Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Tenugui in the Alps.

I have boxes of old tenuguis.  I find them in antique markets. Word has gotten out I collect and use them. Friends and friends of friends of friends drop them off at the house. Sometimes dozens at a time. They pile up. 

I've found them neatly folded in drawers of long abandoned farmhouses in the mountains. They were valued enough to be taken care of but not valued enough to be moved to the new home.

The older ones have better designs. Slightly more subtle in graphic composition and content than their contemporary cousins. Traditionally they were (and still are) used for everything a 35 cm by 90 cm flat weave piece of decorated cotton can be used for. For a head wrap, sweat wipe, table wipe, body wipe and towel, wrapping for food, a placemat, an advertisement and a souvenir or a wall hanging. They are great presents. Japanese love to give presents. The giving and receiving keep the social and business wheels well-greased.

On early, hot summer mornings a few dozen of these old (from the 50s to the 70s) towels get dipped in persimmon tannin and laid  in the sun to absorb the ultra-violet light and heat that is necessary to turn the tannin brown. Only the side facing up to the sun  changes colour. Once the towel is dry there will be very little change and the back changes only a little. Repeating this process day after day the tenugui are dyed between three and ten times to get a variety of golden browns. By the end of the summer there is a stack of several hundred waiting to be used. It has become a sun-worshipping ritual outside the front door the past few years. 

I took a few hundred of them and re-stitched and cover-stitched them into a few dozen large shawls.
(Kim, thank you for help those few sweltering days at the studio in a frenzy of ripping, arranging and sewing.) Some of the fabric from the sock machine was stencil dyed with indigo and more persimmon dye and sewed in as accents. 

They were packed  up a few weeks ago and sent to Liechtenstein for an exhibition. (Home yesterday and up in the middle of the night jet-lagged writing a blog post.)

Liechtenstein is a small country sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria. The Rhine river is the boundary on the west and the peak ridge of a thirty kilometer stretch of alps is the east border. The narrowing of the valley at the south (Italy) end and the bend in the Rhine river at the north (Germany) end make up the natural borders.  There is a castle above the capital where the Prince and his family live over-looking the banks that keep the Liechtensteiners well-dressed and happy.

Click on the pictures to see what the exhibition looked like.

On an old table I placed an open book on ancient Buddhist robes that were made from precious silk scraps patched together as Kesa robes. These old towels were destined for the garbage dump. I had some fun with them and extended their lives a little. Hardly silk robes for a Buddhist priest, but just a wrap around thing. Nothing deep or serious. I noticed the other seven exhibitors I shared the exhibition with had ladened their textile work with layer on layer of deep meaning. The curator added meaning by displaying two artists work in each room to contrast and compliment each other. The works were forced into a dialogue with each other.

 Mine were more eye and body candy. When I mentioned this to a searching-for-meaning-in-the-artwork couple visiting the exhibition they replied that, going to all that work to make the fun eye-candy was meaningful enough. Jeeesh, can't we just make things that are easy to look at? I suppose displaying the textiles in an art gallery requires some conceptual point to spin on. 

A few of the katazome stencils I cut were on the wall to give an idea of how the patterns were made.  

Zora and Adrian and Mark had some good times playing with them. There was a sign on the table that said, "Please touch and pick up and wrap yourself." (Who wants a textile exhibition where you are told not to touch?)

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Happi Hantens: Hand Sewn, Indigo dyed, Original Hand Cut Stencils.

Our Hanten jackets are finished.  Yazaki san came to the house and taught us to sew them by hand.

How many hundreds of subtle steps were there before we put them on? Making the paste from boiling rice four and mixing with bran.  Crushing soy beans to make a liquid to bind the pigments to the cloth.

How could our seven sets of eyes and cameras document so much?

We were all in awe. I don't know where to start writing about it. I will put together a few workshops in the future. How to cut the stencils, use the different pigments with the indigo and how to hand sew these hanten jackets. I am looking forward to mastering sewing them myself.

It was an unforgettable few weeks. Thank you. 

I am leaving for Europe in a few hours for an exhibition and some fresh alpine air.  The exhibition will be at the Gasometer in Triesen in Liechtenstein. I'll be visiting friends in Switzerland and Austria as well.  Exhibition and Workshop in Liechtenstein

Friday, 8 August 2014

Making Katazome Rice Paste/ Harvesting Indigo.

It was sweltering at the stencil studio yesterday. Dripping sweat didn't dampen our enthusiasm much. Only a few scorching minutes that seemed to drag on for eternity. It was worth it.

The stencils are resisted with a rice paste. Each master seems to have their own recipe. The basic ingredients are glutinous rice flour, fine rice bran and slaked lime. According to the material being stencilled and the complexity and fineness of the stencil itself the elasticity and thickness of the paste is adjusted. The paste is also used to size the 6 meter long boards to attach the cloth to. The material must be stuck on firmly but leave no paste residue on the back when peeled off. Each sizing of the board lasts approximately five uses.

We boiled the balls of mochi rice paste on an old wood fire stove for three hours and then stirred and mixed and added the boiling goop water to get the exact right consistency. It was an overwhelming amount of sensory information. Our eyes met in disbelief at the process and rolled upwards in solidarity worship of these master craftsmen.

Next the rice bran was prepared with lime and water to perfect the elasticity of the paste.

The paste used to size the boards has no bran. The motions took us a while to understand and will take hours of practice to really get.


I soaked soybeans overnight in water and then smushed them in this mortar. The juice was strained out and then mixed with a red pigment and some pine soot.

We will make hanten festival jackets but first needed to practice on cheap cotton to get the technique for painting on the pigments and then resisting the colours and dipping to get an indigo background. 


We are up late tonight designing and cutting stencils for use tomorrow. It has been a long day. We were up early harvesting indigo this morning. Looks like an exceptionally good crop this year. Thanks to all the sunshine and manure. The sun and a slight breeze helped dry out the leaves to a dark blue in a few hours. The smell of drying indigo is sublime.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Japanese Stencil Master In-House Study

Noguchi san is a 6th generation katazome master. His son Kazu is the 7th. I have known them for 17 years now. I could write volumes on my experiences at their studio. I bring my out-of-towners there and watch them levitate in cultural and textile heaven.

Although I have spent countless days over the years at Noguchi sans studio there are things I still haven't picked up. I decided to go formally study with them for a few weeks this August.  I am bringing along some friends so we can all pick up the minute details. Seven pairs of eyes are more effective than one.

Kim, Mini, Serge, Dillon, Harada kun, Aliki and myself.

There are recipes for making the rice resist paste in books and on the Internet. I've tried a few and they work. I've asked Noguchi san how he does it but was never quite sure of the minute details. He is teaching us how to do it. Not on the small scale I usually manage in my kitchen though. He measures out the sifted mochi rice powder and slaked lime and adds boiling water.

The quality and strength of the slaked lime changes over time. He was particularly concerned with this point. He has been making it for 65 years. It is hard for him to tell us all the nuances of the lime never mind the other thousand details he manages in the entire process.

He works with his wife in a well choreographed kneading ritual. Cutting the dough-like rice past in sections and exchanging them in effortless tosses to each other. 

The paste patties are now ready for the next step we will do today.

One of our projects will be to make a festival jacket. The scope of Japanese standardization left us all speechless at the end of a long day. Three ancient nails on the wall is all that is needed to measure out the material into lengths for sleeves and the body and to know where the stencils will be placed to line up on the back of the jacket. 

The fermentation indigo was in perfect condition in the sweltering summer heat.

Our resident hunky Dillon models the shirushibanten we will all make.

Aliki and Dillon align their stencils so the pattern matches seamlessly. 

There was enough information to write a book just on first day visit. It is hard to edit my excitement to write even a simple blog post. I will keep you posted over the next few weeks. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Indigo Workshop in Brooklyn

The scenery is quite different here in New York. Stuck on the sweltering heat grid of Manhattan with millions of stressed out overheating New Yorkers.

I miss the mountains and the dogs and Hiro and a regular schedule of weeding the garden and feeding the silkworms. I suppose there is a kind of regular schedule manifesting itself the past three weeks….waking up and wondering which cool cafe to have my morning shot of caffeine at and which cool deli to have my lunch at and which cool place to have dinner at. After dinner the dilemma where to go for the best locally brewed beer here in the hyper hipster epi-center of the universe Williamsburg/Greenpoint  Brooklyn.

It is hard to admit to actually loving it here. The grass and mountains are pretty green on my side of the fence. New York is still pretty seductive even in the heat.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Silk babies to Cocoons. One month.

This year is the 16th that I have raised silkworms. For the past three years I've wanted to take a break.   The whole thing was more of a chore than before. To have the mulberry fields in good condition takes time and effort. The equipment sterilized and organized takes time and muscle power.

 To raise the silkworms themselves takes a month. From cocoon making to breeding the moths for the next season takes a few weeks. Reeling the cocoons into threads takes a week of solid reeling and throwing. The thread from the last five years has just been sleeping in a box upstairs. The last umpfff to dye it and weave it just hasn't been accessible. There has been too many other things on the burner with carpentry work and teaching.

Enthusiasm was waning and I was one step away from....." I used to raise silkworms and reeled the silk into thread and wove it for 15 years but I quit."

 I found the time and energy to do it this year. Although the mulberry wasn't perfectly branched and the trays could have used a dip in the river all turned out well. There was a group of students at the house and some of them were able to see steps from the eggs hatching until the cocooning.

The entire intricate process was what interested me at first. The history and beauty of the silk was hypnotic. Nothing new was going on the past few years. The nostalgia of the process is all that kept it going.   I've made a lot of things from the silk in the past. Some good some not so good. A few brilliant pieces. (No false modesty here.) Now is the challenge to make something more satisfying. That will take some serious focus time. To take time with a clear head to make the threads and dye them to perfection and weave them with care. The right balance of everything.
To make double cocoons, (two silkworms in a single cocoon) I keep fresh newspaper under the boxes and when I hear and see a silkworm pee (They pee once when they have completed the rough outline of the cocoon they stick their butt out and get ride of the extra water that did not make it into silk.) it is taken out of the box and then introduced to a friend in another box and cover it in glass forcing the two to make a single cocoon. This takes forever.  (And is a tad on the gross side.) The double cocoons produce a shiny slightly slubby thread when reeled. I'll use it for every second warp thread. The single cocoons will be reeled for part of the warp and weft. I'll melt one thousand of them in an ash lye solution and spin them for most of the weft.   There is a lot of work ahead. The beautiful perfection of kimono design was obvious with Mark and Gwen's and Dillon's and Sana'a and Melody's kimono they stitched last week. I haven't sewn one in years and want to get back to that kind of work.

Eggs hatching and being brushed off:

Time has just melted together. Where did the past five months go? It was just yesterday that we were dealing with the snow.

It is hard to imagine that this monsoon garden was sleeping under all that.