Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Katazome Stencil Volume

The tidy chaos of a Japanese stencil dyer's studio sort of snagged my foot and tripped me into that world twenty years ago. It wasn't the skill to make make surface design patterns with indigo dyeing or their beauty. The initial reaction was a yawn.

Hand spun silk, dyed with natural dyes and hand woven stripes and checks still moves me the most when it comes to textiles. Secondly, oddly enough, are white linen, needle worked in some fashion  European stuff. 

I first went to Noguchi san's katazome studio/house with Minako all these years ago when she wanted to dye some silk for a weft. I had never heard of katazome before and was simply overwhelmed by all the old equipment that was still in use. I've taken many of my guests here to be as overwhelmed as I was initially. (Judi I haven't forgotten your breakdown at the beauty of the place.)

Katazome has been a major part of indigo life here in Japan. It has been eyed rather suspiciously from a distance to tell the truth. Like some object or person in your life you never really noticed, paid much attention to or even loved until one day you can't imagine life without it/him/her. It is here to stay and be acknowledged, celebrated a little and have any suspicions discarded .

Except for an exhibition in Europe a few years back where I cut out stencils of elaborate Buddhist images and used them on antique linen cloth and dyed them with indigo and persimmon tannin to a degree where the images were barely recognisable, I haven't really used the katazome with any true focus.

(On the wall behind Tohei and Annette.)

 I travelled to Ise and researched how the paper is made and the traditional stencil carving categories and techniques. The bookcase has a few dozen books on Japanese stencil dyeing.  I've visited studios and exhibitions.  Given talks about stencils in Japan. Designed and cut hundreds of stencils.

I've taught countless people how to cut stencils, lacquer on silk reinforcement net, make rice paste, paste and indigo dye the cloth. I haven't worked on any long term projects myself. Realising how much time I've spent on life with katazome and not accomplished much I figure it is time to up the volume a bit.

Now with the knitting machines working and a cotton/ linen paper thread balance has been worked out, there is a growing stack of white knit fabric upstairs that needs some katazome surface design. I  designed  a few good scarves and wraps that are selling. There is plenty of room for improvement and more product design. I have a teacher come in and teach me pattern making and sewing classes a few hours each Wednesday at the Atsugi studio. The middle term goal is to indigo and persimmon stencil dye some knit fabric I make on those old machines and develop (design and make) some men's shirts and cardigans and scarves and find a market for them.

Last year, due to time restrictions,  I  used a combination of stencils drawn and cut myself with old stencils I bought at antique markets. A few of the bought ones are well over 150 years old. I re-lacquered them and have used them so much that they are disintegrating.  It was cool to give them one more shot at life.  Sad to see that they won't last much longer.

You can use the old stencils in a way they were not intended and you can admire the genius of the design. The time trip to the culture and time that the stencils design and technique came from is invigorating.

It is cool to sing other peoples songs. But the satisfaction of writing and composing your own is different. (Even if they are not up Neil Young standards.) The same with the stencils. (Not up to the Edo masters standards.)

It is only natural to want to cut all original stencils for the knit project now.

One of the very old, worn out stencils is this wave pattern. It seemed a little banal at first. But if you scrape the paste across and then slightly shift the stencil and re-apply it makes an interference pattern that is interesting and easy on the eye. Since the goal is not to have perfectly lined up repeat patterns and a cold perfectionism it is fine to do this. The stencil has been in tatters time and time again and it has been painstakingly patched.

 It was time to carve a new one. I ended up netting both sides of the stencil and as a result the paste started clogging up. Grfrrrrrrrr. It was no longer fun to use. It was a late Maria Callas concert. Plenty of adoration and respect but there comes a time to retire.

These are the effects possible with this particular stencil. You can see why it was sad to see it fall apart. 

Stitch three pieces of katagami paper together so you can cut three stencils at once. It is harder to cut three at a time but obviously it is time efficient. The original wave stencil seemed too fine to reproduce with mortal motor skills so the waves were enlarged. To compensate for the boldness of line,  the lines were cut as if they were painted with a brush.  Connecting islands between waves to keep the stencil stronger were carefully added. The overall the pattern is OK. But it was missing delicacy and had no poetry. (Some of the horizontal lines are actually from the paper lighting fixture it is being held in front of.)

Trying it out a few times with indigo (had to break the ice on the surface) it isn't bad but too much of it would be a mistake. (Combined here with some shape resist with the stencil dyeing to get that separate tonal wave effect. )

So it was back to the drawing board last night. Using the old stencils basic measurements of 8mm spacing I redrew it.  It is now at  the tweaking the touch stage. Not in any attempt to make it mine but to hide a few deficits in cutting skills.  The waves need to be a little sexier before the cutting starts.  You may pick up a few griding-out-for-waves tips here. ( Open to advice on this side too.) It took about six hours of concentration to get it this far. It will need 25 to 30 hours of cutting now. Instead of stitching together three separate sheets of katagami paper, the paper was simply folded in thirds and then stitched to stop slipping around. 

This stencil will be used in tandem with another yet to be cut stencil of some seaweed-like stuff.  The goal is ten good stencils this year. Five wave motifs and five something in/under/amongst the waves motifs. (As my turning 50 next week crisis continues I am setting these sort of goals.)

So katazome is being moved from peripheral vision to centre stage for a the next few months. There is a   clear place to use them now. Everything is good.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Places to Study Japanese Textiles in Japan

I am writing more or less the same reply to several emails I receive each week to young designers  who are interested in coming to Japan for an extended period of time and learning about Japanese crafts (particularly textiles) for their career. Besides studying indigo techniques here at my place they want to know other places where they can study some techniques in depth. I feel rotten in replying that I really don't know any. It is really a tragedy for the loss of textile culture. And I feel guilty in responding that I am pretty much book dup here as well.

I don't think there are any places to study that are easily accessible. You would really need to speak basic Japanese and have some basic understanding of the subtleties of the culture.

 The reasons there are few places to study Japanese crafts in depth are not just a simple matter of  economics. There are some cultural attitudes at work as well.

  Anything in Japan seems to be commodifiable. With such huge populations crammed into the few flat livable areas of the country it is deeply ingrained in the marketing mind of the Japanese.  Textiles classes are no exception. For example, how do you work a long-term indigo workshop where the student truly gets the skills and the teacher isn't wasting their life tied to a vat of indigo?

It takes almost forever to process indigo from seed to dye pot. It takes years to understand the limitations of the indigo dyeing processes. Some of my students have been quick under studies. They are almost always the ones who have mastered some other skill, (often non-related like dancing or cooking.)  But for the most part there are a lot of compromises being made. It takes time to learn to make and maintain an indigo vat and time to learn to use it well. It also takes time to figure out how to use it so you aren't going through money as fast as you are indigo.

These astonishingly complex Japanese crafts (that due to  clean and simple aesthetics may look easy) developed in a different time. Understudies lived with the masters and spent their lives, very often dedicated to a single aspect of a specific craft. The Japanese society is still very vertically structured. (tate shakai) Power still sits in steep pyramids. The secrets of techniques developed were kept in the workshops and died along with the masters.  It is a catch-22. The source of these remarkable crafts developed from the very essence of this social structure.  The globalization of the economy and semi-democratisation of the society hasn't dove-tailed with the traditional crafts apprentice system that well. It is almost gone.

This may seem discouraging. However, there are foreigners in Japan who have mastered Japanese crafts and arts. We haven't all met face to face but we know each other as we are often in the same books, magazines or TV programs where the writer/director has chosen foreigners love of things Japanese and their dedication to their crafts to show the intrinsic value of these traditional cultural assets.

The non-Japanese faces making pottery, making paper, paper umbrellas, cutting huge frozen tuna with sword-like knives, making flower arrangements, doing the tea ceremony, meticulously repairing antique folding screens, painting in Japanese style, carving wood bloc prints, creating bonsai, lacquerware masters, martial art masters, dancers and someone growing indigo and raising silkworms add some story value to the media.

There is sometimes a bit of a freakshow undercurrent to the plot and it is wise to turn down almost all media requests. Very very few writers and producers and directors of these things take a look at the non-Japanese craftspeople as anything more than 'add value interest' aspect to their project.

Why has someone moved all the way to Japan from Italy, Brazil or India etc. to learn these skills? It is more than just a deep interest in the beauty and sophistication of things Japanese. There is human curiosity and desire to grow that is much more interesting and profound. Is this just harder to get across?

It is easy to get a tad snarky and grumpy in the interview situations you  allow yourself to get caught in. It isn't hard to follow the threads of the questions and see where they are leading.  The assumptions and presumptions of the interviewer/writer can only be dodged with evasiveness or when cornered by a cold splash of sarcasm quickly followed and wiped up by a tiny Japanese face towel of humbleness.

So all these non-Japanese have found their way to Japan, found masters to study under and continue to work on their crafts. (Many of them before the Internet.)  It is not impossible.

 I will work on finding out where the opportunities to study Japanese textiles at a level deeper are. Something more than a two hour stencil course or a rubber band shibori experience.

I really appreciate the time taken to email me and ask about opportunities to study here in Japan. If I had more of an entrepreneurial spirit I would establish a small institute dedicated to some areas Japanese textiles I am fond of and value. For the time being I can only take in a few people a year and offer them a room in this creaky house and a little time to share what I can slice off the block (before it gets too old).

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Primitive Textile Musings on a New Year.

 'There is something on the doorstep. I think Momo dragged it home from the mountains….It looks evil and foreboding…'

Those are just the words you want to hear while you are cooking dinner for guests. Ignoring them until the onions were caramelised for the vegetable soup it was time to investigate.

The guy next door is a hunter.  In the winter months he shoots wild boar and cleans them and tosses the stuff he doesn't eat off the side of the mountain. Snoopy was dragging home all sorts of bones and horrible stuff for years. Momo, being such a delicate corgi-fox princess, was above this sort of tough behaviour. (So we thought.) She had brought home a hoofed leg the other day and places it on my pillow as a present. Snoopy had done the exact same thing ten years ago. I froze the Snoopy gift-leg and am somehow comforted by her generosity every time I fill the ice cube tray and see it wrapped carefully in the freezer.

 Momo with her cloven-hoofed present she took back after realising I wasn't about to start gnawing on it.

It is cold. It is bare and primitive outside. The monkeys are hungry. Anneke and Hiro couldn't stop watching them scour the dried vines outside the kitchen window, salvaging a few puny berries. Furtively glancing around for competitors and getting their fur all burred. The windows ultimately started to fog up even from our bated breathing. Eventually the monkeys moved on.

The year is young. The monkeys young and old are younger versions of ourselves. (Auto-spell-check is killing me… 'monkeys hung and old…') They haven't evolved like the year before us surely will. Close to  kerosene heaters we are scratching around ourselves, each in their own way preparing for the year ahead. A PhD thesis being formulated, a future in a just-finished-but-too-cold-to-work-in pottery studio and  my own worries and tentative plans for the year. Everything is asleep and waiting for warmth.  

Anyway, the onions were caramelised and this lovely object was on the doorstep…as promised…evil and foreboding.

Anneke and I boldly decided we would scrape off the fat off the back and clean it up the following day. I contemplated how to turn it into a mask with some copper fittings etc. Placed on the outside sink counter for scraping the next day it disappeared over night. 


 Until Noor told us that she had witnessed the beagle from next door jumping up and trying to get it. 

Back to primitive musings….

At the Fuchu museum a few weeks back there was a Taiyo special edition magazine on,"The Power of Jomon". The Jomon people…

The Jōmon period (縄文時代 Jōmon jidai?) is the time in Prehistoric Japan from about 12,000 BC[1] and in some cases cited as early as 14,500 BC[2] to about 300 BC, when Japan was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer culture which reached a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity.
The name "cord-marked" was first applied by the American scholar Edward S. Morse who discovered sherds of pottery in 1877 and subsequently translated intoJapanese as jōmon.[3] The pottery style characteristic of the first phases of Jōmon culture was decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay. This pottery, dated to around 16,000 years ago, is perhaps the oldest in the world (pottery nearly as old has been found in southern China, the Russian Far East, and Korea[4]). The period was rich in tools and jewelry made from bone, stone, shell, and antler; pottery figurines and vessels; and lacquered wood.[5][6][7] The Jōmon is often compared to pre-Columbian cultures of Pacific Northwest North America because in both regions cultural complexity developed within a primarily hunting-gathering context (with limited use of horticulture).

 I have this wooden sushi container full of Jomon pottery from my old digs  on the table upstairs. No one believes they are real. 

Unless someone randomly buried them a meter under the ground in my indigo field it seems they are.

There were photographs and an article in the magazine about some nettle thread that had been artistically wound and painted with red-ochre sumac lacquer and formed into pieces of jewelry. Amazing.  On one pottery shard I dug up had a stick man throwing a spear at a boar. I can only presume they would have used the skins as clothing. 

My 50th birthday is two weeks away.  I moved to Japan on my 25th birthday. Half of my life spent in this foreign country. Where to aim the remaining (optimistically speaking) 25 years? 

This deep and dry cold weather lends itself to frigid musings on life and the origins of textiles.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Madder and the Winter Down Time

New Years Eve was very quiet at the house. The past few weeks of the winter slow down have been heaven.

Anneke arrived a few days with a suitcase full of the precious stuff. A big bottle of Pernod. A lot of chocolate.  I had to clean the fridge spotlessly and dedicate a special drawer to the mountain of cheese from Amsterdam and Italy. Now that is the way to start a good new year. Hiro baked away in the new oven and we are all suffering from lasagne hangovers. The dogs are walked and curled up in their respective chairs. Such domesticity.

Celebrating Christmas is a bit of a stretch in Japan. It is better to keep it simple. Hiro roasted a chicken in the new oven. Kamei san joined us for a quiet and delicious Christmas dinner. Then we watched, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas',  'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' and a dozen versions of, 'Do You Hear What I Hear?' on youtube. A midnight-minus-five-degree-dog-walk and soon visions of sugarplums were dancing in our heads. 

The reds from dyeing with madder were the only thing resembling Christmas decorations in the house this year.

After comparing Japanese Madder, European Madder and Indian Madder the verdict is in: 

Indian madder makers the most beautiful deep reds.

After using the dried roots, fresh roots, powdered and finely chopped the verdict is in:

Finally chopped is easier to use and you seem to get every last drop of pigment out of the roots.

The best technique for boiling down the madder is to make a fine woven and strong cotton bag and place the madder in that and put that in the boiling water. It is physically exhausting and dangerous to be pouring boiling water through fine cheesecloth over and over. It is also messy. The madder does double in size when it is boiled so don't fill the bag. It will explode. I used to use a silk bag but it just absorbed a lot of the pigment. After using it for years it was a gorgeous blood red before I retired it and used the silk as a lining for some project. Cotton will not absorb much of the madder pigment.

To get dark reds with aluminum you do have to mordant and dye mordant and dye a few times. It is not necessary to dry between dyes.  I was mordanting at 5% weight of dry yarn.

I learned to warp twenty years ago on a large Japanese wooden warping drum from the early 20th century. I had two at the house but they never ran smoothly. Kids love to spin these things full throttle and they get broken easily. I found one in almost perfect condition in an attic of an old farmhouse in a neighbouring village a few weeks back. It took a few days to polish up and oil and repair and now it runs perfectly. The first project to get warped is a silk kimono obi. It can warp eight threads at a time. One rotation in 3.5 meters. The frame can warp about 70 meters evenly. How clever is this thing?  You can warp 1200 threads in less than two hours.

I spent New Years Eve cutting new stencils for the paper linen sock tube project. I sewed together three layers of papers so three stencils get cut at the same time. The wave patterns with something floating down them from a second stencil is going to be the motif for a few years. I am generally too busy to think. This was an easy decision and keeps the general flow of work more or less centred for a while.

Best for the coming year.