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.