I found the first star in a bin at a thrift shop by accident. It was a brightly colored, but shabby little Christmas ornament made from embroidery floss and tinfoil with plain sewing pins anchoring the thread at the points of the star. I was interested in the method of wrapping, which is unusual, and it reminded me of an ojo de dios. I bought the ornament for a quarter and took it home to figure out how it was constructed.
I quickly became enamored at the ease with which the attractive star ornaments could be made, and for several years, I have been making variations of them for Christmas. The stars offer a great way to use up bits of leftover yarn and thread, and the simple ones are easy enough for children to make. I have run across only a few styles of thread wrappings made in a similar way to the Christmas ornament I found, including wrapping patterns on Victorian thread winders and decorative photograph frames. I also discovered central medallions with more elaborately wrapped stars in the book 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make (Taunton Press, 1996) by Nancy Nehring, and I’ve seen many Pinterest posts about Dorset buttons.
While living in China, I encountered several more applications of this craft. Browsing through the booths at the enormous Panjiayuan Market in Beijing, I came across some very old pieces of needlework that incorporated the same technique on a tiny scale, and the method was also used to make wrapped straw ornaments sold by peddlers on the streets. They seemed to be a kind of traditional folk craft from Shaanxi, and although I’ve asked many people about it, the closest that I’ve been able to come to a name for this type of work is ping xiu, or flat embroidery. The pieces that I acquired are little decorations, probably made for luck, to hold a coin, or to decorate clothing, or they are little bags called xiang bao filled with fragrant herbs and used as protections against evil and bad smells.
The old Chinese pieces inspired me to try making similar stars on a smaller scale and to find some new uses for the basic stars and different materials from which to make them. But one of the hard parts of living in a country where I couldn’t speak or read the language was finding out where to buy the supplies. For the first few months, until I began to find my way around, thread and yarn were some of the easiest materials to obtain for this creative effort. Using very tiny stars made from sewing thread, I created garments, purses, jewelry, and hats. I found the wrapped stars a distinctive and quick way to decorate items using a technique that looks much more complex than it is to make.
This article first appeared in PieceWork Fall 2021.