Friday, 15 February 2019

Japanese Traditional Book Binding


A tiny handmade box with a tiny book inside.



I am at a loss for words.
The Present God has graced me with something special.
Last September I ran a Japanese book binding course at the house. A group of ten strangers on my doorstep for ten-days of living together in the old barn. Although the place is huge we eat, indigo dye and work in close quarters. 
Most of the time the human dynamics are very good. We don’t get on each other's nerves. It is a little bit of an orchestra…we sacrifice a bit of our individuality for the benefit of the group. 
I was in rough shape and heading out for intravenous drips every morning and Yamazaki sensei graciously taught the book and box making part of the course where I managed to teach the indigo dyeing part.
The bamboo on the mountainside. The cats and Momo the dog are quiet presences. Steady Hiro in the kitchen keeping an eye on things. Occasionally monkeys scrambling through the green underbrush around the house. 



Throughout the year we had the wettest slushy snow and skin searing heat quieted by sunset indigo washing trips to the river. The sweetest softest green spring days and moody blue/black late autumn skies. 
A lot of variables…along with the sometimes scrambling, slushy, searing, softest, moody temporary human inhabitants of the house.
Kate is from Sydney. Once she arrived and we all get to know each other I saw that she is a very accomplished book maker.(Amongst other things...multi- talented.) I wondered if she was getting anything out of the course. Kind and quiet and talented…humble as they come.
This small book box with a book inside is a mini version of the books we made together.... arrived in the post last week.
Inside are the loveliest watercolors of the the house, the bamboo and of course the ridiculously over photogenic house dog, Momo.
I'm at a loss for words. 
I was able to see again a glimpse of her experience of the workshop.



It is a reward…I sometimes get frustrated with the work. A few times I’ve wanted to call it quits.
The photos people take of the workshop and each other and around the house of the endless amount textile related paraphernalia move me.
When I see that strangers who met at the workshop keep in touch and visit each other….even on different continents….
Makes me feel good. I suppose the workshops can be likened to a magnet. A brief orbit is created. And the larger orbit of the participants sometimes collide.
The orbits often bring students back to the house. 

Thank you otters.
Thank you, Kate. The precious little book will live on the precious-little-things-shelf forever.



Friday, 25 January 2019

Indigo Quilt


I run a two-week traditional Japanese Hanten/Firemans jacket sewing/dying workshop at the farmhouse here twice a year. The students are often repeaters who have come back to Japan to visit/study with me here time and time again.

One of the jackets we work on is a very ambitious project. Designing an insignia for the back of the jacket. Cutting a stencil for that. Deciding the colors to use. Soot for blacks and greys. Madder for pinks and reds. Indigo for all the blue tones. (And combining these for more nuanced colors) There are sight variations of sleeve length and width and body length and drape etc. Dying a full lining with persimmon tannin. Putting together antique cloth to make a second hanten....

It is a fun but intense stitch filled two weeks. Living together and eating together and making artistic choices in front of each other.

And some strong beautiful accomplished characters from all ends of the planet.

The designs are so personal. Although we focus on perfecting our own design while learning the construction and dyeing techniques we are aware of our fellow hanten otters working on their individual projects.

My old buddy Jacky Eyre did something special that made me tear up with delight and and gratitude.

I repeated a story to Jacky and the students from Yazaki san the kimono seamstress whom I have known for 25 years.

"You can't call yourself a kimono maker until you have made 100. Not 98 not 99 but 100."

The old saying is not just referring to a kimono stitcher. It is meant to refer to all crafts...writing, playing an instrument and stonemasonry. (Some of these skills are more quantifiable.)

Having made a few dozen of these jackets myself over the years but knowing that true mastery is elusive...maybe two hundred at my pace.

Jacky made me this quilt with 100 hantens. At first glance I could see that it was constructed with Japanese folk textile scraps.

I was moved.

It was a lot to take in at once with a group of people watching me open and receive the gift.

I was smiling in gratitude and admiring the overall design and color scheme. I felt a little choke up coming with the 100 hanten theme.

Then one block caught my eye. It was a hanten with a large box kite embroidered on the back. It was instantly recognizable as lovely Alex's lovely design.

A single tear escaped and then I noticed that the central panels were all images of the other students in Jacky's group hantens. I bit my lower lip to stop the flood and walked into the adjoining room to hide my tears.

Jacky is a larger-than-life-no-nonsense-practical-clear-blue-eyed-Australian-tough-beautiful woman.

She captured those two precious weeks of being together and put them in that quilt with humor and respect and talent.

(One rule Bryan....No shagging on top of that quilt...but underneath is fine.)

Camilla  meticulously placed carp stencils her hanten.
Molly the surgeon chose a brain and heart insignia. (Heart on the sleeve.)
Jo used antique material carefully composed.
Melissa who lives in a forest carefully drew a pine motif.
Harriet the social justice activist  meticulously hand wrote out the names of the victims of a factory fire in  Britain in the early 20th century on the lining and an emblem of worker/ farmer solidarity on the back,
Sophie the French architect was tired of concrete and used a butterfly motif.
Alex used her kite motif.
I used some old persimmon and indigo scraps.
Jacky hand pasted concentric circles on her hanten.
There were many other references to our time spent together here in Japan and Australia.












So it all gets an A plus another A.
It works together and has a spirit. 
Thank you Jacky. 


Misc. pictures of the workshop last spring. Thank you.























And our perfect kimono sewing teacher Keiko Yazaki with her shy back to the camera.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Minako Passed Away

Minako passed away three days ago.

She was born in 1920 in a village about 15 kilometers from the mountain village I live in. 
Her village was different. 
The houses were grouped together in a sunny place and although the fields were on the side of the mountain, the slope was not steep like it is near my house. 

The people were different. Friendlier. Better educated. Brighter eyed. Not as suspicious. Their Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines made of better wood with finer carving and more elegant mossy stone staircases.

People have been inhabiting that village for thousands of years. 

25 years ago I knocked on her front door and asked to see the kimono fabric she made from the silkworms and cocoons she had raised. 

I’ll write about the relationship with her and her husband and family another time. There was a way of life in the village that was ending after hundreds of years of remaining much the same.  I'll try to write about that one day too.

When I met her I knew it was the only chance I would ever have in life to study textiles in that particular depth. Silk farming. Weaving. Natural Dyeing. The people in that village were the last of that dying culture.

We enjoyed each other's company threading heddles, digging madder roots, reeling cocoons, driving through the countryside or visiting neighbors for tea. 

The villagers had grown the trees and thatch to build their beautiful homes. They grew all their food and caught the eels and fish in the river. The sublime roots of Japanese food came from these villages. Every household grew silkworms and many of the houses had produced their own kimono in the hundreds of steps from moth eggs to the cocoons to the thread. They made the tools for every step of the process.


Only one house was still silk farming that day. And one woman still weaving kimono. It was Minako. 

I knocked on the door and after she showed me the masterpieces she had woven I knew that I would spend the rest of my life working with Japanese textiles. 

I spent many years in that village with the people there as they helped me learn to reel and spin silk, warp looms, and breed silk moths and propagate mulberry. It was a time slip. I missed the 1990s…. Completely. 

The wake and the funeral were at the austere and elegant temple near her house. There were several hundred people there. The toddlers that were under feet not that long ago were playing games on their cell phones under the manicured pine trees on the temple grounds.

The priest chanted sutras while family, friends and fellow villagers that had known her their entire lives filled her coffin with flowers. I put in some cocoons and silk thread we had reeled together and dyed with madder a delicate coral color. She had grown that madder under the plum trees on the not-so-steep mountain slopes overlooking the village.







Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Gratitude to a Textile Teacher..



Gratitude is the emotion that is like the breeze rippling over the fresh tea leaves by the  gently cascading river on a perfect blue skied morning with buddies helping harvest that same delicate tea while quietly humming Van Morrison paying homage to Mick Jagger....


I can see the lights way out in the harbor
And the cool, and the cool, and the cool and the cool night
And the cool, and the cool, cool night breeze
And I feel the cool night breeze
And I feel, feel, feel the cool night breeze
And the boats go by
And it's almost Inde, Inde, almost Independence Day
And it's, and it's and it's almost, and it's almost Independence Day
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh 
I took the bullet train down to Mie prefecture to spend a few days with Uchida san the "Intangible Cultural Asset" stencil cutter for a few days. On the way back home I stepped onto the local train near my place and sat down. 
My heart dropped when I looked over to the seats next to mine. 
I wanted to vomit and cry. Crawl off the train and curl up on the platform and close my eyes and transport myself back years to the beauty of the days spent in a small village with old friends....
Two women I knew from what seemed like a previous life were sitting there. I instantly knew what they were doing. 
They were sisters in their 60s. On the way to visit their 97 year old mother in an old age home tucked away in the mountains. 
Near my house. 
They wouldn't recognise me.....years have gone past. I'm in my 50's. Thin as a rake. Shaved head to deal with a receding hairline I haven't made friends with yet. 
(Not the twenty-something-year-old with a trace-of-baby-fat left and long hair tied back...)
Any hesitant pause would make me a liar....I stood up and sat with them. Channelling Robert Downey Jr.....Three conflicting emotions playing off my face simultaneously. 
Guilt, relief & gratitude... 
Not wanting to scare the hell out of them with that amount of emotional energy punching its way out of my body I did my best to smile softly and be a gentleman.... 
One second... cocky and scruffy and unshaven, tattoos visible... comfortable in grungy jeans needing a washing machine and a sweaty shirt... from a long train ride from Kyoto.....and the next second feeling self-conscious.... a lean fragile existence under my skin...
These two women were the daughters of my old teacher and friend Minako Kato and her husband Ko. The woman I spent six years learning to silk farm and weave from....
Those dozens of fine processes there is no place to learn except by spending years with someone who has been doing them their entire life...
My life would have been nothing if I hadn't met her....
Those years.....spent learning all those precious... precious... precious... ancient skills of making cloth from silk....from the moth breeding to reeling thread and digging roots and harvesting berries to make the dye baths......
Again Van Morrison was humming in my ear.....
'No guru, no method, no teacher...just you and me in the garden wet with rain...'
No classroom...no fluorescent lights... it was in an ancient village in the ancient fields surrounded by the ancient mountains with ancient paths everywhere and misty spring mornings and chilly autumn evenings with desolate winter days with precious low sunlight lighting the old bamboo reeds we threaded...
During those years I knew I was the luckiest person on earth....the clouds had opened and rays of grace and blessing were sitting on my shoulders like fresh snow....
I am not exaggerating. 
And now she has been in a fucking old age home for years and I hadn't gone to visit her in years....
Face the facts...feeling like a piece of shit...arghh...
I drove the two daughters to the old folks place and we met again. 
It wasn't easy. Both of us sobbing and she wailed in happiness. 
I remembered many years ago when I had some family problems. She was the only one who looked me in the eye and understood the situation instantly and uttered just a few words and tears that eased some terrible pain for me. So odd..two human beings with such insanely different backgrounds..we spoke the common language of using our hands to make textiles.
I picked her up in my arms and put her in the van and I drove the narrow back mountain crazy ancient roads to my house. We reminisced and talked for hours. 




First comes the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life. In a state of gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all in all, life is good, and has elements that make it not just worth living, but rich with texture and detail. The acknowledgement that we have received something gratifies us, both by its presence and by the effort the giver put into choosing it.
Second, gratitude is recognising that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside the self. At this stage, the object of gratitude is other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to animals, and to the world, but not to oneself. At this stage, we recognise not only the goodness in our lives, but who is to thank for it, and who has made sacrifices so that we could be happy.

The streets are always wet with rain
After a summer shower when I saw you standin'
In the garden in the garden wet with rain

You wiped the teardrops from your eye in sorrow
As we watched the petals fall down to the ground
And as I sat beside you I felt the
Great sadness that day in the garden

And then one day you came back home
You were a creature all in rapture
You had the key to your soul
And you did open that day you came back to the garden

The olden summer breeze was blowin' on your face
The light of God was shinin' on your countenance divine
And you were a violet colour as you
Sat beside your father and your mother in the garden

The summer breeze was blowin' on your face
Within your violet you treasure your summery words
And as the shiver from my neck down to my spine
Ignited me in daylight and nature in the garden

And you went into a trance
Your childlike vision became so fine
And we heard the bells inside the church
We loved so much
And felt the presence of the youth of
Eternal summers in the garden 
And as it touched your cheeks so lightly
Born again you were and blushed and we touched each other lightly
And we felt the presence of the Christ

And I turned to you and I said
No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the father in the garden

No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the Father and the Son and the holy ghost
In the garden wet with rain
No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature and the Father and the son and the holy ghost
In the garden, in the garden, wet with rain
No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the Father in the garden

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Time is contagious.

I held four workshops at the farmhouse so far this spring. I have a few week break to harvest tea and catch my breath.

The first three workshops were the regular introduction to indigo use in Japanese textiles. Wonderful easy-going friendly participants. It actually snowed one day in the first workshop. We had a few participants from the southern hemisphere who were really excited to see snow for the first time.

The last workshop was a two-week hanten jacket making course. All eight members were back for the second time or more. It was just wonderful to have a group of eight intelligent talented women at the house.  Special thanks to you Molly, Melissa, Camilla, Harriet, Jacky, Jo, Alex and Sophie. Looking through the pictures this afternoon I was overwhelmed with the hundreds of moments you captured. The house and gardens. The food. The cats and Momo. The indigo dyeing. The construction of the jackets. The immense immense amount of creative effort. Just brilliant. Thank you all. Thank you.

We were all exhausted by the end of two weeks. Sorry.

The mountains and trees transformed day by day.

Busy days. It takes effort to take time to appreciate the transformations around the house. What a show. It is beyond words.

















On a sad note...

Many of you have spent time at the magical Noguchi stencil studio with me in Hachioji. 
Mrs Noguchi has been a friend for twenty years. It seems like time stands still in that place. Her friendly no nonsense sturdiness. She was there one day as always greeting and lending a hand, hospitalised the next day. I went to visit her and she looked perfectly fine. We laughed and joked and  teased each other as we have for twenty years.  She went a few days later. Pancreatic cancer.

Her husband and children and grandchildren are in shock. I took the hanten making course there last week and there was a sombreness that hurt our eyes in the hash afternoon light. There was a wistfulness as the day wore on. It was a tough day with everyone working on different jacket projects. I think the husband and son were relieved to have some structure again. No time yet to grieve. Still in shock. We will miss you Fumiko Noguchi.



Some pictures from the hanten making course. Thank you all for the cluster photos. My apologies for not crediting each picture. 

I am so proud of the work produced by you all.

Your storage cubbies waiting for you.


What are we going to make? That first attempt to get it across.


Thank you for helping plant some indigo, safflower and cotton. It is all up now.


I love you all behaving so inconspicuously like the Japanese on the train...


That hot morning at the antique market.


We bought so much stuff we had to box it up and send it by special delivery back to the house.


Our lovely Yazaki san with endless patience. 


And those beautiful jackets came together almost magically.













Each of these individual pictures deserves a story. The days of spring just overwhelm us with beauty and all these flowers and people have such special stories to tell.