I woke Monday to pouring rain and I bravely set off to take two buses to the kobo (workshop) where I was to spend several wonderful days observing and photographing. We had been there in November 2008 on an afternoon tour and there are pictures on the blog archives of that trip. I will just share some details. I have a new respect for the meticulous care they take to produce perfect fabric in every part of the process. Stencils were cared for meticulously as well. Here is Mr. Ohno, the current owner, mending loose pieces on a stencil. They get used hard. But I know from my own experience that a little time spent repairing a stencil saves a lot of time re-cutting it later.
They keep color photocopies of previous fabrics in all the various colorways.
I loved watching this worker applying funori (a kind of seaweed, rather like the sodium alginate we use) and a small amount of soymilk to prepare the fabric for dyeing with acid or direct dyes. The many shinshi make a wonderful clatter as he works the brush back and forth.
They have a place for everything and everything in its place. Many brushes hang on the wall ready for use and look at all the special sizes of shinshi!
The kobo is located up a narrow stream that flows down into the Kamo river in the middle of Kyoto. A source of fresh water is important for dyeing but the workshops that once polluted the rivers were relocated. The cherry blossoms that overhung the stream were lovely and the water was used to remove paste and purify brushes too.
They were working on summer obis so much of the fabric they were using was hemp, imported from China. I got a kick out of Mr Ohno patiently rolling out long lengths from many rolls at once, trotting back and forth the length of the long work table.
The long stationary table is used for wider fabric like parasol parts.
Most fabrics for obi or kimono are attached to heavy long boards which are held on racks and stored in slots at ceiling height. You have to duck to stand up in the room where the pasting is done. The worker thus does not have to lift the long boards any higher than absolutely necessary.
The youngest worker was a young woman who said she had graduated from art school last year. She did the most tedious work, like washing shinshi to prevent dye transfer and applying cover paste to protect dyed details from over dyes. She spent a lot of time delicately popping what were to me invisible bubbles in this very sticky paste, and then sprinkling it with fine sawdust to reduce the stickiness.
I thought at first that they were cutting corners by dyeing only the parts of the obi that would belong on the front and the knot in back, but apparently this is traditional for nagoya obis, whether dyed or woven. They put an inert pigment in their paste, coloring it blue. I can see that this would make pasting and matching patterns more accurate, especially because they apply two or three layers of paste through thin stencils. And as far as that goes it might make applying dyes more accurate too, but it would take some getting used to from a color standpoint.
The dye kitchen was small and as far as I could determine that work was done only by the son-in-law and heir apparent.
They use open flame burners of various kinds to help the dyes dry more quickly, and humidifiers, to keep the dyes from drying too fast. I am sure the labor safety folks in the US would be horrified at the singed seat cover on the dyer' chair!
The final step after dyeing is to send the fabric out to be steamed to set the dyes, and then it returns to be washed. Sometimes additional dyes are added then and kakishibu is sometimes used to mute and blend the colors.
It then goes back for specialized finishing and steaming to size. They took me to see all that the third day I was there, but it will have to wait for the next post.
Tomorrow we leave on a three month teaching vacation so the next posts will happen when we get internet connections.