Following in the clog footsteps of knitting, macrame, and weaving, the latest fiber art craft to make a "comeback" is punch needle!
Punch needle — also called needle punch, punch embroidery, Russian embroidery, and bunka — is a textile technique that's very similar to traditional rug hooking, but with visual elements that closely resemble embroidery. Densely packed rows of yarn loops are poked through woven fabric with a hollow needle tool; depending on the fabric, the size of the yarn and the type of punch needle, the technique can be used on both a small and large scale, from embroidery hoop wall art, to cushion covers, to rugs. Either side of the punched fabric can be displayed — the working side displays tighter "stitches," while the other side of the fabric displays the trademark loops.
Chances are you've seen punch needle before, because everyone has someone in their extended family who owns a terribly tacky seasonal-, holiday- or animal-themed punch needle pillow — how else to explain the incredible volume for sale on Etsy?! But punch needle has been around a lot longer than your Great Aunt Susan; its origins can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians.
Punch needle was also used to decorate ecclesiastical garments during the Middle Ages, and developed into its own art form in Russia in the late-1600s. Japan also started a love affair with punch needle in the early 19th century, calling the technique bunka shishu, using it to depict vibrant and detailed landscapes, earning the description "painting with thread."
The craft found its way to North America following World War II; according to the book Needlework Through History: An Encyclopedia legend has it that an American soldier married a Japanese woman who brought the bunka technique with her back to the United States. Up until that point, punch needle was known for its resemblance to very fine embroidery; the craft rose in popularity in the '70s, along with weaving, rug hooking, and other fiber arts, but its reputation for exquisite detail work suffered under the era's inexplicable fascination with cheap, synthetic, and flammable materials and unappetizing, garish color combinations like puce and avocado green.
While the craft hasn't exactly disappeared in the decades since, punch needle has mostly kept a low-profile. Over the last few years, with the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and e-commerce sites like Etsy, traditional crafts have made a significant "comeback" with a younger generation of mostly women artists and hobbyists. Like any art form, punch needle is evolving — not only have the tools become easier to use, ergonomically designed and portable, but a new crop of makers have introduced a more modern take on the bohemian aesthetic focused on form, composition and color.
Historically undervalued as "women's work," feminism has fueled a demand that crafting be valued for its utilitarian and artistic merits; as a result, fiber art crafts like punch needle are less likely to be heralded and then dismissed as just another trend. And thanks to commerce opportunities through sites like Etsy, cultural conversations about work-life balance and the importance of "self-care," and the rise of the slow craft movement, they aren't likely to disappear anytime soon, either.