Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Good Old Friends

Ogata san has a good sized field in front of her house where she tills the land and grows just about everything. Every Tuesday she brings fresh flowers and vegetables and cooks for us. It was her 94th birthday last week and we had a birthday party for her at the house today. Last year we took her out for lunch but it was not enough. Today we had a gorgeous sushi and tempura party for her. Being the Leo she is, she just soaked up our worship and smiled like the queen she is! My camera is on the blink so the pictures are blurry.

Old Snoopy is not faring well these days. Her back legs are shot but she managed to make it down to the village festival on the weekend where everyone there did what we did for Ogata san today....Only Snoopy doesn't know when to quit when it comes to good food. She gorged herself on grilled boar meat until she couldn't walk back up the hill. I went down and found her under the table stuffed and looking like she would burst. I carried her home and later it seems she suffered a small stroke or something misfired and now she has no sense of balance. She tips over after one step. Poor pooch. After a long day at her favorite vet today she looks a bit better. 

She is over 22 years old and has been living with me for over 19 years.  The front door has been open all these years and she comes and goes as she pleases. I have a hundred Snoopy adventure stories and everyone knows her. Now stone deaf, half blind and invalid everyone still loves her. Just a wonderful character. Does her own thing, doesn't listen to a thing anyone says. A good friend who is always there making the room feel comfortable. 

Geiger found a new home and he will move out next week. A lot of dog drama happening around the house. Snoopy likes to be near him when she sleeps. A little senior dog romance happening as well.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Persimmon Dying Silk Thread Skeins Hint / (柿渋糸染)

The dozen skeins of golden brown silk thread hung out in the sun every morning in front of the house attracts a lot of attention. They seem to be absorbing the sun and toasting slowly as the weeks go by. The color, shine and crispness is like cinnamon toast and a drawer of warm socks from the dryer.

It is impossible to get an even dye on skeins of thread with persimmon dye. I dyed the 140 cm skeins 6 times and then re-skeined them to 110 centimeters effectively scattering the light spots that were resisted from the sun's rays by the protective threads.
You can see the light parts here.

The skein on the right is the original size. I re-skeined the other two and re-distributed the light spots to get a proper random dyed variegation to be dyed over six more times with the persimmon tannin. A lot of work. A lot of work.

Homemade Kaishibu/Persimmon Tannin

Every house in this and the surrounding mountain villages has at least a few persimmon trees planted for the autumn fruit.  They are basically divided into two categories; sweet or astringent. The sweet kaki fruit can be eaten when it ripens off the tree.

There were very few sources of sugar in Japan until the country was flooded with Snickers and friends after WWII. These persimmons were a real treat in days long ago. The astringent ones must be semi dried in the sun before they are edible. The tartness evaporates and you can find countless varieties of these naturally sugar-coated candied persimmon jelly fruits made with this basic sun dried technique all over Japan.

It is these astringent types that are the source of a tannin when they are still green in August. The simplest way to use the fruit to dye is to simply grate it and squeeze the pulp and paint the sticky tannin heavy juice onto whatever it is you want to dye. It should absorb deeply into the material or it will simply flake off after a few hours in the sun. After coating the juice in/on, simply place it in the direct sunlight and wait until it turns golden brown. You can hang it or place it flat on the ground. The point is to get as many direct rays and heat as quickly as possible. (This works on paper as well.)

Japanese used the persimmon dye as a simple waterproofing for umbrellas, tools etc. and as a coating to make katazome stencil paper. In the past few years, the price of the bottled tannin has gone down and it seems everyone is dying something with it. Besides being a little messy to work with, taking time and needing good weather, it is relatively easy to use and the results are usually good. There are no 'expert' persimmon juice dyers like there are with indigo and other natural dyes. There has been no 'bible' or extensive research of it's history and usages been published as far as I know.

Takeshima san and I took Geiger for a walk and stumbled upon some persimmons fallen from a tree and we quickly gathered them and took them back to the house and I showed her how to process them. She was a little leery of how simple the process was as there is a rumor out there that it is tricky to use.

  She painted the squeezed juice on a few meters of her antique market find  with a regular kid's paintbrush. We will see how deep the brown color becomes in the next few weeks as they soak up ultra-violet sun rays.  The persimmon juice/ kakishibu tannin(柿渋)purchased has been processed and goes on much lighter than this and would take several repeated coatings. This 'grate, squeeze and use right away' technique is the caveman way. But it works!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Summer Indigo and Persimmon Dyeing and Atomic Dog Forgiveness

 A single lotus blooms for two days and is followed by another. Ogata san came by for some extra indigo dying with a few of her great grandchildren yesterday. They have the same life force as her.

Kamei san finished this huge patterned mokume shawl. A  lot of work, a lot of patience. Beautiful piece. Kelp under the waves motif.

This persimmon piece used an old stencil I cut with more seaweed designs. Seven separate persimmon coatings and 14 days in the sun. These  stencils can be used over and over again. I let students use them and it gives me extra pleasure to see their work with them.

The bill collector came from Tokyo Denryoku, the operator of the nuclear power plants that melted down.  Love these guys. 7000 million yen spent a year on advertising in every magazine, newspaper, and TV station, radio station and Internet site in the country.  Great way to guarantee that there is never a single word ever spoken or written about the dangers of nuclear power. They just pull the advertising income from the  media company. Like Toshiba and every other manufacturer of nuclear reactor parts.

 I suppose Geiger's previous owners who were forced to evacuate suddenly without any idea why (Nuclear power is safe, no other information was available, god forbid a school textbook might mention it either.) leaving their dog behind to fend for himself. Here the bill collector has come and I asked if I could take his picture with my new dog. I didn't mention that Geiger is a refugee from Fukushima but my students seemed a little uncomfortable with me having a little fun with the camera, the nuked dog and the electricity bill collector. Distrust and then forgiveness....Geiger you are a better dog than I am human.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Indigo Shibori Kimono/Cleaning Old Textiles

The new rhythm of the Tuesday class is for a student to find some old cloth at a weekend antique market and bring it to class and ask me what to do with it. Their eyes are getting so much better. Takeshima san hit a market last weekend. In understated Japanese style, a cloth bag appeared and the treasures came out one by one.  We found ourselves all casually sitting in the floor in the entrance of the house, lotus blooming outside. Ogata san already at work at the indigo. First she showed us a kimono she had dyed a few weeks back and sewn recently. The material was originally a roll of somewhat ugly colored light purple sturdy gauze-like Aizu Momen. Perhaps 30 years old? A weave from the now unfortunately infamous area in Fukushima.

We looked at it months ago and were not that confident in what to do with it. It was a risk to use a shibori technique that would take hundreds of hours as I couldn't be certain how the cloth would dye. There is no way to know how some materials will take the indigo. The purple might cause some trouble as well. Takeshima san herself is bold and cute and straightforward. The pattern had to match her own whimsical tough demur and like a chord progression riff with a catchy hook she pulled it off with grace.

She took a few dollar roll (2000 yen?) of old cotton and managed to just get it right in deciding on an appropriate way to dye it. I thought katazome pattern would be a lot of work and the potential results a little dicey on that particular weave. It all came together perfectly.

Then a few more mouth watering treasures appeared. Diamonds in the rough. They were dark and discolored rolls of silk and linen. The first step was to bring a huge pot of water to a boil. Add some slaked line to up the pH to melt any sizing glue, add some dish soap to remove any oil and add some regular laundry soap to clump together all the muck taken off the material so it doesn't adhere back on to the cloth. Boil it for a few hours, then put the cloth through a cycle in the washing machine. Then boil it again to make sure the cloth is really clean.

She spent too much money in a fever at the market and I was more than happy to buy half of two of her purchases. Look at them! What will the world be like when we can't get this stuff anymore? No one makes it any more. You know that feeling of desperation and elation combined? So much poetry and information in these pieces. Woven into every shuttle pass with every hand made thread made from what was immediately available in their lives. From a  time when everything wasn't Made in Fucking China.

The ultimate goal is to be weaving these textiles ourselves. Weaving with limited resources, like a box of cocoons and some old wooden reelers and looms. I think they will all move more in this direction but the fascination now is getting and starting to read these old textiles and time travel back technologically, emotionally and economically (and I hope they get the idea of what politically and sociologically) was happening to a time when everything wasn't lit up so brightly. A time with a few quiet shadows around.

The striped material is almost unrecognizable from the dirty, smelly brown material that looked as if it had been nailed to a barn door for thirty years. Now that it is fresh and vibrant as only linen can be, I will leave it as it is. I'll saddle stitch up the edges and make a light linen shoulder blanket for the campfire on spring and autumn evenings. I'll stencil dye the plain linen weave and figure out a way to use it with respect. (Perhaps it will be there in a future exhibition in Florence Italy. :))

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Shibori

In elementary school, my fifth grade teacher told the class as we rubber banded t-shirts to tie-dye about Japanese tie-dye techniques. "They take it to heights beyond imagination." Hmmm. She rolled her eyes and shuddered a little.

 When I picked up Yoshiko Wada, Mary Kellogg Rice and Jane Barton's book on Japanese shibori techniques , 'Shibori the Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist  Dyeing'  20 years ago I shuddered as well. That book has launched more than a few careers in Shibori for certain. I read a few pages at the back of the back at the back of a crowded bookstore in  Shinjuku. It was about an old woman who grew her own indigo, fermented it and dyed cloth in Japan. I am a fast reader so it must have taken me two minutes to read the article. I shut the book, walked to the cash register with a cheek muscle ripping smile and eyebrows up to my hairline in enthusiasm. (The hairline was much lower than it is now.) I knew in that instant that I would spend the rest of my life as an indigo related craftsman. Decided. No more searching for a path.

Now I have Tine, a bright  young woman from  Belgium living here in Japan with a Japanese husband. She is burning with that indigo/shibori fever and some heavy responsibility sits on my shoulders. She will return to Brussels in two years and wants to open a shop selling indigo goods she has made and small school teaching Japanese shibori techniques.

She comes on Saturdays and we submerse ourselves in Shibori, history, philosophy of Japanese crafts etc. How long does it take to master something? How long does it take to really get a hold on indigo and shibori well enough that your products can stand the market with pride and you can confidently teach students? I'll try to impart as much as I can and encourage her to go to Arimatsu/Narumi the traditional shibori towns in Japan to polish up and get her 'Japan Creds'.

 Once she has some tunes in her repertoire she should find some very impressive cloth and start making large pieces for an exhibition several years down the road. She should know a few dozen traditional techniques and be able to expand on  them and innovate her own style. The exhibition will give her a goal to work towards, material to promote herself with, and experience in producing work to sell.

Not to waste any time I have her try several variations on a technique on a single piece. (Above Katano shibori slight variations.) Like anything it is 90% hard work and 10% inspiration.

On top of this she has to get a good grasp on how indigo vats work.

 A lot of work ahead. Gambatte Tine!

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Kesa 袈裟 Buddhist Robes in Japan

I flirted around with Buddhism since arriving in Japan 24 years ago. At first by studying Buddhist painting and scroll making at a Shingon Shu temple for years after arriving in Japan.  The Buddhist priest's wife, took me into her family. We travelled together to Italy, Indonesia, Kyoto, India, Nepal (we hiked the Annapurna circuit together) and even Washington DC together. Her son and I hiked for a week along the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island.  They opened a Mandala museum on the grounds of the temple and I was able to participate and observe many religious ceremonies. They encouraged me to study and become a Buddhist Priest. I was told that there are many mountain temples in need of a live in-priest. I could do my natural dyeing to my hearts content as long as I chanted sutras at funerals and performed other simple rites.

The whole idea was too overwhelming.

I did make the trip to Mt Koya  to check out the two-year Buddhist University course. It looked intriguing but I wondered if I could make it through. Religion was something you 'believed in'.  I just knew I would never fit in or swallow some non-sensical doctrine etc. Twenty years later I view it all differently and slightly regret that I didn't jump in and use the two years (they would have been generously sponsored) to have learnt so much that was available.

I settled for books and self-study into the history and art of different Buddhist sects and the roles they played in Japanese history.


 I went to museums to see exhibitions of Buddhist relics.


I went to dozens of temples to see gardens and the buildings and pick up non-related trivia of the history of a particular building place or person. I travelled to the birthplace of Buddhism in India and Nepal. I visited dozens of Buddhist temples from Indonesia up through to Laos.


 I love books, and museums and sightseeing. But they don't really resonate as well as first-hand experience.

To get something more substantial I studied the Japanese tea ceremony for many years from a master. (It is closely related to the study of Zen Buddhism.) He looked a lot like Yoda. Once he had a mosquito bite on the top of his ear, making it pointed and I couldn't stop grinning as I tried to make the tea. (Yeah, I really took the path to enlightenment seriously.) You study architecture, poetry, flower arrangement, pottery appreciation, food, Japanese gardening. Everything cultural. (And incidentally how to make a bowl of tea.) I loved it. It is impossible to write about the tea ceremony as it goes deeper and deeper in every direction. Even practicing it for many years  it takes time to get even a glimpse at the full picture.

All this Buddhist stuff. Of course there were textiles along the way. The cloth on the sutra scrolls. The hanging banners in a temple. The prayer flags in Tibet. (I was pretty busy with Buddhism come to think of it.) The silk cloth for Buddhist paintings. But the most impressive of all was the clothing. The saffron robes for monks and the full regalia of a high priest.

It seems a bit taboo to write on this subject.
Buddhist priests ceremonial robes.

I love these textiles and can't help myself. I want to give you a glimpse of what there is. There just is not much out there in the popular textile books and Internet information. Here is a book that is filled with gorgeous pictures of Kesa robes. The book comes form an exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum in 2009.  The book is packed with new information both written and visual. I can only give you a small glimpse.

Kesa were the simple robes the monks and priests wore in India where Buddhism started. As it spread to colder countries over the Himalayas and through to Korea and Japan it became more of a draping shawl over one shoulder than a full one piece robe.

These Kesa were collected from temple's repositories from all over Japan for the exhibition in Kyoto. Some are over 1000 years old. Buddhism came across the sea from China. Japanese monks travelled there to get their credentials and bring back new teachings. The looms and weaving techniques changed over time and geographical area. The kind of weave is important in determining not only the age of the item but also the value and concepts they were literally woven into the object. The weave structures are clearly explained and pictured. The ever-changing values of the religion and different sects over a thousand years are there to read right in the cloth itself. The priests and their writings related to each of the robes is documented.  And the kesa of Shinto and Taoist priests interconnected to Buddhism are documented as well. Japanese Emperors would retire after a few years and become priests. They were not obligated to follow the strict rules of design and had some fascinating robes designed along the lines of the kesa to wear that signified both their royal background and their Buddhist humility.


Too much gushing unorganized information. I just find it fascinating. I am almost willing to give up all my worldly possessions and become a kesa maker! Eri says she will join me. Dripping with history and significance and pure beauty that stretches across the spectrum of refined poverty to divine angel wings. Here are a dozen snaps from the book. The book itself is almost impossible to get so you will have to drop by for a coffee and take a look for yourself.

They are all silk. The design is supposed to represent rice paddies. The patchwork to make the wearer humble. The original kesa were made from rags. Remember one of the central tenants of Buddhism is that everything is an illusion. We suffer because we are attached to material goods and other things in an endlessly transient world. The goal is not to be emotionally attached. (I fail here...I am really attached to these textiles...Oh how I suffer.) These values are somewhat forced into a tangible existence in these robes. (Our human instinct and desire to create meaning!)

Sorry for the lousy snaps.  My enthusiasm is high this morning. Perhaps I will get back to the topic with a more thought out narrative and higher quality pictures. Just a quick look at another facet of Japanese textiles.