Monday, December 29, 2008

The Three Friends of Winter

Well, with New Year's Day upon us today I put up the banner I made to celebrate the New Year Japanese-style. The New Year celebration in Japan is a really big deal, complete housecleaning and lots of traditional decorations, visits, gifts etc. Many of these contain what are called "shochikubai" the trio of pine, bamboo and plum blossom. The literal translation is "the three friends of winter". The notion originated, as many of these things do, in China. The convention is that pine and bamboo stay green throughout the winter and plum blossoms open while it is still winter also. You see these three grouped together over and over in Japanese textiles and the variety is endless.

Here is the banner I made. The stencil is quite large and comes from a family crest design. I used it on a big indigo noren but have no room for it so this more delicate one hangs in my entry awaiting a proper tassel on the bottom.

I found a set of postcards in Japan that were done by my favorite katazome artist of all time. I cannot read his name but I have seen his work in books and calendars before. This little Kyoto scene depicts a multi panel noren with the same trio of images. I adore the delicacy of his shading.

The variety of ways of depicting bamboo are fairly predictable and plum blossoms too (always five rounded petals with a starry center, and often budded branches), but when it comes to pines the sky is the limit. Here is a set of small examples:

While pine trees may be depicted fairly realistically as in the image on the upper left, often they become so stylized, as on the lower right that they are hardly recognizable as pine trees. I have several stencils like this that I use for indigo. Pine bark is often depicted with a series of jagged diamond shapes, frequently filled with other images (see upper right). Pine needles are pretty done as radiating sprays as in lower left, but you often see the needles scattered by themselves. Japanese pine needles always come two to a bundle so they have come to represent long marriages. (They can be almost infinitesimally tiny when used on kimonos for old married ladies, who traditionally wore increasingly small patterns and muted colors as they aged.)

I have an antique stencil that I used to make an indigo piece, ( so when I travel to teach I will have a less fragile example for my students). See how the plum blossom shapes have been used to contain other more detailed members of the trio.

The final piece I will share is one of the first quilts I ever made. It takes the form of a Buddhist monks robe, a kesa. It is pieced in sashed columns in a pattern known as rice paddy. The more columns, the more important the monk. The Buddha wore rags, but the monks robes, although pieced to represent rags , were often made of really sumptuous fabrics. Some of the first complex cloth I made was much too pretty to cut up so I used every scrap to make this quilt. The elements are pine branches, with bamboo in the sashing and plum blossoms for the square pieces in center and corners. Hence it had to be called "The Three Friends Kesa".

Friday, December 19, 2008

I have been looking out the window at the recent snow, a rarity in our part of Oregon. The camellias in our Japanese garden are very old Camellia japonica, which grows quite large and is native to Japan. The leaves hold a lot of this wet snow. They bloom very early when the weather is still very cold. It always amazes me that any blossom so big and exotic could get its act together in winter.

The Japanese use camellias often in fabric design, most often the single variety, which has a clump of stiffly upright pistils in the center of the blossom. I have been cutting a small stencil to make a New Year’s card (I will never make it in time for Christmas cards), and later a fabric panel to frame and sell in these lean times. This stencil does not have the silk attached yet.

I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the huge variety of forms that the camellia takes in the work of the former owner of the Kyoto workshop I visited. He seemed to have a particular fondness for this simple blossom. The first image is a kimono with a definite springtime feel. The remaining are fabric details, ranging from stylized to realistic. I particularly like the last two, both with snow, but so very different from each other.


My apprentice has been busy the past few weeks finishing a lot of routine pasting, in preparation for several batches of indigo dyeing, once I get the vat up. I do all the dyeing myself because it takes so long for each batch to dry, and there is a kind of rhythm to it that is hard to teach. Once she was done I went back to work on some commissioned pieces. Yesterday I pasted four sets of the little crèche kit that I designed almost ten years ago, when I was just beginning katazome. Two are for custom orders and two will be packaged up for sale.

Long before that I had purchased two darling Japanese folk toys in the shop of Koji Wada in Berkeley. They were printed fabric animals, stuffed with rice hulls. One was a bird, and the other a mother monkey, holding her baby. I treasured those little guys. There is a long story about her, and the birth of my daughter many years ago. Here is the monkey.

Anyway I did not really know how they were made, but they were simple shapes, and I got the bright idea to design a set of crèche figures with katazome stencils. I used PFD pimatex and dilute but thickened Setacolor transparent textile paints. Usually I do not like to work with my watercolors on cotton because they tend to bleed, but this tightly woven cotton worked out OK, and it is stable enough to sew and turn with small seam allowances. This is the finished crèche. My small daughter loved it and it was safe to play with. I still get it out every year.

In my post from Takayama, I mentioned finding these folk toys. It turns out they are wood block printed. They make a set of darling zodiac animals, of which my mama monkey is one, and quite a lot of birds, plus a handful of fish. I bought a flock of the little birds for the Christmas tree. Here are a couple. I managed to translate the names of some of them and some remain mysterious. The cute bird with the crabs on his tummy is called “water loving bird” (the direct translation of the kanji).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Well we are home from our Japan adventure, finished with housecleaning and Thanksgiving and starting to feel like ourselves again. I thought I might talk a little about asa, which is the more or less generic term the Japanese use for bast fiber fabrics. First a little technical information.

Bast fibers are a family of vegetable fibers which run the length of the plant stem in the layer between the outer bark and the woody core. Botanists refer to this as the phloem. Jute, flax, hemp, ramie, rattan and banana fiber are all examples of bast fibers. They are stiffer than cotton and in some ways more brittle. They are also harder to prepare, requiring composting or extensive soaking in water to remove the pectin that binds the fibers together. Jute, used for burlap and rope, is a coarse tropical fiber. The commonest of these for most of us is linen, made from flax, and hemp, which was used widely in Japan for clothing in the days before cotton was imported and grown.

In Okinawa, where the dyeing process called Bingata originated, ramie and banana fiber were used, especially for summer kimono because they could breathe and they were stiff enough not to cling to the body in hot weather. This fabric is exquisitely fine and almost transparent. Ramie is made from a kind of perennial nettle (yipes). It is not grown here, partly because it is hard to degum and separate into strands. I have used ramie for a number of years for the noren I make. It is crisper than the linen we usem so it hangs in a doorway or on a wall without getting limp or wrinkled. I order the fabric by the bolt in several narrow widths from a dyers supply place in Kyoto. It comes in two forms, a softer white and a stiffer natural, and several weights. Here is a noren that I particularly love. The mountain is Mt Rainier, although I now have a stencil for Mt Hood in this size, and smaller stencils for all the Cascade peaks.

Asa takes the pigments and natural dyes I use for Bingata beautifully. This panel is one that sold in Japan, dyed with kakishibu, fermented persimmon juice. The image is the greatly enlarged bottom of a Ponderosa pine cone.

This is a group of small handbags, dyed with natural dyes, that I found in a department store in Kyoto. Aren't the colors wonderful?

The Bingata workshop in Kyoto that I visited uses Direct dyes, a synthetic dye with a particular affinity for cellulosic fibers. I have used them for nassen, where dye is mixed in the paste, a subject for another post. In addition to the fabulous book the owner of the factory also gave me bundle of Chinese hemp ends to use for small dyeing projects. I shipped them home by sea mail so it will be awhile before I see them.

I had been told by my colleague Chris Conrad that there was a business called Aoni near Kyoto that specialized in asa, so on one of our sightseeing days we went down there on the train. This is what we found, the mother lode of lovely asa in every type and width, ready to dye.

In order to save room in the suitcase I had them ship these purchases too, but I have a sample card and price list for future use. I was really delighted to find a weight and width that would be ideal for place mats, since my usual 14" bolts for noren are just a little too wide.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Takayama and Shibori

We spent two days in the mountain town of Takayama. It is a charming place, touristy of course, but authentic. I suppose it has about 50,000 people, the size of Corvallis, but they have spring and fall planting and harvest festivals with huge ancient floats and 300,000 people show up. Fall color was just magnificent. I discovered to my delight that the wood block printed, stuffed fabric folk toys I have been looking for all over Japan are made there. This is the garden of the ryokan where we stayed, seen from our second floor room.

Today we took the train back down the mountain to Nagoya. We managed to get ourselves to Arimatsu, the home of the finest shibori in Japan. It is located along the Tokaido, the old road from Tokyo to Kyoto. The old merchants buildings still line the streets.

How about this elegant noren!

Business is down these days I suppose, and they outsource some work to China, as in all the kimono industry, but you could shop till you drop easily enough in the shops there. I did not want to buy a whole bolt of anything, and the space left in my suitcase is really tiny after five weeks of travel and shopping and all the gifts people give you. My quilts took up a lot of our luggage allotment too, so I restrained myself (pretty much).

There is a nice small museum. There were 50's era posters with kimonos like the antique ones I buy to take apart and resell, and a delightful old lady demonstrating hemp leaf pattern wrapping.

They were moderately impressed with the old nui (embroidered) shibori kimono I remade as a jacket.

Two more days of train travel and we leave for home. Thanks for following along with me. I will keep you up to date with new posts on current projects and Japanese textiles in general.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Big Day

Well the big day for this katazome artist has come and it exceeded even my wildest dreams. I had arranged for a Japanese interpreter to accompany me to the workshop (Kobo) of a kimono dyer who uses traditional Okinawan type katazome designs (bingata), although he uses acid dyes and direct dyes rather than the natural dyes and pigments used by the Okinawans and also by John Marshall, who was trained in bingata.

My husband took movies of the processes and when we get home we will figure out how to put them up on You Tube. For now stills will have to do.

This is the big workroom where the dyes are applied.They roll the 12 meter lengths over a set of rollers so the dyer can stay in one place, seated (and not, to my relief, kneeling). They sometimes use a cold steam vaporizer to keep the paste from drying out. Some of what they were working on were obis, some kimonos.

The next room was where they cut stencils and did their designs. From there we went into a long warm room where fabric treated with sizing was stretched to dry. There was fabric with fresh paste covered with fine sawdust to make it more durable, something I have not done, for lack of a source for the fine sawdust. They color their paste blue with aobana, a blue colorant that does not dye the fabric, so it makes it easier to see. At the other end of the room a man was applying paste with a tube to cover designs that had been dyed, so black background dye could be applied. This is exactly what I did with my trout pieces.

Then we went outside to a covered patio area where two guys in waders were in shallow pools with flowing water washing the paste off the fabric, which had been professionally steamed elsewhere. The water was blue from the aobana.

The final room was where the long boards were for applying the paste. They have ceiling racks to store the boards, which are half the length of the kimono. The fabric is attached down one side and back up the other. The dyer remarked that he knows it is time to retire when he can no longer lift the heavy boards. He was applying a second layer of paste to protect the fabric from the penetration by the acid dyes. He says for black they use three layers of paste. This is not something I need to do with pigments.

We finished with a visit with the owner of the kobo. Here he is demonstrating a kind of board clamping used to make fabric for underwear kimono (jyuban).

He is a nice man, the successor to the founder of the business, and an avid amateur Noh actor with 30 years experience! He showed us pictures of himself playing the role of a servant in a costume he made himself. I asked some more questions and told him my background. He was impressed with my work and gave me a copy of a very beautiful book showing the work of his predecessor. He says if I want to return to Japan and study there for a time, I am welcome. So there it is, that is what I hoped to accomplish. It remains to be seen when I can gather the resources to actually do it, but the door is open.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

An unexpected adventure

This afternoon my friend Mici, who has helped so much with the show, took me to an old town, Sasayama. This is a place almost completely off the American tourist path. It has a long main street with Edo period shops. Some have been remodeled to look modern from the street but they are the typical deep narrow buildings with a street-side shop, often open air, that characterize buildings from before the opening of Japan in 1867.

Two of these shops, evidently owned by the same family, sell antique textiles and Mici says they are much less expensive than what I will find in Kyoto. Once the woman who owns the shop realized what I did and how much I knew about these fabrics she invited us up a set of incredibly steep narrow stairs to view the treasured kimonos there. She pulled out kimono after kimono to show us. We were breathless. Mici says she is "a very particular lady", but she was very happy to talk to people, especially an American who really appreciated what she had.

This is a very expensive shibori kimono depicting the Grand Canyon.

In the second shop, which sold kimono pieces, I discovered a really spectacular piece of jishiro cotton. This is a white background katazome fabric dyed with indigo. It requires incredible skill applying resist paste using two stencils to leave delicate lines and dots free to take the dye. Nobody is doing this now and the piece was Edo era. It had been dyed with the same pattern on both sides to use for a summer kimono. Of course it was incredibly expensive, but by this time we had built up enough goodwill to persuade her to sell me a small piece from the end. Wow!

Mici says happily, next time you come we will go there and spend more time (yipes, and money).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Big Exhibit opens

The purpose of this trip was from the beginning my exhibit in Japan. Takarazuka City is a place where I now have friends. The nearest big cities are Kobe or Osaka. It is a pretty, scenic place, located in a steep river valley, famous for a women's musical theater, and with about 150,000 population, small by Japanese standards.

The procedure here for private exhibits is to rent a gallery space, pay the owner a set fee and take your chances that sales will cover expenses and give you a profit. I am happy to report that we have paid the gallery after the first two days of the four day show. I define profit rather loosely of course as I doubt the poor economic situation will permit actually selling enough to completely pay for the trip. Still, I am pleased at how people are receiving my work.

Images of all the new work for this show is now uploaded to my web site gallery in the new work category. It is still minus a few particulars like price and size. We have also added quite a few new indigo patterns.

Here are some pictures of the gallery space. They carefully put lovely autumn flowers in a large apparently unstudied arrangement in the corner.

The gallery looks out on a lovely garden.

Here is everybody's favorite new quilt on the wall, along with two panels dyed with kakishibu, a new dye for me, made from the same persimmon juice used to make the stencil paper I use. Look up to find out more about it.

Here we all are after setting up. One day I am going to do a quilt with a row of dainty Japanese dolls and one big American doll, all smiling broadly for the camera. The center of the gallery has a table typically, so potential customers can sit and talk and be offered cups of green tea and little sweets. The quilters group that is helping me quietly takes care of that and keeping track of sales.

This young woman will be my interpreter for a visit next Wednesday to a Kyoto dyers workshop that specializes in Okinawan style katazome, called Bingata, something I am looking forward to very much.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fabric shopping Bangkok style

The final textile adventure in Bangkok was a big one. We took the river ferry to Chinatown to experience the Sampeng Lane fabric market. The alley is about 4 ft wide and filled with people, merchandise and porters with heavily loaded hand trucks.

Mixed in were stalls for cheap trinkets and household goods of many descriptions. I did not buy much, just a few notions, because I could not tell the fiber content. I suspect if you shopped with someone who speaks Thai you could find some good stuff, but it was not that drastically different from fabric stores at home, except of course for the ambiance.

While we were in there the heavens opened and it poured rain. The awnings on both sides funnelled the water right down the middle of the alley. People huddled in shop doorways and clerks quickly covered fabric with plastic and tarps. When it stopped people just picked up and went on with their business.

At the end of the street was the Indian fabric market, filled with saris and fancy dance costumes. It was just a riot of color.

We saw these women operating what looked like a sidewalk alterations business with a treadle sewing machine on the sidewalk. Anybody who complains about inadequate studio space etc. just has no idea how hard it must be to live and work in downtown Bangkok, but it was such a rich experience visually.

These were iron-on appliques, but so prettily displayed. We saw so many butterflies in the wooded parts of Thailand, I suppose because of all the flowers.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pictures finally

Our internet connections have been kind of iffy so today I will add the pictures I have had to leave out. This is the cotton weaver's lovely place I described last time. The looms are underneath the house.

The little shelter is water vessels put out to welcome visitors, although from what I could tell they are the same kind of vessels used for dyeing.

This is the apparatus used for preparing silk warps, and a detail. As someone not a weaver I found this fascinating.

These are shots of Shinawatra, and the lovely batik I bought.

On the last morning along the Mekong the proprietor had several bolts of silk ikat and raw silk standing in the corner. He said he had bought them a long time ago. The hitch was that I had to buy the whole bolt, one of which was 10 meters, but they were a steal otherwise. When I decide how much I will need of the long bolt of soft brown and silver I will post a picture and open it up to share the rest with you all.

Yesterday on the way back from sightseeing we stopped at the Jim Thompson outlet. They had a bazillion colors of silk on bolts at $10/yd. I nearly went crazy limiting myself to the golds I was after.