Tuesday, August 18, 2009

China Grass

This will be the last post for a little while, as I recover from back surgery, but I wanted to share something I have been thinking about. I bought a piece of fabric not too long ago, for a summer jacket. It has a traditional scrolling vine pattern, but not at all in traditional colors!

This almost quintessentially Japanese pattern is so commonplace that it seems almost trite, but the variety is still enormous. The name is karakusa, which is translated China grass. It has been around since the 7th century when the first patterns arrived from China, but the origins are much older than that, the arabesque designs that came to China via the Silk Road from Persia.
Several years ago I made a coat for a June Colburn challenge in Houston, with the theme of Along the Silk Road. I spent months researching the history of the Silk Road and the treasures at the old capital of Nara still housed there that came over with the first cultural exchange from China and parts further west. This was before I had my basement dye studio so I had to paste large garment fabric on my dining room table. I dyed the large areas stretched outside but I painted the details inside. I tied up the dining room for weeks. I had such fun designing the stencils to reflect all the different design elements that had their origins in various far-flung parts of the Silk Road routes. I masked off areas and pasted the overall arabesque, then added detail stencils in the voids. The lining was a more traditional Japanese karakusa pattern with large imaginary flowers with clematis centers.

That is one of the things I enjoy most about these designs. You see lots of different flowers, frequently cherry or plum blossoms, even chrysanthemums, which are a very stiff upright flower, but in the karakusa convention the Japanese designers manage to make the stems as sinuous as any vine.

Most often they are seen in indigo and are as common for everyday bedding as ticking stripes are for us, although much more beautiful. I have collected many and cut quite a few. Check my website nautilus-fiberarts.com and see how many you can count!

But they do show up in kimono patterns also. Here are two, one dyed in traditional blue on silk and one beautifully dyed bingata style on a haori coat I bought at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I had no business doing that, but the dyeing was so seductively lovely I just could not resist.

Keep your eyes out, karakusa shows up quite often in ready to wear, and bold details become quite graphic on pillows.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rainy Season

This is the time of year in Japan when the hydrangeas bloom, the cool, wet precursor to hot humid summer days to come. Hydrangeas, ajisai in Japanese, are one of the commonest floral images for kimono in early summer, because of their cool beauty. Curiously, however, they are almost the only flower not used for family crests. Because they change color during bloom they are associated with inconstancy, not a good attribute for a noble family. The first significant sale I made, more than ten years ago now, was an art quilt with hydrangeas titled ”Inconstancy in Bloom”.

I made it using appliqué of paper pieced silks on a katazome background of graded color. It had borders of pieced yukata cotton with a hydrangea pattern, and silk dyed with a delicate pattern of hydrangeas and butterflies. I priced it so high that I thought it would not sell and I could continue to enjoy it myself for a little while, but lo and behold it sold to a collector in Florida. I missed it for awhile because I had planned to hang it in my studio, but it was certainly good for my ego as a beginning quilter. The border is the same stencil pattern (RP13) that I use for indigos, but it is lovely in colors. Here it is as a pillow top.

I have revisited hydrangeas several times for stencils. This one I use primarily for garment fabrics for my wrap coat pattern. I made it in delicate blues on white once, but I do not have a picture of it.

Here is another, PP 19, that is new to the indigo inventory. I have not used it for garments yet but the positive negative aspects are intriguing.

The motif of the rainy season has appeared twice since in small art quilts. This one sold at the Japanese Garden a few years ago. I have another piece of this fabric left to make a second quilt. I have a notion to appliqué part of an umbrella in the foreground.

This one was made using a heavy paper stencil to apply soy wax and acid dyes in a class at Coupeville with Betsy Sterling Benjamin.

The last hydrangea stencil is quite large and I am finding it interesting with kakishibu, the persimmon dye used to laminate stencil paper, among many other uses. This is a single panel I am getting ready for Kobo in Seattle.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fish Tales

I treated myself to some relaxation time cutting stencils after the big show went up. I am supposed to be getting ready for a trunk show at the close of my Portland exhibit, but stencil cutting is one of the best ways I know to unwind. The images I was using were Asian vegetables and fish, from a Japanese clip art source. The vegetables I recognized mostly, but the fish were so specific that I got out my good Japanese cookbook, organized by ingredient, and when that was not enough I walked over to the OSU bookstore for a fish book so I could look them up. Here is one of the stencils I cut. This is a sea bream, a lovely red rockfish that is evidently as tasty as it is beautiful, and it shows up occasionally in Japanese textiles. I am looking forward to using it and painting the lovely red color. The other six fish in the series are not so brightly colored.

The convention of naturalistic images began during the Edo period, when scientific observation developed. I have a piece of antique silk with wonderful images of sea life, so detailed that I could easily identify porgy, tuna, flounder, and eel plus octopus, clam, and crab. I bought it in a shop in Tokyo particularly for the octopus since that was "my" animal during my research career, but now I am finding the fish fascinating.

Can you imagine wearing a delicate silk crepe summer kimono with this fierce looking porgy on it?

The flying koi banners you see are called koi nobori, carp banners. I was fortunate to be in Japan once during Boy's Day and got to see them for myself. Usually what one sees are carp (koi). Carp can be rather aggressive in the wild and Chinese legend has it that they can swim upward through a waterfall. Therefore they represent striving against adversity, a manly attribute. For this reason there are many textiles and banners for boy's day that depict carp. This is one that I bought several years ago.

I also have a stencil, one of the most intricate I ever cut, that shows carp ascending a waterfall. Susanna Kuo's book Carved Paper, has a similar stencil on the cover. I think I realized I had "arrived" as a stencil cutter when I found I could cut at that level of detail.

More often on women's kimono one sees the more languid and decorative ornamental koi we associate with Japanese gardens. I have a stencil I use for indigo but it is much more interesting when I paint it with my pigment dyes. This fabric panel is very impressionistic. The resist paste defines the image clearly, but I like the way the loose application of color seems to break up the image like moving water.

My own fish art these days is mostly salmon and trout. As an invertebrate zoologist I tended to overlook fish in favor of the bright colors of the tide pool animals I love. When I got to really looking at trout I discovered what flashy little creatures they really are. The three small quilts I did for the most recent show depict Dolly Varden, and Brook Trout with their delicate colored spots and rich red spawning Coho.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Here it is, May already. I did not think it was possible to work as hard as I have done for the last two months. My husband had emergency surgery right after my last post and once that was over I have spent every spare moment getting ready for a wonderful exhibit at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland, followed by the biggest show of my textile career. The invitation came from our local historical society museum, not, one would think, the most exciting of venues. (It is located at 1101 Main St., Philomath, OR and is open 10-4:30 Tue-Sat until June 13. bentoncountymuseum.org).

The gallery is in an old college building with an auditorium that is used for well known biennial quilt exhibits and other art displays. It is not usual to be invited for a solo show there so it was quite an honor and it cost me nothing. It is a wonderful large room, high ceilings, good lighting and there is a curator to help hang the show, paint the walls, send out press releases etc., and plan the reception. It would be nice if the show were in the Portland area so more folks could see it, but a good many friends are driving down so I am content.

I went in two months ago and got a plan of the space. Once I got my Portland show pieces completed and hung I looked at my remaining inventory. I really had to get busy. I finished nine quilts and five noren in six weeks (with the help of Linda Alexander, my wonderful machine quilting expert, for three of them.) There are twenty-two quilts, including three bed-sized ones, and ten noren, the asa door curtains I like making so much.

The opening was last Friday. It is a busy time of year and there had been openings the two previous days, so it was not crowded, but I had one potential student who came all the way from Michigan to visit her daughter and they came. One art patron friend told me it was the prettiest show he had ever seen in that space; it just made the room sing. That made me happy. The word is getting around about it and people are admitting they forgot or had some life-complication. Such is life. I moped around about it for awhile on Saturday and then took myself by the collar and told myself to just grow up and get over it.

This is the auditorium space with the three big quilts.

The long fish quilts had sold before the show opened. One we borrowed back for the exhibit and the second will be delivered to the Del Thomas Contemporary Quilt Collection after the show closes. I did finish three little ones in time for the show. I will talk about them, and fish in general, in my next post. The green piece at the end is the most experimental piece I have ever done.

It is called "Jellies" and was inspired by the look of the water in Puget Sound. It could be green marble based on the way it looks from the top deck of a ferry boat, but then the sight of a huge transparent jellyfish reminds you the water is transparent also. It has a sheer overlay. I machine stitched bubbles on the overlay to give it some texture but the quilt underneath is hand quilted and stretched on a frame. It moves delicately with the slightest breath of air and it really looks like water. The jellyfish stencils were almost the first I ever cut when I was designing my own stencils and the top was finished years ago. It has been put away for a long time because I could not figure out how to hang it. Nothing like a deadline and a blank wall to get you moving on a stalled project. We went to Home Depot and prowled up and down the hardware aisles until we finally found the little hooks designed to support the middle of a cafe curtain rod. They were perfect for supporting the dowel far enough away from the face of the frame and easy to screw into the wall.

The opposite wall was home for two pieces inspired by the night sky in the Willamette Valley. The long one is a six panel noren, actually a triptych of three two-panel noren. In order to paint the long background I sewed the panels of ramie together with a zig-zag stitch using invisible nylon thread. Then I stretched it, painted the sky and foreground, applied the stencils and resist paste for the trees and painted them. (It worked fine, but I had an awful time removing the stitching. When they say invisible they are not kidding.) The small trees were added with silkscreens made from photographs of other trees. We often see circular clusters of the native white oak trees growing around where the trunk of an older tree used to be. I have been told they are left from when the local native people burned the valley. The quilt on the right has a field of red clover in the foreground.

The last pictures are of the stage area with other noren and one of the nice perks of a museum show, a video kiosk to play my Art Beat video. I was really grateful for the opportunity to explain my process and share tools, stencils and some history with the viewers.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Sorry to be so slow about this post. The last post was two days before I got quite ill and I am just now beginning to resume my life again.

I have a wonderful book called "Fashioning the Kimono: Dress and modernity in early twentieth century Japan" It was published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is lavishly illustrated and a joy to own. In it there are pictures of quite a number of kimono made with a weaving technique called meisen. These were inexpensive fashion garments in the 20s through the 40s or so, bought by young women for wearing on the town for social occasions, not formal, and worn for only a year or two until the newest fashion supplanted it. For this reason they seem to have survived and show up now in flea markets in quite good condition. (Check out www.ichiroya.com for a source of wonderful Japanese textiles.) I have bought as many as I could afford. At first I thought I would take them apart for reuse, but I could not bear to do it after the first two or three because they were just so beautiful.

The weaving technique is fascinating. The pattern is applied to warp or weft threads, or sometimes both, by partially weaving the fabric to stabilize the threads, then using stencils to apply dye before reweaving them. This makes an ikat type edge, just imprecise enough to be interesting. The designs are WONDERFUL - lively, influenced by the art deco and later designs of their day, and although they still use the usual floral motifs etc. they are much less staid than traditional kimono patterns for more formal wear.

Last week I took them to a local textile group to illustrate a talk and at the end of the evening there were enough for everybody in the room to try one on. We had a blast!

I thought you might like to see some of the designs close up. I am tempted to make digital prints of some of these to print onto silk and actually use them that way instead of taking them apart to use just a tidbit.