Friday, 16 October 2015

Charcoal Maker and Silk farmer

In the mountain villages just outside Tokyo on the west side, the villagers made their living as silk farmers from May until October and charcoal makers from November to April.

There are no mulberry leaves for the silkworms in the winter and the trees stop drinking water in the in the winter so the quality of the charcoal is better.

There are hundreds of old stone charcoal kilns in the mountains around my place. As the old guys move on to the next world the last few in operation are abandoned. Walking by them on daily dog walks I can remember the smoke and the persimmon trees heavily laden with fruit around them.

Hiro asked me to pick up some charcoal for his Brazilian BBQ night a few days back. Instead of the crappy stuff from the local supermarket I drove out with my workshop members past an old active kiln to visit a local potter and glass maker. I noticed old man Takasaki's truck in front of his kilns.

He was the last major silk farmer in our town who quit 13 years ago. (He is in his mid-90s now) He had a huge barn with mostly mechanized rotating trays.  Many years ago I would help him out with cocooning. I haven't seen him since. He was really happy to hear that I was still farming silk on the other side of town. He let out a good sized roar of laughter when I showed him the tattoo on my forearm of an old traditional bamboo silk farming tray.

His charcoal is amazing. (I guess it should be with about 90 years of experience!) Hiro's BBQ was delicious. It was the good-bye dinner for the members of the autumn ten-day workshop. Thank you Anne, Maureen, Emma, Renee, Tobie, Jaime and Kate. Many smiles and much laughter. You made my life richer.  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Forest Grump.

August came in like a lion. Two weeks of record-breaking heat and the bluest skies. Up at the crack of dawn. Tomatoes and fresh greens....endless summer happiness.

Now we have had a month of rain and cloudy skies. Today another typhoon pummelled us. Grrrrrrrr...grumpy as hell. A glimpse of blue sky before sunset. The autumn insects have takes oven from the soaking cicadas.

The president of Seiwa (The natural dye supplier and textile college in Tokyo we all know and love dearly.) came over for lunch a few weeks back in the sweltering muggy grey heat. They have a small gallery in the entrance of the shop before you take the elevator up to the school. He asked me for something to display in the gallery that was dyed with the indigo his company produces. Reluctantly, I lent him a few of the paper/linen stencil dye scarves as he went out the door.

The staff sent me a picture of the exhibition and my scarves when the exhibition was over. They had displayed them inside out.

The designs on the back are very cool. But they are obviously the back.

Helpless helpless the mouldy summer just greyed and gone.

There were a few bright spots. I grumpily guarded my free time in the gloomy humidity this summer. Annemarie is an acquaintance of an old student. She brought some Dutch sunshine into the house for a while. An email just arrived from her and it seems she wants to make Japan home for a while now. Thinking about this as I went for my late afternoon walk/jog and surveyed the damage of this morning's typhoon. 

There is still a magic in Japan that will convince people to give up their comfortable lives and move here. This contrasted with the tragic flood of humanity out of Syria had my head spinning as I picked up wind fall branches on the road and threw them off to the side in the rich-green-misty-wet mountain cream-coloured sunset of a depopulating mountain village here in Japan. 

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Quiet Days and Silk Floss Weaving.

The blog has been quiet all July. I had thought that I could have all the preparation for the autumn (and next spring already) workshops finished by July 1st.

There was more work involved than imagined. It was a non-stop  14-16 hour a day two month slog of administration work. It's over. July 31st.

 It took an entire extra month......Hallelujah.

All the homework boxes have been mailed and the workshop members are all ready to start their trips to Japan in late September. (Even a non-yogi can hear them stitching away at the prep homework across planet.)

The house is ready months in advance. Instead of going to the airport and getting out of Japan for a few weeks I will be spending the time at quiet quiet home and working on my own projects........heaven.

Many of you know I keep the doors open and the coffee ready. I've been replying with, 'I'm busy.' to good friends and foes alike the past few months. The lotus are blooming at the front door today. Pickled plums are drying in the sun.  The tadpoles in the pond have sprouted legs and are almost ready to head to the forest.  Heaven.

Working on endless carpentry projects on this huge house and teaching hasn't given me the time to work on textiles like I used to.  It used to be possible to work on different projects at one time. 

Cutting stencils and stitching shibori, growing the indigo etc. are time consuming projects. But compared to the silk farming to woven textile they are like fast food.  

I had to face the facts....when you move your focus from one thing to another something suffers. And like playing guitar, you can't just pick it up where you left off a few months earlier.. 

There are boxes of beautifully reeled and naturally dyed silk upstairs that I've produced over many years.  I set up a luxurious kimono warp late last winter. It was beautiful and ready to weave. Throwing a few shuttle passes it all was set for a smooth 14 meter weave. Sitting at the loom looking at it with a twisted frown.... the warp and weft were extremely fine. It would take hundreds of hours to weave it up. It would end up looking like it was machine made. Everything was perfect.

The investment of time and concentration wasn't worth it.

I took a pair of shears and ziiiiiip.....had all the threads off the loom in less than five minutes. Considering the time it had taken me to set up the loom and weed the mulberry field, feed the silkworms and reel the silk and dye it was a pretty crazy thing to do.

Having been so busy the past few years something was lost.

That slow progression of related project one after another.

If you start a project with the criteria: "I should use up that thread" and "I haven't woven a kimono in years." There are too many wrong turns just waiting.

That whole project was off on the wrong foot. Rather than stumble through it, it was better to swallow some pride and take the loses with a deep breath.

The episode was a good bucket of cold water reality. Don't start an extremely time consuming project unless you feel right about it. All the colours and textures of the project and your own mind better be chosen carefully and harmoniously.

Hand spun silk... back strap looms.  The thread-making process and the weaving itself take much much much longer than using reeled thread on a regular loom.

There are some precious cocoons left upstairs from last summer and the recent cocoons from two months ago.

So day after day the cocoons are being boiled and de-bugged and a pile of silk floss and hand-spun thread is appearing. Some of this years silk is already being woven.

The cocoons are put in a gentle-wash laundry bag. A large pot of boiling water is readied. In a mild alkaline solution (Can use freshly burned straw ash or purchased de-gumming agents.)  the cocoons are kept just below boiling for a few hours. An inverted stainless vegetable strainer with rocks on top keep the cocoons from floating.

The chrysalis are picked out of the floss one by one. Manly work...not for the squeamish.

To lower the pH of the floss, it is gently rinsed to avoid matting. 

The floss is squeezed and the process repeated at a lower alkalinity and temperature to ensure all the natural glue in the cocoons is removed and the silk is smooth and soft and ready to spin.

Once dry I fluff them up individually and then start to spin them.

I hand spun the floss and dyed it several shades of indigo with some light yellow gardenia dye for some ever so slight green tinges.

And it weaving up like this:

This whole process takes forever but worth it. Audiobooks are keeping the weaving company as it inches forward.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

White Shadow / Shirokage Shibori

Muriel drops by Japan a few times a year to do research on Japanese textiles. She drops by and stays a few days now and then to use the indigo, drop off some Swiss cheese and chocolate.  I get to see her meticulous shibori work and progress.

White shadow shibori is one of the difficult shape resist techniques. It is tough to get the balance of the shapes and sizes right so the indigo does not bleed in from behind and ruin the perfect white background. She got it perfect on her last masterpiece.

First the pattern was drawn on the cotton and then painstakingly stitched and stitched. (Muriel has done some haute couture embroidery in France and knows what slow progress is all about.)

She used a q-tip to push through all the white parts to the backside. It is then tightly bound to a pipe/pole to resist the back and let only the raised ridges dye.

It is easy to see how long the oxidation of the indigo takes on the first dip as the green is so visible. By the tenth dip you can't see the green turn to blue and have to estimate how long it takes. 

Taken off the pipe the back was white! 

The moment when it comes to open it up.

Washed and dried. Perfect results.

Here are a few more pieces from Muriel this year.

She is searching out indigo in remote corners of Japan and ran across this indigo hottie. He was surprised to see her beautiful work. (Hurray Gaijin!) 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Mokume Shibori Magnolia Leaf Motif

Ogata san is still stitching like wildfire at 97 and three quarters. We work on projects together. This time we went for a walk and found a few beautiful magnolia trees on the dog walk path.

The magnolia leaves were drawn on with a brush and aobana (disappearing orchid ink).

Then lines were drawn at three and a half centimetre intervals up the length of the cloth and stitched from selvage to selvage jumping over the outline of the leaves. 

Ogata san took over for homework and stitched three more rows across between each row. It took a hundred or so hours to sew up the whole thing.

We pulled all the threads through and then wet it, pulled them tighter and tied them off in pairs. 

We then dyed it 12 times in strong indigo and opened it up. It was surprising to see some of the nuances of the brush strokes were still visible in the shibori.  Someone should convince Ogata san to sashiko stitch the whole piece to a back.... and give it to her indigo teacher for his birthday....or Christmas...or Boys Day...whatever...

On the same day we started this project we simply gathered some maple leaves and stencil pasted over them through a special net I rigged together.  The results were quick. The crepe texture of the cloth added visual interest to a pretty mundane technique.

And yes...that is not Momo but the famous shiba ken "Maru". He visited the house yesterday for filming a new program.  He was surprised to see that I had one of his books. Thank you Melody and Sana for that present last summer.  I never dreamed I would actually meet Maru.  Momo was flirting like crazy with him. Poor Geiger....

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Cocoons and Workshop

                      It is cool. The five week rainy season is weighing heavily on our spirits.

Ten days after the silkworms finished spinning the cocoons I removed them from the frames and took off the outside fuzz. The next step is to boil them in a straw ash solution to make silk floss and then spin the floss, dye it and then weave it.

Caroline the amazing French knit designer attended my spring ten-day Introduction to Japanese Indigo Workshop. She was so kind to write about her experience. She writes both in French and English.

Please take a look at her knit designs. I shake my head in disbelief at her work. You would keep it for years. It lacks...throw-away-ability.... I just heard that fashion is the second most polluting industry on earth next to the oil industry. Shouldn't we buy clothing we keep for twenty years?

These are the links to her blog about the indigo workshop. You can easily click around to see her work. Practise your French.

Number one
Number two
Number three

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Apartment Blocks for Silkworms

People have been clever throughout the history of silk farming making the tools needed from what is close at hand. The silkworms eat mulberry for a month and on the last day they start looking for a place to make a cocoon. (They make the cocoon to protect themselves from being eaten and to keep warm while they transform into butterflies/moths.)

In nature they would just find somewhere on the branch to make the cocoon.

When I am doing a lot of silkworms I use these folding cardboard apartments. They were developed in Japan in the 1960s. They are very practical. They save space and the silkworms are more or less forced to make uniformed sized cocoons.

The silkworms spit silk as they walk around before finding the real estate they prefer and climbing in and making a cocoon. The frames get all dirty with old silk. Instead of using a wire brush to individually clean each compartment it is easier to make an even charcoal fire and add a few pieces of wood for flame and singe off the old silk. It is a little tricky to get the heat and flame just right so that the cardboard doesn't catch fire.

                            Old silk form last year stuck on the mabushi.
Passing the mabushi over the flames to burn off the old silk.

Setting up the mabushi with Dani.

Silkworms making cocoons today in the mabushi hanging upstairs.

Alternatives to the cardboard apartments. I made this one out of rice straw and bamboo. 

A Basket used in Laos for the same purpose.

Good old cut up toilet paper rolls serve the same function.