Monday, 29 August 2011

Small Bags for Precious Things

Aoki san

The traditional Japanese house has no real walls. Just sliding doors partitioning rooms. There was always an alcove called a 'tokonoma' where some piece of art was put on display. A hanging scroll of calligraphy or a ink painting, a piece of pottery and perhaps a simple flower arrangement. Unlike a western house where we will keep the same painting on the wall indefinitely, they change the display all the time. I like having a long term relationship and conversations with the paintings and things I have picked up through travels and life in almost every wall and corner and surface in my house. Two different approaches to displaying art.

Here in Japan, many of my friends keep their treasures out of sight and display them occasionally. The objects storage container is important. They love wood boxes here. Boxes inside boxes and objects wrapped in cloth.
I spent some years going to a class on Sundays learning to make the small silk bags for tea ceremony objects. There are some very talented potters in my town and I have been blessed to have some of them as my good friends. I could write a few books on the subjects of the potters in my town and pottery in Japan. My house is awash with pottery.

I was particularly blessed to have known Ryo Aoki for 15 years. He passed away at 50 years old, seven years ago. What a treasure he was. I met him when I first came to Japan and he had just started pottery. He felt he was ten years behind and literally killed himself through hard work making up for his late start as a potter. He had a vision and he worked towards it steadfastly. He lived in the middle of the mountains in a barely standing ancient farmhouse and studio. He had built a climbing wood firing kiln and was fulfilling his life work. He fell down beside the kiln as it was firing, not realizing his fever was from a virus and not the heat from the kiln.

I often visited him over the years and somehow I managed to purchase and receive as gifts a comprehensive collection of his work. A few pieces he gave me as a present because they, " are works of genius I can't possibly put them in a gallery and put a price on them." (He was a humble guy who couldn't help but be overwhelmed by his own genius and hard work at times.)

I am deeply indebted to him. There are very few like him. He inspired me and set a standard very difficult to achieve. His life was his art. And this is where the source of the really good stuff comes from.

There was an exhibition of his work, that had sat cooling in the kiln as he slipped away from us, at the gallery in Tokyo where he often exhibited. The doors were stormed and the shelves were bare in minutes. I managed to grab a few pieces. One is this small sake bin.

Bittersweet...recently his work has been 'discovered' by a famous Japanese artist/curator and Aoki's work is now in demand and the prices skyrocketing.

I wanted to honor him and the sake bin and I finally got around to weaving this small piece of linen and put together this bag for it. The indigo dyed bamboo basket was made another local friend, Ishikawa san, who gets his bamboo from our area. I taught him to process indigo to dye bamboo. My house is awash in bamboo baskets as well.

I made this silk bag from my cocoons many years ago for a sake cup Aoki san made. (Photo below.)

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Old Lost Friend

Seo san and I worked together 15 years ago. She as the designer and seamstress and I as her indigo dying slave. We had a huge output for three years and don't regret a minute of it. Three years of producing shibori on a daily basis come rain, snow or sweltering heat put me through the boot camp of indigo dying/production. She used to bring out her grandchildren on weekends to play in the countryside while we worked. I hadn't seen Daiki in 14 years. He came out with her as a full- grown 18 year old yesterday and did some indigo dying today. It was great to meet him again. Like most 18 year olds he is wondering what he wants to do with his life. I suggested he become an indigo craftsman and live in Switzerland. He didn't dislike the idea at all. I found this old picture of him with Snoopy. Snoopy is aging the best I noticed!

White Shadow /Shirokage Fever Continues.

The students all want to get it right. The right balance and the right cloth and of course the right amount of white in the background. I am impressed with their tenacity and the results. This kind of shibori is really a tough nut to crack.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Textiles for Tea Ceremony

These type of macrame (a Japanese word!) bags are used for three items in the tea ceremony. For a container that contains mini- sweets, for the container that contains the tea whisk and for the container tube-like container that contains the linen wipe cloth. This is my first attempt with some silk leftover from a previous project. Dyed with akane and walnut bark. I didn't expect it to work out at all the first try. Not bad though. I used a empty Saran Wrap tube instead of a round cork center. Next time will be easier and better.

Ko Kato

Ko san and digging akane (madder) in his mulberry field.

I wrote this blog just a few days before the tsunami and nuclear meltdown. There was enough bad news going around so it has sat in my blog edit pile for these past months.

I am very grateful to Minako and Ko Kato who live in a village on the other side of my town. 17 years ago I showed up at their front door and in poor Japanese I asked to see the silk kimono rolls she wove from the silk her family produces. Minako took me to their old clay storehouse and I watched as she opened some drawers and took out some hand woven rolls of naturally dyed hand spun and reeled silk. I took a good look at them and stood up straight and thanked her. In less than one minute the rest of my life had been decided. I was going to learn the processes and make my own silk and weave it. I needed to speak Japanese. I hit the textbooks and cassette tapes and in five months I was back on their doorstep asking them to teach me (in a more advanced state of broken Japanese) all about silk farming, thread making, old weaving looms and tools .

We became good friends over the years. I did need basic Japanese to communicate but our relationship built on years and years of non-verbal communication. Spending hundreds of hours threading and warping looms, digging dyestuffs and sharing time enjoying the lengthy processes brought us close together.

Sadly, Ko passed away last week at 93. The family called and I went over to their house and helped prepare for the funeral. In the country they still bring the body back to the house for a few days. He looked peaceful sleeping on his futon dressed in a white cotton kimono.

Yesterday the buddhist priest came and it was time to take him away to the crematorium. The family members and friends help dress him and prepare him for the seven day journey to the next world. He needs some cute white silk shoes. Some white silk leg protectors to keep the mud off his legs. A bag around is neck with six coins to pay for the ferryboat to the other side. A bag in case he receives any presents along the way. A walking stick because the path is hard. Some straw sandals to walk in. (The ties are cut though in case his ghost decides to come back thus making it impossible to really walk in them.) The coffin was filled with things he liked. Some sake. Some books.

Minako asked me to help her cover him with a beautiful indigo dyed kimono she had woven for him many years ago. She said to him, " Remember this one old guy? You raised the silk cocoons and I wove this for you. It is for you."

Then the coffin was filled with flowers and we drove to the crematorium. It takes about an hour to finish there. The temperature is kept quite low so that the ancient tradition of loved ones picking up the bones together with chopsticks can continue.

He taught me many things about mulberry cultivation and silk farming. I spent many afternoons listening to his stories of the war and the self sufficient ways of the old days. ( He would set a fish trap on the way to elementary school and bring the fish back home after school for the family to eat.) I suppose one bond between us was that the three of us knew very well that life in that simpler time was far more sophisticated and enjoyable. I miss him.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Thoughts on Teaching Weaving. Part One

When I opened Japanese Textile Workshops at my house I had no real idea of where I would draw the boundaries on what I would teach or who I would teach to. I started with a few looms, a few indigo vats, a large collection of silk reeling tools and kumi himo stands and a lot of knowledge of Japanese textiles I had picked up over many years.

In the back of my mind I wanted to teach how to make high quality small pieces of textile using different techniques that could be used for the tea ceremony. My students get a chance to do everything. Help raise silkworms, reel cocoons, throw the raw silk and de-gum it, use vegetable dyes to color it and make bags and belts and eventually kimono. That would be more than enough but the worlds of stencil dying and shibori with indigo are too much to overlook.

The students who approach me to study all have different goals and different lack-of-goals I have to consider. Somehow it all works out as they grow as textile people and I grow as textile teacher.

I use back strap looms to introduce weaving to my students. At first I set an entire loom up and they simply weave two meters. The second time around they indigo dye the thread. Think of the pattern and set the loom up themselves. For any one out there considering teaching weaving this is something to consider. The students do not need to put out a large sum on looms and other tools when they are uncertain if weaving is what they really want to do. They can take the looms home and weave homework. I teach how to make the bamboo reeds and heddles. They make their own back strap pillow part of the loom from their first weavings. The shuttles are made by a neighbor from local wood.

Stencil Dye / Katazome New Direction

Eri has focused on indigo dying, stencil dying and shibori. I was lucky to have a whole class with her alone on Tuesday to talk and see where she would like to go with her time at the studio. She brought in a beautiful detailed stencil she had cut for homework. Small circular stained glass like motifs that seemed Taisho period influenced. (1920s Japan)
First we lacquered on a silk net to enforce the stencil. This is tricky work. It has taken me years of practice to get it right. The key operating words to success are 'slowly' and 'carefully' and 'very patiently'.

When we got the net fixed on the stencil Eri asked if it was possible to use the stencil with other colors besides indigo. I had secretly been dreading the day this inevitable question would come. It opens up an entire new time consuming world. As we usually use hemp or cotton with indigo to use vegetable dyes entails impregnating the cloth with soybean milk before dying. A protein is needed to bond the color pigment and the metallic salt to the cloth. I know that once the other students see the potential of this technique they will all want to do it. The lid is off now.
To make a rambling blog short, this is what we came up with. Lac dye mordanted with aluminum and steamed to fix. Re pasted with rice paste and double dipped in indigo. There are a lot of possibilities just with this color combination.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Indigo Drying on the Metal Kitchen Roof.

This is the 19th year I have dried indigo on this dangerous roof. It has proven to be the best way. Fast and efficient. The freshly dried warm indigo has a smell like nothing else. Last year a friend mentioned that the drying indigo had a unique unmistakable smell. I agreed with a flubbed wisecrack....'I love the smell of drying indigo in the smells like....victory.' It was a weak take on Kilgore's famous lines in Apocalypse Now..."I love the smell of napalm in the morning...smells like...victory."

I was up at the crack of dawn and at the indigo field harvesting my first cut this year. The faster it dries the better. The weather looks like it will change on Saturday so this might be the last chance. I've had semi-dried leaves on electric carpets and fans and heaters blazing on hot muggy days trying to salvage an ill-timed harvest in the past. The roof never lets me down except the climb up there and the scorching heat are tough.Today was dry and breezy and in the mid 30s. Perfect for an indigo harvest. Half of the leaves were stripped off the stems so that the stems can be boiled and used for a silver grey regular vegetable dye. The other half was dried on the kitchen roof to be later fermented into ammonia strong indigo paste.

The smell triggered something. I don't have the time to be absorbed by melancholic and meaningful memories like Proust, but I had a flash forward to what might happen years from now if I stumbled upon some drying indigo leaves. It could trigger and avalanche of memories of indigo processing. Here is the most indulgent thing I've asked of my blog readers...

Il y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n’était pas le théâtre et le drame de mon coucher n’existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d’hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j’avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d’abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaient avoir été moulées dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause.

And in case you plowing through that is a headache..

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Japanese Textile Study Tour at My House Next Spring.

With little to no fanfare I present what Nat and I have put together:

Arrow Stencil Obi

Santa went shopping at the Swiss Antique Market across the Rhine River and picked out a particularly solid roll of antique cotton. (Thank you Barbara for showing him the way.) Not wasting any time I started cutting out a stencil of flowing arrows the next evening.

The cloth was pasted and stenciled and dipped six times in the indigo. Then washed and iron and re-pasted with the stencil slightly offset and dipped twice to get a lighter shadow. The third time around the stencil was shifted more and dyed with persimmon tannin ten times. The red color came from the pigment I put in the paste to make it more visible when shifting and re-pasting.
The fourth time around I carved out a different wave pattern stencil and more persimmon dying. You can see it clearly as the reflective area below.

It was stitched up as an obi for a summer kimono.

White Shadow/ Shirokage Shibori

There has been a bit of shirokage fever in the class recently. The technique works better on a yukata weight fabric where it can be drawn tight. With heavier cloth we have had to individually stuff each white section with floss silk. Takeshima san succeeded today in keeping a white background with a few innovations not found in the 'how to' books.

I rummaged through a box to dig out this shirokage kimono I dyed 17 years ago..pardon the wrinkles. The lines were faint and delicate but the balance of the squares with the kimono itself was off. They should have been slightly smaller.

Some images of stitched and tied white shadow shibori.