A love of flowers and trees saw crochet artist Yoko Imai travel 9,000km across the world to New Zealand


A love of flowers and trees has seen Yoko Imai travel 9,000 miles around the world, and now she indulges that passion through her craft – making intricate and colorful native flower crochet earrings.

Imai, 41, has been crocheting since she was eight and recently started selling her earrings in galleries. She creates her own designs using hundreds of different stitches, but modesty prevents her from calling herself an artist.

Yoko Imai:

I learned to crochet and knit with my mother, and it has been my favorite activity ever since.

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I started with the regular crochet yarns, but you want to try something harder and harder, so I found the yarn got smaller and smaller. Now I use embroidery floss.

I love flowers so this work is the perfect combination of my love of flowers and my love of crochet.

The pÅ hutakawa earrings are a new design and Imai's favorite.

Andy Macdonald / Stuff

The pÅ hutakawa earrings are a new design and Imai’s favorite.

I describe myself as a crochet person. Because I respect jewelers and artists so much, I would be honored if someone called me an artist, but I don’t call myself that at the moment.

I sell through Red Gallery in Nelson, Sollos in Christchurch and a location in Timaru. It’s hard to follow. Maybe I could run another store in the North Island.

I own a small three bedroom house in Stoke, Nelson and have lived here for 14 years – my first house I bought in New Zealand.

Some of Imai's current earring designs.

ANDY MACDONALD/STUFF/Nelson Mail

Some of Imai’s current earring designs.

I grew up in Yokohama, which is roughly in the middle of the main island of Japan, about 30 minutes from Tokyo. Yokohama is Japan’s second largest city; its population is about the same as that of the whole of New Zealand.

When I was 19, studying interior design at university in Japan, I realized I wanted a change – to come to a more peaceful, quiet place.

I had been to Mount Maunganui when I was in high school and fell in love with New Zealand: beautiful beaches, flowers and trees so different from Japan. Nature is much closer here.

Andy Macdonald / Stuff

“I love birds. I’ve been collecting birds for maybe 30 years,” says Imai.

I can see a lot of greenery from my house, even though it’s in the suburbs.

At first, my family – mother, father, younger brother and younger sister – didn’t like it. But now they are happy and visit me every two years.

My mum, in particular, also loves New Zealand. She is a specialist in botany; she volunteers to count the plants in the mountains. Every time she comes, we walk in the park.

Imai's grandmother, Matsu Imai, embroidered this peony design.  She gave Imai her embroidery thread when she died, inspiring the young woman to make creative use of it.

Andy Macdonald / Stuff

Imai’s grandmother, Matsu Imai, embroidered this peony design. She gave Imai her embroidery thread when she died, inspiring the young woman to make creative use of it.

I have three daughters: Sonya, 14, Hannah, 12, and Tia, nine; and a pet rabbit named Prince, the only male in the household.

I am separated from my ex-husband. He was from Thailand. When the girls were little, he spoke to them in Thai, I spoke to them in Japanese and we spoke to each other in English.

I always speak to them in Japanese, but they answer me in English, unfortunately. When they go to Japan, they prepare a lot: they start using chopsticks and speaking Japanese. But when they come back, they stop.

Imai says she also likes to knit, but has less time to do so these days.

Andy Macdonald / Stuff

Imai says she also likes to knit, but has less time to do so these days.

The last trip was in 2019, of course. I miss my family. I wish I could go, and maybe we can do it this year.

I have lots of Japanese friends, but I’m not really part of a Japanese community. I went more often when my girls were little. I wanted them to see and feel Japanese culture and follow the language.

Living here gives my daughters more chances to be close to nature, and it’s much safer. Japan is also a safe country, but I feel more comfortable walking down the street here.

Imai works from the dining table during the day and from the living room in the evening.

andy macdonald/stuff

Imai works from the dining table during the day and from the living room in the evening.

It is close to the beach and the mountains. My daughters love the outdoors. They love to swim, so we go to the beach or the Vallée des Anis. It’s easy to get there compared to living in a big city.

I do most of my work at the dining table in the living room. It’s messy: I scatter a lot of material and needles but since it’s a dining table I have to clean up for dinner. So, that’s good: I make a mess but I tidy up.

Because it’s my hobby, I love doing it.

Imai has about 10 of these books full of sketches and crochet patterns.

Andy Macdonald / Stuff

Imai has about 10 of these books full of sketches and crochet patterns.

I get up at 6 a.m. and work for about an hour until my kids wake up for breakfast, then again after they go to school. I also work in the evenings when they play in the living room.

I never get bored with it. When I go to bed, I imagine what I’m going to do tomorrow so in the morning I start drawing. It is the quietest time of the day.

I love creating new models. After all this time, when I see something I know how to translate it into crochet: when to increase stitches, which stitch to use.

Imai's mother was also an artist: she carved the design of this mirror frame.

andy macdonald/stuff

Imai’s mother was also an artist: she carved the design of this mirror frame.

Each design takes about two hours once I’ve made the pattern.

I prefer to make New Zealand natives, like kōwhai, pōhutukawa and mountain daisy, tikumu. Because I live in New Zealand, I like to respect the native plants of New Zealand.

People say they love my earrings. I’m not good at complimenting myself. They sell out quickly.

I make about 20 pairs a week. But during school holidays, I only make two or three pairs.

That’s enough for me to live on: I don’t spend much.

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