What is Bunka?

Japanese Bunka Shishu – Bunka Punch Embroidery

by Monica Marlatt

Bunka punch embroidery is a century old craft that crossed over to North America about 60 years ago. It originated in Japan when rayon thread was invented. At the end of the 2nd World War, an American G.I. returned home from duty with his new Japanese bride. She brought with her, a love and passion for Bunka. It was taught on and around all the Army bases that the couple lived at. Call it the “snowball effect” but that is how someone learned it and then taught it to the next Bunka enthusiast. It is still a word of mouth craft that you won’t find being demonstrated in your local department stores craft section. Small clusters of individuals have expanded this craft to where it is today.

When people see Bunka for the first time they believe it to be an oil painting but upon closer inspection the see the beautiful art of punch embroidery. Bunka varies from the traditional embroidery as you are using special rayon thread that can be manipulated to achieve different textured looks. The needle is also unique to Bunka only. The results of any finished picture are amazing.


Bonnie Ralph, a Bunka Master who lives in Toronto, Canada, spent 7 months duplicating this picture. Upon completion it was sent to Ms. Jacobsen for approval. Ms. Jacobsen was impressed and now “Winter Mill” is available as a Bunka kit. The once craft has now become art.

Another Bunka Master is Dolores de Huller who lives in Argentina. Mrs. de Huller, has designed several Bunka embroidery pictures including the brilliant “Motivos Incas.”

What is Bunka punch embroidery and what makes it so different from other forms of embroidery? The biggest difference is that the stitches are notlooped through the fabric. Instead they are punched into the fabric and held in place by the kink in the special rayon thread. The other major difference is the unique hollow tube needles that are used to punch the thread into the canvas.
The pictures are stunning. The blend of colours, textures and depth bring each picture to life.
There are over 300 colours of thread available including metallic shades. The thread is 4-ply rayon lily yarn that is only made in Japan. Bunka stitching techniques utilize 1, 2, 3 and sometimes all 4-ply of the thread. The skein of thread in its unraveled state is silky looking and looks like a tassel. You begin by pulling two of the strands out of the centre of the skein. It will now have a kink in it and it’s the kink that holds the thread in the canvas. If you make a mistake you just pull it out and stitch the spot over.The thread is not colour-fast and can’t be used to embellish clothing or throw pillows that require washing or cleaning.
The canvas is a very tight polyester gabardine and must be tacked drum tight onto a wooden work frame. Loose canvas will prevent the thread from staying in.
A special hollow needle is used to punch the thread about 1.5 cm into a silk screened, numbered picture on fabric. There are a variety of needle styles that are used to stitch various techniques. There is a short shank needle for flat or regular stitching. Ninety-five percent of all stitching uses the short shank needle.You simply slip the long needle threader up through the tip of the needle, out the end and slip the thread in. The thread is then pulled back through the needle, back out the tip and you are ready to stitch. This makes it much easier for people with arthritic hands.
Blending and line padding are employed to add contrast and dimension. The basic stitch is the running stitch that would be used to fill in the sky for example. Each stitch is about 1cm in length but longer and shorter stitches are also used for different effects. The stitches do not overlap but are laid beside each other similar to a staggered brick pattern.
Special symbols are sometimes marked on the canvas to indicate the direction of stitching or under-padding. Under-padding would be used to create a thicker look. First the area is stitched in the opposite direction to the finished stitch and then over stitched in the finished direction.
Fluffy pictures, depicting animal fur for example, are stitched from the reverse side of the canvas to the front. The start and ending stitches are locked in and then the loops on the front of the canvas are fluffed up. A small fingertip wire brush is used to do the fluffing which can then be combed or trimmed. The longer shank needle is used so that extra thread is punched through the canvas allowing for a longer fur look.
Flat pictures are stitched on the printed, finished, side on the canvas and are almost always stitched with a short shank needle.
Stitch order is very important to ensure depth in a picture. Backgrounds are done first and foregrounds last.
Each kit contains the silk screened canvas, thread, a coloured insert and a black and white numbered line drawing. Many North American kits come with detailed line by line instructions. These kits are the best way to start to learn techniques and then you can proceed to the Japanese kits. Once you understand the techniques you can even tackle other very difficult kits that have no numbering or thread numbers. The finished kit is usually mounted under glass and the colours will remain vibrant for generations.
There are two learning videos available. They will take you from the beginner level through the intermediate level.
There is the ‘Bible’ of Bunka titled The Handbook of Punch Embroidery. It contains all the techniques and is simply written with diagrams. It is an easy craft to learn whether you are enrolled in a class, view the instructional videos or study the handbook. Kits are rated by difficulty as beginner, intermediate and advanced. The choices of patterns are endless.

You can also buy Bunka handbooks, kits, needles, and accessories from Bunka With Flair http://www.bunkawithflair.com/