cultivating respect for the everyday tools that allow us to do so much. In Japan, this is known as Mottainai—the concept of expressing regret towards wasteful behavoir and, in turn, valuing small everyday objects by using them and disposing of them in an economical and respectful way.

I try to pass on related practices when teaching embroidery or hand sewing to my students. I encourage them to think critically about their choice and use of materials as well as the nature of the time they devote to creative endeavors—refocusing on the joy to be found in the process and quality of construction rather than how quickly they can achieve the final product. In our throwaway culture, it is bizarre that such activity seems almost radical.

I cannot claim to be a practitioner of Buddhism or an expert of Japanese culture. This year, however, instead of casually tossing the needles that have become broken, bent, or dull, I I made a conscious decision to set them aside and take note of the beauty and power that is to be found in the things that break in anticipation of projects, work, and dreams fulfilled. These humble little tools pass through all my projects, silent witnesses to the moments taking shape around my work and mindset, to the calm that I find while stitching by hand. It is amazing what utility and beauty such small bits of metal can allow us to achieve and to think of all the hands that take them up to express what words and ink often cannot.


Additional reading
Reuters: Japanese tailors’ needles find soft grave in tofu
The Japan Foundation of Sydney: Hari-Kuyo
Debbie Bates: Hari-Kuyo: Festival of Broken Needles

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