Friday, 29 June 2012

Silkworms Against Better Judgement

In spring of 1997 I met my potter friend Kiso san and told him that I was not just using indigo but was learning to weave silk from a woman in my town.  He knew someone else who was reeling silk from cocoons and making kimono and would introduce me to her. We met at a silk farmer in a nearby town and had a demonstration of cocoon reeling. My Japanese language speaking ability was pathetic at the time. Especially in a situation where I knew no vocabulary of the silk world. There was a group of silk enthusiasts breeding ancient varieties of silkworms and reeling the cocoons at an old farmhouse. I made it clear that I was very interested in raising silkworms. Sakai san asked me if I had mulberry...Sure I have mulberry. I honestly figured that a single mulberry bush was enough to feed several hundred silkworms for a month. A few days later she brought 7500 small silkworms to my house and basically said, 'Good luck we have too many and don't want to throw them away.' and she disappeared.

I was about to slam into a steep learning curve. Looking back 15 years I shake my head in disbelief at the insanity and hard work I got  myself into. My god. The third floor of my house at that time was a huge open space with broken floorboards, holes in the wall, no ceiling and a lot of dust and junk. About 150 years of dust and junk.  Amongst the junk there was a lot of silkworm raising junk as the house had been raising silkworms for over a hundred years. Borderline impoverished silk farmers throw absolutely nothing away. I lay down a few random sheets of plywood to cover the big holes in the floor and set up a makeshift silkworm refugee camp.

Those few branches of mulberry were gone in a matter of minutes and I had the equivalent of 7500 hungry babies wanting more. There were some great adventures knocking on local farmers doors asking to use abandoned mulberry fields. I have enough stories of those tea drinking leaf-negotiating adventures for a novel. Really. I remember ever moment and every gesture of the old folks in the town and every knarled and cranky mulberry stump I trimmed and nursed back into productivity. Silkworm farming had been dead for twenty five years at that time. That mini-culture of village silkworm cultivation's time stream  was being back-eddied, muddied and woken from a groggy deathbed by my hairy foreign feet. Stomping around with a dumb grin.

Those were the days. Everything I loved seemed to come together at once. Early mornings meaningful work in a field, cutting branches. The local history that was sleeping suddenly awakened with dozens of old timers excited about seeing silkworms again after so many years.  Their lives and their parents and grandparents lives had centered around these things for as long back as they could remember.  There were barns and storehouses I was invited into so generously to dig out old equipment the owners had cherished and yearned to see in use again.  All those memories I cherished and never shared...pre-Internet and blogging. Just some carelessly taken snaphots.

I kept it up for all these years. Last year I wanted to take a break from silkworms. The novelty was still there but I couldn't keep up the mulberry fields, the indigo field and the tea fields, teach classes, do carpentry work on the house and do creative work on my own. I vowed to take a year off. I didn't work out that way when a friend showed up with 5000 new born baby silkworms and begged me to take them. Against my better judgement I raised them and then their children several months later. So much for a year off. I did not breed the moths last autumn and vowed that 2012 would be my year off. Time to step back and reflect and think of what I really wanted to do with my silk farming/ thread making skills. Maybe even give it up if something else called stronger.

I have been struggling with a very burned out body and semi burned out mind these past two months. Forcing myself to go to bed early, take Sundays slow and say 'no' to just about everyone and everything. The past two weeks I've gained back some strength and am pacing myself carefully. The house needs some finishing up for the autumn workshops. Two or three hours a day for carpentry work is the limit right now. But something was missing.

And I am at it again... Isn't she lovely?

I will do silkworms again next year and am raising a batch now to breed for eggs.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Indigo Shibori Heaven

A respite form the humid rainy season weather today as it was cool and dry. A perfect day to do some catch up dyeing at the indigo vat. Cloudy overcast days are not only not fun to spend at a smelly indigo vat but the color is never as good as you get on a dry sunny day. Ogata san has been complaining like mad about the time it has taken her to stitch this patterned wood grain shibori. She was pleased with the results and quickly forgot all the pain involved in this project. I sketched out the kelp design and drew it out in a disappearing blue flower ink (aobana) we use for under sketching before indigo dyeing.

Takeshima san had a back load of dying to do. She always comes up with an interesting stencil she draws and cuts out. This time a series of super hero wrestling masks.  Sometimes the shibori comes out boring and you have to figure out how to up grade it. She resisted some circles on her shawl and it came out much better. Snoopy was impressed with the upgrade as well.

Kawamoto san used the same technique as Ogata san for her shawl. I suggested doubling the material to save time on stitching and getting a kind of Rorschach test pattern. The material is a light cotten gauze. It was dry in minutes under the sun with a light breeze. Same kelp under the waves motif. Perfect for an overly air conditioned room.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Indigo Blues Need Some Madder Red.

It is possible to get a spectrum of blue shades from indigo. The pigment is the same and with each subsequent dip and oxidation the color deepens as the pigment piles up on the surface of the thread. From a pale sky blue with single dip in the vat until a purplish black blue with upwards of 15 dips in the vat. The tone stays much the same. It is next to impossible to dip a brush in indigo and paint it on a fabric. It is not an ink. The oxidation part of the dyeing process does not lend itself to being brushed on.
(There is a way to do this...involves a kind of arsenic. Yipee.)

Cloth and thread can be under dyed with yellows and reds etc. to get a spectrum of greens and purples. There is a bit of hit and miss with this method, depending on the material. (Semi de-gummed silk often works very well.)  The under dye color often reacts with the high pH of the indigo and the greens are sometimes garish and the purples murky at best. A charcoal grey under dye can take the biting edge off the indigo blue.

The pure indigo color is almost worshipped by indigo aficionados.

I get it. I get it.

But it can get on your nerves looking at it for twenty years. That same bloody blue! ( To the indigo  fans here.... something sacrilegious and borderline blasphemous in that confession!)

The Japanese have used indigo cleverly and sublimely. I don't deny it.

Wanting to add a second color to the stencil dyes I worked with persimmon tannin for years.  The combination works well.  Here are a few snaps of scraps. The rice resist paste is applied and the cloth dyed five times in indigo. The remaining rice paste is removed, the cloth is washed and dried and ironed. The next rice paste application uses the same stencil only shifted a few millimeters over giving the work an off-set effect.  

Then it is dipped in the persimmon tannin juice every morning and placed where it can dry quickly with as many ultra-violet rays hitting the cloth directly as possible. This process is repeated ten times. It can take a few months to get a really rich brown color. The persimmon dyed areas have a shine. The quality of the indigo underneath is transformed into a deep space blue/black.

In addition the hard lines of stencil dying are softened and there is an extra dimension added to pattern. The cloth becomes stiff from the tannin and is not suitable for clothing. It is very labour intensive. There  are only a few months a year when the ultra-violet rays are strong enough to dye with persimmon dye. You can't be away from the house while the cloth sits outside on the ground. It may rain and with my place the cloth has a morning position in front of the house and an afternoon position at the side of the house as the mountains get in the way of a full day of sunshine.

 Working with indigo and persimmon tannin together should be enough to keep me satisfied. But no.... I want to use red.  This is where sarasa came into the picture.

There are not a lot samples of Japanese sarasa out there as the techniques were not widespread and used only where there had been a reasonable amount of economic freedom.  The good pieces had long been coveted away by collectors years ago. Although I have worked around Japanese textiles for twenty years, sarasa was something I saw in books and occasionally museums. It seemed very much out of reach. There are a few artists in Japan working with the techniques but they are really squirreled away in their ivory towers far from where I am. Before I search a teacher out I wanted to jump in the techniques and swim around for a few years. There is not a specific place to study. It will be stealing a hint of a process here and there and working it out in a direction that seems to be calling me. So Eri and I are mucking around on Mondays with books we are in endless awe of. In this blog I want to share some pictures of those pieces that are so attractive. I'll probably be blogging off and on about Sarasa for a few years to come. I should give a little more background as I go along.
This is an old soft covered book in the Taiyo series that documented so much of disappearing Japanese culture. Copies are rare now. The characters read, Sarasa. The entire book is in Japanese. The chapters are essays written  by different researchers and textile historians and collectors.
1. The roots of the techniques started in ancient India.
2.  Indigo and Rose Madder a Heavenly Garden of      Arabesques.
3.  Temple made of hanging cloth. Khrisna and Angels.
4.  Cloth for Maharajas.
5.  Gold and Clouds, the mother of all sarasa.
6.  Sarasa stencils.
7.  Sarasa moves to Indonesia.
8.  Sarasa moves to Siam. (Thailand)
9.  Sarasa moves to Persia.
10.Sarasa moves to Europe.
11. Sarasa comes to Japan.

There are over 50 essays in the book. This is not the place to list them up! (Maybe I should translate the whole book? Or maybe write a new one. There is never enough time in a day.)
This is a sample of the old school Indian sarasa. All the red is dyed with madder. Both in lake form (reduced pigment to a jelly like condition that can be brushed on cloth) and a dye bath. Here the patterns have been painted and wood block printed on.

18th century. The techniques are getting more complex using wax for a resist amongst other mixed techniques. Obviously in touch with Europe by this time. ( A Christian converted Maharaja's collection.)

It starts to get interesting when you see the pattern design is influenced  by the aesthetics of the country before sarasa was introduced. The influence of a Persia carpet is obvious here on this piece of sarasa from Persia.

When the techniques arrived in Europe they took on a different flavor. The colonies brought an explosion of textile design in Europe. It is fascinating to see how the European mind found clever ways to produce these textiles with new techniques.  I  visited some museums in Switzerland and Austria over the past few years to be taken back at the ingenuity of the Europeans absorbing some of the design factors and creating such beautiful textiles.

It is when the techniques arrived in Japan that I really get excited. No Persian carpet motifs. No French Salon influence. The influence comes from the stencil dying technique that were already here. Influence from the 'mon' house and family lineage crests and the Japanese already existing love of natural motifs.

This is the stuff Eri and I are hoping to be influenced by in making our own stencils with motifs from life around us. Using pigments we make from plants and mixing the indigo techniques we have picked up already.

 These samples have been made with stencil paper used as a positive and negative and wood stamps and brushed on pigment.

These sarasa are almost completely made on cotton. Difficult, as the cloth has to be impregnated with a protein before dying. I am starting to set up a white silk warp to weave of silk I grew and reeled. Then I can make some real original sarasa on cloth I've made right form the egg! Will I live to 150 to actually manage to do this?

The cloth makes great Japanese bags for ceramics. Ohh la la.

Chemical dyes introduced to the world in the mid 1800's instantly decimated the traditional techniques of making sarasa. It was far too time consuming and needed a fair sized industry to supply natural dye pigment. Several new techniques to surface pattern kimono material did materialize and flourish with the introduction of chemical dyes. Yuzen variations blossomed with the new dyes and the steady hand and creativity of the traditional Edo period dyers and dye houses. (Another blog another time.)

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Sarasa Creative Flood in the Kitchen

Eri and I are still getting together on Mondays to research sarasa stencil techniques. We are broadsiding the entire subject.We are getting better at making the pigment lakes. (Boiling the roots and barks and flowers etc, and mordant them with themselves, neutralizing the acid with ash alkaline and filtering the bath to get pure pigment.)We finished off filtering and started to use a great batch of rose madder lake that we started last week. Figuring out the techniques by looking at old samples makes the wheels turn. There are woodblock techniques, metal stamp as well as stencil techniques from India, Indonesia and Japan. It is a real headfull just to grasp the historic aspect never mind the techniques and evolution of designs.   We have to time travel back a few hundred years. I don't get far..things are pretty blurry without a lot of time period television dramas to fill in the details.

Today my teacher motivation/inspiration for student inspiration/motivation was a tad convoluted. Let me start with a quote from the catalogue from the stencil dye exhibition I went to last month.

"In the mid-nineteenth century Britain, the art production industry reaped the technological benefits from the Industrial Revolution and underwent an unprecedented growth as members of the gradually expanding middle class began to decorate their homes with an abundance  of wallpaper, tablecloths, furniture, ceramics, candlesticks, and other decorative goods. During the 1851 Great Exhibition held in London, however, it became clear how poor the the world of British design really was.

The following year, The Museum of Manufactures opened in London with the goal of promoting the aesthetic education of workers and ordinary citizens.  (Later the museum  was renamed the South Kensington Museum, and today, it is known as the Victoria and Albert Museum.) The quest to improve British design had begun, and for inspiration, it turned to samples, shapes and patterns from European history and from other non-Western nations.

It was about this time that Japanese design was first introduced to Britain.

The British eventually came to believe that life must have reached an unusually artistic level in Japan, given the abundance of Japanese objects that were both practical and artistic. It became chic and fashionable in Britain to to surround oneself by imports from Japan and items crafted in the Japanese style, and this helped to give rise to the aesthetic inclinations of the era."

There was something really wrong with and a lot missing in the 'items crafted in the Japanese style' at the exhibition. Here I would like to mention that the lines found in the European made stencils and floral and geometric patterns were a different quality to those Japanese.  Japanese did not use pens or pencils. They used ink and brushes. The quality of the lines and the motifs themselves had come from a different well.

Ink is ground on an ink stone. Water is dripped in from a suiteki and the charcoal stick is rubbed back and forth. The smell of the pine charcoal is divine. The brush strokes themselves are often used to make the entire shape of the mountain, leaf, flower petal or crane. The pressure exerted on the brush and how much water and ink is loaded and swiftness and direction of stroke makes for a heck of a lot to think about. Ink painting coupled with brush calligraphy truly created a refined sensibility to the expression of line.  Much has been written on the connection of Japanese Zen and the skill of ink, paper and brush. I studied ink painting for several years when I first moved to Japan. This was my first eye opener to Japanese art.

Teaching katazome the past few years I tried to avoid the dead looking stencils that are common these days. Competing with silk screen and machines the motifs tend to be perfect and soulless. I got around the stilted stencil syndrome by the tracing the shadows of leaves techniques. This technique works well for students who claim not  to be able to draw. First timers get fine results.

 Geometric repeating patterns were not coming out as good as they could. Explanations of how our right brains differ from our left brains and how it is absolutely impossible to work out a harmonious and attractive pattern when even a smidgen of our left brain is active while drawing did improve the students ability to find weaknesses in patterns and even remedy them to an extent. There is plenty of room for improvement.

Still looking for an effective way for students to make beautiful stencils the importance of the brush in Japanese art made me dig out some sleeping ink stones and have the students think about the role the brush played in motif design and try out some good old fashioned brushes and ink on beautiful Japanese Washi.

Four of us have carved out our version of the geometric pattern on the Katagami Style exhibition flier.

 I split the pattern into two stencils in order to use two separate colors. The results were not bad. But there is something trifling still and clumsy with the outcome. I'll try to cut out the stencil a second time but 30% finer.

(Eri cut even finer than the teacher. )

This morning a catalogue from an exclusive pottery shop in Tokyo arrived in the post. There are about 50 items in this weeks exhibition. Cups and bowls and vases and small dishes. Some are very old and some are from the 1950s and 60's. The prices start at 350 000 yen and skyrocket to 8 500 000 yen.($4000 to $90 000). Yes... you can buy a very good luxury car for the same price as a small dish. One particular dish was made by Tomimoto Kenkichi.

8 500 000 yen for this plate.

Looking carefully at the above plate we could make out that he had used some sort of stencil to resist the white and then paint on the red background. The finishing touches of the blue and black crosses were painted on by hand in subsequent firings. He had started with a brush and ink when designing the pattern.

Inspiration comes from sudden and disconnected sources. Here is a jump...

Something else red and repetitive was on my mind after watching this scene in the movie, "Across the Universe" yesterday.  The top link is filled disturbing scenes of an artist freshly dumped by his girlfriend singing, 'Strawberry Fields Forever' as he goes bananas pinning strawberries to the wall and then painting them while montages of his friend in Vietnam singing the same song as napalm drops and then strawberry bombs drop... (skip it if you aren't in the mood for it.)

This second clip from the same movie had me singing, 'Dear Prudence' all day long while we painted with ink and cut the stencils and then dyed them. Strange combination of inspiration. The red plate and to scenes from a well...."I saw a film today oh boy"...kind of movie.

You know what it is like when inspiration waves over you. The studio is going to get really messy...really quick... Like his strawberry smushed studio the kitchen looked like a few bombs hit it yesterday as we went on a rampage with sarasa research.

It is hard to hold an inspiration for any length of time. Especially if it is a scattered hybrid one like this one. (An insanely expensive hand painted dish, a broken-hearted angst-filled artist stuck in a Hollywood faux-Beatles flick , and a small insight into why cross cultural katazome stencils sometimes don't really work because of culturally specific traditional writing instruments.)  Singing the song helped me hold it. (Even through making lunch for students and the long process of soaking the cloth in soy bean milk and mordenting it, making fresh ink and then ink drawing a crane motif, transferring it to a persimmon paper, cutting it out, repeating the pattern, heating the rose madder lake and brushing it on and steaming it and then pasting it and dipping it in the indigo five times.... )The rainy season is here and it needs a little energy to fight off the sticky blues. "The sun is up, the sky is blue, it's beautiful and so are you, Dear Prudence...won't you come out to play....."was the glue that stuck them together today.

Using an ink stone and a piece of charcoal to make ink and then practicing on washi to make simple brushstroke, almost calligraphic shapes and then use them as a repeating patterns. It worked. Red and amber cranes with an indigo background. Natural home made pigments on hand-woven linen. All these techniques and styles we are working out will one day be used on larger projects. For the time being we work on small stuff like this narrow width linen. The translating of old texts, the cloth preparation and the pigment making and stencil design and cutting take up a lot of time. A lot of was great some fresh air moved in for once.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Autumn 2012 Indigo Workshops at my Farmhouse in Japan

The Spring 2012 Japanese Textile Workshop was a success.  Thanks to the help of many people and the wonderful participants themselves. I've been getting a regular flow of e-mails asking when and if I will do it again. I have put a lot of work into the house and a lot of thought into the workshop content so it seems a shame not to. Please check out this link and if you have any questions please mail me and I will get back to you soon as I can.

So this picture just about sums up my feelings in launching this workshop and inviting you to look inside. It was taken during the spring workshop as I was explaining the complexities of Noguchi san's indigo unique  fermentation technique.

The lid is open. What is inside is very valuable and interesting and has great potential for all the indigo sisters. (No indigo brothers last time.) It was up to me to explain it as simply and clearly as I could.  With a deep breath, enthusiasm and hope, I ask you to take a look at the Autumn 2012 brochure.


The Origins of Katazome Dyeing

Blandina san's first try with katazome.

I was not deeply interested in katazome dyeing although I had been working with the techniques for many years.  The techniques and history (especially local) of raising silkworms and making silk thread and weaving caught my imagination much more than stencil dyeing. There is an indigo vat at the house and in exploring the possibilities of dying with that, it didn't take long to bump into the long history and affinity of indigo and stencil dyeing.  I had spent years visiting Noguchi san's katazome studio learning more about fermenting indigo and simply dyeing with indigo, than picking up any katazome techniques from him. After years of watching him at work I felt familiar with the stencils and his techniques when looking at katazome samples in antique textile shops and in books.  I knew basically how they were made and that was enough. I can't remember exactly when I started cutting and using stencils myself.  It was definitely a side activity. After 15 years and even a few exhibitions of selling katazome work I began to realize that I was quite knowledgeable about the subject. But like the stencils themselves, there are a lot of holes that need filled in!

I recently realized, after researching sarasa techniques that I was in fact quite passionate about the whole katazome world. There are a few dozen books in Japanese on the shelf about the subject and up until recently the pictures had been satisfying enough. The specialized language and complicated kanji were too much of a challenge. The first few pages of these articles and research papers often included pictures of fabric from the ancient imperial treasure repository, Shosoin. Being more interested in the clothing of farmers than aristocrats I didn't bother to read further. Besides, most textile historians in Japan endlessly refer to the  textile treasures in the shosoin and I suspect it was more for the textile historian equivalent of street creds it provided than actual meaningful reference. Now that I am working through these articles I see the significance of the references to these ancient textiles produced in Japan and not Korea and China from the 7th century forward. The techniques that pre-dated katazome use are now fascinating in their ingenuity and the groundwork they laid for the wide spread use of katazome in the following 1000 years.

Carved woodblocks were used before paper stencils (katazome) in Japan to make a pattern on cloth. Three techniques were used.

First type:
The wood blocks were carved and the dye/ink was painted on the raised part of the wood block. The woodblock was then pressed onto the cloth transferring the color onto the cloth.

Second type:
The same design was carved onto two boards and the fabric stretched and sandwiched between the two boards and then clamped in place. There were holes in one of the boards where the dye was poured into the carved out chamber.
Third type:
 Like the first type but the raised part of the wood block pattern is coated in melted wax instead of color pigment. The wax is pressed into the cloth. The the cloth is submerged in a dye bath and you get a white motif against colored background.

The problem is that the lines are not that refined or defined and the craftsmen of the time wanted more precise control of the pattern making.

There had been a type of paper cut out that was placed on the fabric or other paper and had a mist of paint/ink applied from above. The paper cut out is then removed and there is a light shadow of the cut out left. I did this as a kid with small stencils of bunnies on Easter eggs. The food color was sprayed on using an old tooth brush.

I've read that paper stencils developed out of another technique of metal sheets that had pattern holes cut in them. Leather was placed below and pounded through the pattern holes to imprint a shape and color. The leather stenciled material was used for armor  in the 9th century.

To recap...there were three surface design techniques using carved wood blocks. There was a metal sheet pounding technique for leather and there was the sprinkle pigment on a cut-out technique.

It was about the year 1100 when stencil dyes started to appear in Japan. They developed along with good quality paper and rice paste that was needed to resist the patterns.

Around 1500 stencil dying took root firmly in Japan and was used primarily for the clothing of military men. The samurai had been imitating the woven patterned cloth of the aristocracy but during the warring stated period they had enough confidence to return to their commoner roots and wear stencil dyed fabric as apposed to woven brocades.

What followed was 600 years of stencil dyed surface designed textiles.  The rise of Samurai aesthetics (influenced by Zen Buddhism) and then the merchant class wealth and their tastes and other historical and economical factors played out through these centuries effecting design and color and fashionable popularity of katazome techniques. I will  leave these for future posts.

There are no wood block prints and sketches of textile designers working with those primitive woodblock print techniques in the 8th century. We don't know what their studios looked like or answers to the questions of their production. We can just fill in the blanks from their choice of motifs and the sophistication (or lack of) of their technical skills. There are some museums that hold some of these ancient textiles.....I wish I had a few months free to go and explore these.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Why Make Katzome Stencil Paper?

I heard that there was a TV program on Japanese television about making persimmon tannin stencil paper a few nights ago.  Strange.... because I started making persimmon tannin stencil paper a few days ago by coincidence.

The Katagami exhibition has got the wheels turning with a few of us these days. The history and evolution of stencil making has caught our imagination and we want to make the journey south in Japan to Ise to visit the museums and remaining artisans studios.

There are three specific things we want to investigate.

To observe as many steps as possible and ask as many questions as possible about  the actual production of the smoked persimmon tannin paper that takes two years to complete.

There are a variety of stencil cutting techniques and finishing processes to explore. There is an organization that meets on the last Sunday of each month that is dedicated to the preservation of stencil cutting.

To visit museums and take in as many designs and historical information as we can.

The idea of making persimmon tannin stencil paper has crossed my mind over the years. I make paper from the mulberry bark after feeding the leaves to the silkworms. I wonder.....

A new craft shop opened just doors down from the Canadian Embassy where I visited a few days back to get a new passport. They were selling some beautiful Japanese handmade washi paper. I bought a stack and we started the process on Tuesday. I doubt it will be that much of a success, especially since the paper must be smoked with cedar sawdust for ten days...twice. I figure the trip south to investigate this skill will be much more meaningful with a failed attempt behind us than to show up total tourists.

I dug out an ink stone, some charcoal and a ink stone wetter vessel that Tohei had made many years ago. We wrote our names or symbols of our names and persimmon tannined sheets of handmade paper together. The breeze blew gently through the young adult green leaves and we silently prayed to ourselves for success.

So far so good. Even if they don't become stencil paper the paper itself looks great.