A recent email from Catster executive editor Vicky Walker made me go “HA!” out loud. “WHAT is going on here?!” she asked, and followed with two links to sites featuring fluffy, if slightly bizarre, little cats and dogs made of what appeared to be fur. Both links were mostly in Japanese.
I love a little cat-centric mystery. Cat lovers are weird and wonderful people, and we at Catster have the privilege of investigating the most delightful of those folks. Japan, with its obsession with all things kawaii or “cute,” is no exception. However, like Vicky, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at.
Language barrier be damned, those fluffy little creations needed my attention. I had a mission.
Armed with my so-so Japanese, my husband’s excellent Japanese (Mr. Louise deserves a huge “two paws up” for helping with translation), and my cat Brandy’s world-traveling kitty expertise (“She’s making ‘cute mascots’? Psssh. I just hacked up a hairball that you can frame if you want.”), I set unravel the story behind these furry friends.
First thing I learned? They aren’t fur. They are made from wool, or really “wool felt.”
“Needle felting” is a popular crafting pastime in Japan and Korea, with growing popularity around the world. You can easily find needle felting kits like this one and this one on Etsy. Here is a basic tutorial on YouTube that shows the process of poking, prodding, and pulling the wool into a kitty creation:
I could listen to the sound of that needle poking the wool all day.
One could be perfectly content at just creating little adorable “cat balls,” but of course Japan has to take it to the next level of artistry and cute.
At needle felting company Soranosuke, artist Akemi creates felt cats and sometimes dogs in the image of her pets — cats Sora and Riku, and a Shiba Inu named Kai — as well as custom creatures fashioned after her customer’s pets.
The custom felt animals come in a variety of styles. Beyond the basic felt cats, as seen above, a customer can get a nyankoro miniature, which is described as a “little round ball in the shape of a cat.”
Nyan daruma or kitty good luck “wishing dolls” are also available and are my favorite. Traditionally a wish is made on a daruma doll at the beginning of the year. What better way to start your year than with one of these little faces reminding you to stay goal-oriented?
Soranosuke also makes a fuzzy framed critter. A customer can have a framed, three-dimensional, custom felt image created to display on the wall. Faces, paws, even little kitty butts are all “feltable” — nothing is too cute.
Akemi’s work appeals so much becauase she will immortalize a customer’s cat or dog in felt. Frankly, the whole process seems just as delightful as her needle felt animals.
On Akemi’s Soranosuke”Mimi” website where she details ordering options and processes, she whimsically describes cats as “unbearably cute,” so why not make them (and dogs too) into felt miniatures? Akemi goes on to say that the “mascots” she makes provide heartwarming “cuddly comfort” and that if a person lets his or her inner child come alive in the felt creatures, that will bring happiness.
To order a custom needle felt animal from Akemi, customers need to send her a deposit of 2000 yen (approximately $20). Because Akemi considers each order a “relationship of mutual trust” the full amount is not due until after the felt animal is completed. To begin work on a customer’s “miniature mascot,” as she calls it, Akemi requests lots of photos or portraits of the subject pet.
She warns that the finished felt animal will be “cute” and will resemble a customer’s cat or dog, but will not be “realistic.” However, Akemi says that if the customer works with her, she will make their “baby” into a star.
Here is one of the “stars” Akemi has created.
Here are more, looking especially playful.
Despite what she says, I believe Akemi does capture the likeness of her “unbearably cute” subjects.
So, here I feel a little guilty telling you that Soranosuke probably doesn’t accept orders in English. Akemi’s sites are all in Japanese, as are her order forms. I have yet to send her a request in Japanese, but as a test I sent a message to her in English, with no reply yet. But I hold out hope!
Soranosuke is one of several companies making needle felt cats. Nekolabo also makes very detailed critters. Isn’t this guy a charmer?
On a larger scale, wool art master Housetu Sato and his students at the Japan School of Wool Art created a giant felt cat head mask for display at the Tokyo Museum of Art. Some call this cat head creepy, but I’m charmed by its humor and detail. (Okay fine, it’s a little creepy, but you’re telling me you wouldn’t want to slip this on at work from time to time?)
So kitty crafters, if you’re looking for a new project, perhaps needle felting is for you. A giant wool cat head in the likeness of your cat might not be in your future yet, but hey, it’s fun to have dreams right?
About the author: Louise Hung is a morbidly inclined cat lady living in Hong Kong, with her cat, her man, and probably a couple ghost cats. She also writes for xoJane. You can follow her on Twitter or drop her a line at IamLouiseMicaela@gmail.com.