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.