Monday, 29 August 2016

Soulmates in the Oddest Places

We hired a driver for a week. He picked us up in Tbilisi and drove us out to the deep countryside. He was dignified and kind and clear eyed. He is Georgian and had graduated from a veterinary school in Moscow. He oversaw the chicken and cow veterinarians working at 150 farms in Georgia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 he was out of work.The last animals were eaten and the farm buildings and machinery were sold to Turkey for money for food.

When Putin said that the second greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union I snickered. "Good riddance to it." I thought. I couldn't imagine all the human suffering the collapse unleashed.  I was just thinking of all the suffering it was ending.

He (the driver, not Putin) had see how excited we were at the State Silk Museum. A few days later he took me in the van for a drive. I could see he was looking for somewhere specific. We turned right and had the Azerbaijan border right in front of us.

Wrong road.

We turned back and drove along the center of this valley.

(Please click photo to see the whole picture.)

He stopped in front of a house and went and knocked on the door. I got out and took a photo of this place across the street and dreamed a little "fix-it-up" dream for me.

He came over and invited me to go into the house. He had met the woman who lives there 25 years before and remembered that she was using natural dyes and weaving carpets.

He had searched her out to introduce us to each other.

We didn't share a common language. The conversation in English went to Russian and then on to Georgian. You have to keep a lot of eye contact so if the words are lost, the emotions and intentions are at least somewhat apparent. I hope that they could read the gratitude on my face.

Lilli lives in this wonderful traditional Georgian wooden house. She was a silk farmer for her whole life. 500 kilograms of cocoons a year.  She quit when the Soviet Union collapsed. No place to sell the silk.

She gets sheep wool from her neighbour and cards and spins it. She proudly/humbly proclaimed she gets 50 colours from local natural berries, roots and barks.

The blue (obviously indigo pigment) she gets from a TREE BARK!!! I thought I knew just about everything about indigo and I get tsunamied with that information.

Indigo from bark????? I had to go back and forth through the translation chain three times in disbelief.


I had only an iPhone with less than 10% battery left. I tried to show her some pictures of my silk farm and the vegetable dyes I use and some things I weave. Just enough to let her know that I am her brother.

I tried to follow my "Visiting artist's studio rules". Look
 and shop and leave. But it was hard. I had severe separation anxiety.

Perhaps she sensed this or it was that famous Georgian hospitality but we soon found ourselves at a lavish lunch that materialized out of nowhere in her cellar room. All the wines and liquors she had made herself. The wool suppling neighbour also made sheep cheese. It was wrapped tightly in a sheepskin and fermented for one year. ( It was so delicious I thought I had died and gone to a Greek island.)

We toasted in the Georgian style. (The goal seems to be to move the others to tears with honesty and gratitude and all those other tear jerking emotions. )When it was my turn to give a toast I think I did a good got my tear ducks (sic) swimming. For the last toast we toast the angel above each door that will guard us as we travel to the next door.

There was my most memorable textile day on that five week vacation. Not even planned. Someone gave it to me.

Like Japan there are these master craftspeople living quiet almost unrecognized lives of dedication to their craft. I purchased those socks and leggings on our laps in the picture. Unfortunately,  I only had a stack of roubles and yen in my wallet. Just 50 Georgian laris. There were some carpets and bed covers that would have looked so good in this old Japanese house.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Silk Road from Japan to Georgia.

The doubtful rickety barn I live and work in was a silk farming house until the mid-1960s like every other house in the village.

No one moves anywhere.

 The same ten families for the past 600 years it seems. Scratching out a living in this nondescript crease in the mountains. The winters were spent making charcoal to sell and to give the illusion of heat in a brazier under a table. In the spring and summer and autumn they raised silkworms. There was no electricity. Typhoons like the two we have had over the past few days drench the place. A dreary mess to mop up with drearier rags and scrappy bamboo brooms.....

When I moved in this place 22 years ago, the second and third floor was littered with abandoned funereal silk farming equipment. Bamboo trays and linen nets, fuzz removing boxes and wooden pulleys for getting the mulberry up to the top of the house. There was more equipment for reeling the silk and skeining it. There was still more weaving equipment. Looms and warping wheels and reeds.

Food, clothing and shelter self-sufficiency.

The old guy who was born in this house is in the hospital now. I take his wife there a few times a week for a short visit.  His sister was there today and we briefly sat with him. He is so small grey and fragile.

It was just yesterday we were climbing the mountain and collecting bamboo and falling trees.

My head spun a little at the human/time dynamics at the table. I dump fix up money into their old house. (A place full of harsh memories of poverty and mosquitoes and cold for them. ) An antique carpet here and some other unnecessary sarty-afrtsy-something-or-other object there. Ornamental grasses and a dozen kinds of lilies from the local home centre to improve the view out the bathroom window.

I put in flush toilets a few years back. A few of the neighbouring houses still have outhouses and paper walls and doors instead of glass ones. I think my neighbours thought I was needling them on purpose by flushing the toilet to trot out it actually flushed. They came over to look at it (them actually, I put in three at once...)  enviously... in 2012.

I took me a few years but eventually I knew what all the silk and charcoal tools were used for. In neighbouring villages that were wealthier than this one you could find the same tools only of higher quality and cleverer design. Deeper in the mountains there were more meager houses where the equipment was shabbier.

Working in Laos I saw similar old silk industry tools and could discern their purpose at a glance. The branches off the silk road. I figured at first that the tools were developed to fulfil a function and that is why they looked similar. The Japanese tools were slightly different as there is no chair culture and tools were made to use while sitting on the floor. The eye-level is decided in traditional Japanese houses. Windows and furniture and even dishes are based on this single eye level.

After Russia I flew to Tbilisi, Georgia for a week. Georgia was formerly called, The Georgian Soviet Republic. After the Soviet Union collapsed it declared independence and became an independent country in 1991. It sits on the Black Sea.

I flew down there with Anna for a few reasons. To eat/drink the famously delicious food and wine, experience the Georgians legendary hospitality and see the notoriously beautiful people. (Three checks and five stars to all three of the above.) Anna's brother Vanya came along with his finance and we had a small wedding in a remote romantic town.

I didn't expect any textile related experiences except looking for some carpets to drag home to the farmhouse....Iran and Azerbaijan are close by. They were hard to resist.

I had two great unexpected textile experiences in Georgia. We had an excellent guide who cracked our brains with her extensive knowledge of her country. Linguistics. Ancient history. Legends. Religious oddities. Wine. Food. Soviet Era economics.  My god.....

She asked what I do in Japan and then spoke to the taxi driver and he took us to the State Silk Museum. It seemed slightly LSD 35 years after the facts...
A silk museum in the middle of Georgia.

Ahh..Georgia was on one of the silk roads...

Inside it was a little Tara-after-the-civil-war-scene. 

The capitals and keystone decorations were gilded silk moths and silkworms on mulberry leaves.

You gotta smile a Soviet smile for those silk moth antennas.

I growled a bit on thinking of the dumb-ass silk museum in Yokohama in the typical Japanese imagination-free idiotic fuck-you-school-of-civic-architecture.

It was a party. We loved it.

 The director was surprised to see our crew so enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. If only we had a bottle of vodka in there! We could have proposed a full bottle worth of toasts in Georgian emotional style to the ingenuity of humans in thousands of years of silk production.

The similarity of the silk producing machines left me road...
(As a silk farmer in Japan, I more or less cringe when I see or hear the words silk road....)

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia: 

and so on and so forth...

During the Soviet Era almost every home in some areas raised silkworms. Half of the production went to Russia and the other half was sold or used locally in Georgia. 

When the Soviet Union fell apart so did the silk industry. Factories and tools were uprooted and taken to the Turkish border and sold. There are rumblings of an effort to start the silk industry again. I was  generously offered some land and some government assistance to lend a hand in its revival. The temptation was there. If I was ten years younger I would have jumped on it. 

There are mulberry trees left. There are stories left. Just like Japan. A deceased silk industry and it's lonely remnants.

I spotted this old Soviet Silk farm by the side of the road and stopped to take pictures.

After looking for a place to hold the wedding we decided to do it at home. (Our rented house.) The local band played (and cooked our food on a grill outside) and the locals had a feast waiting for us when we got home.  We ate and drank and danced and smiled and wished Vanya and Olya the best for their future lives together.

(Looks like I am marrying one of them.) (The justice of the peace didn't laugh when we asked her to perform the first gay wedding in Russian Orthodox Georgia.)

And the band was  more than handsome. They sat at the table next to us. Small beautiful wedding on that old silk road.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Indigo in the Russian Ethnography Museum

I have been back in Japan for a while. There are so many great pictures of textiles in Russia that no one will see unless I blog them. There are a few more blogs to come.

There is a lot going on at the house. I had a genki group of students here for ten days. The weather was pretty hot but they were all good sports.

Johanna, Tina, Shawn, Gloria, Shannah, Claire and Ann. We needed a time stop machine for a few extra weeks.  We still see you sitting in your own territories around the house and yard. Whiteboots is checking you all out. I hope you all made it home safely. Many thanks and hugs from Hiro and me.

Thread is being dyed by the ton to be made into indigo t-shirts. We are reeling  and spinning this springs silk cocoons day by day.....and indigo.........Was it that smart of an idea to plant three new indigo fields this year? The second harvest is finished and we start the third soon. A ton of indigo. How on earth is it going to be used???? it is so much work to produce. The projects to be dyed have to be worthy of the indigo.
There is plenty of textile excitement going on.

Whiteboots loves to help with the chores....indigo harvesting etc.

Back to Russia......
The Russian Museum of Ethnography in St Petersburg houses a collection of 500 000 items relating to the ethnography, or cultural anthropology, of peoples of the former Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The museum was set up in 1902. Tsar Nicholas had opened the state coffers to fund it.

The museums first exhibits were the gifts received by the Russian Tsars from peoples of Imperial Russia. These were supplemented by regular expeditions to various parts of the Russian Empire which began in 1901. 

I had a tummy ache the entire time I was there...I was so excited. How could you not get a tummy ache when you find an indigo dyeing studio from the Caucasus circa 1900 transported 'as is' to the museum???

(Anna and I were practically dancing in front of it. We kept our clothes on but it was a Doukhobor  moment.)

Madder and Indigo.....speechless.

We were looking for clothing in the museum that held some elements that could be worked into contemporary design from a denim/madder standpoint. There was no shortage of them. Shaman clothes....perfect. 

Villagers processing linen.

This linen loom was remarkable in its design. 

The shuttles were folksy and friendly.

There is no place like home. And home was extra beautiful when I arrived home to find the lotus blooming at the front door.

And mountains lilles outside my bedroom.