Saturday, 30 December 2017

Japanese Textile Workshops in England

Spring and autumn are busy seasons here at the farmhouse. The actual workshops are the easy part. Work from morning until night making sure the guests are drenched in the history of Japanese textiles and techniques.  That is my life work. 

I spent my 30's and 40's learning how to grow and process Japanese indigo and become a solid indigo dyer using traditional Japanese techniques. I spend those years raising silkworms and reeling the cocoons using natural dyes and weaving cloth on Japanese looms. How much pleasure did I get from early mornings in the indigo and mulberry fields and late nights feeding silkworms and reeling and spinning silk? The years of study in the villages around here were magical and so have the years of teaching and sharing what I learned. Hopefully I will have a healthy longish life and can continue to share my knowledge and skills until the end. 

Projects and history and creating to use the time I have with the students effectively and efficiently. (Without exhausting them!) This is the life long challenge.

Keeping everyone wined and well fed is a logistical party. It is good fun to shop with the 'let's-play-textile-retreat-management-gang' knowing how appreciative people will be of the fresh fruit, snacks and beer. Much of the salad stuff is grown right outside the kitchen door. We smile as we plant and weed.

The house is huge and needs to be spotless and tidy. The gardens around the house need care and the wild parts of the mountains that border the land need some taming as well before the guests arrive.  The house needs to well stocked with materials for projects and more. The tea fields need tending and the indigo and mulberry fields need love. I try to do as much as possible by myself but need help from friends and staff.

I love bringing the guests up the steep driveway on the first Monday of the workshops knowing that all is in order, there is a welcome fire going. Lunch is waiting. Their rooms are in the freshest order. The pets are washed and fluffy. There are flowers in every room. 

Then it is time to enjoy the workshop  with a group of (most often!) creative and wonderful people.

After a few months of this in the springs and autumns a survival habit materialized of having a suitcase and tickets ready to go, to make my way out of Japan before the indigo vats stop spinning from their last stirring.

This November/ December the tickets were to Zurich and then up to London. Then the train up to Glasgow and then upwards to the Isle of Skye for some solitude. 

I was asked to lecture and teach at West Dean College in Chichester, West Sussex. They held a Japanese culture week where I taught katazome and shibori techniques while trying my best to bring in some kind of Japanese context to the very un-Japanese atmosphere.

West Dean College is situated in the 6,350-acre (25.7 km2) West Dean Estate, of West Dean near Chichester. The Estate was formerly the home of the poet and patron of the arts Edward James. He was an avid admirer of the Surrealist movement, and formed one of the largest collections of their works during his lifetime. He inherited West Dean House and the estate after the death of his father, William Dodge James.
In 1939 Edward wrote to Aldous Huxley, expressing his fear that after the war, certain arts, particularly the techniques of the craftsmen, would be lost. As a solution, James suggested that his Estate be set up as an educational community where the techniques of craftsmanship could be preserved and taught, whilst restoring old work and creating new art works. In 1964 James conveyed this Estate including West Dean House to the Edward James Foundation; in 1971 the Foundation established West Dean College as a centre for the study of conservation, arts, crafts, writing, gardening and music, providing both full-time and short courses. The Sussex Barn Gallery, Tapestry Studio and West Dean Gardens are also located on the Estate.

The facilities and the students were first class. Intelligent, witty, worldly and talented. Thank you ladies and Rob (Leafytails alumni)

The week long courses offered to the public are excellent. 

Managing to catch a nasty bad UK cold which put a damper on my adventures for a while. There were a few Leafytails alumni I was wanting to meet badly (Blandina and Carole and Annette). West Dean invited me back to teach and I will make sure to visit a few leafytails indigo otters around England in 2019. 

I squeezed in a few days in Liechtenstein to visit Barbara and Martin. ( The original Leafytails alumni from 20 years ago!) We had an impromptu tea ceremony with Barbara's students. They were special. It was a one time, at a special place, at a special time meeting that left a special imprint on our hearts. Tears in my eyes thinking of how well Barbara and I work together and we only manage to do so only a few times every three years. 

Mark was a special guy who brought his mother and father and best friend to the farmhouse three years ago to study. (Honour Leafytails Alumni)  He took the train all the way up from Italy to Liechtenstein for a visit in the snow. Thank you Mark.


New Years Eve almost here. Wishing everyone the best for 2018. 


Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Dead Kimono & Killer Swords on the Living Room Table picture of a dead kimono on a table.

There was an elegant group of Swedish women at the house for the past four days. We were up in sub-zero weather at the indigo vats before they left on the 10:30 train.

Yesterday, I put several kimono and Japanese jackets on the table and we stood around and discussed them.

The genius of simple design over a thousand years.
The sublime choice of natural dyes used.
The ingenious way of recycling thread and cloth.
The degree of standardization over the centuries but the freedom of expression in the garments.
How silk threads vary endlessly.
Who would have worn them?

How can I present some images to the students besides photographs and film clips....... The workshops are already just bursting with time consuming activities...

We shook our head in disbelief of the amount of cultural information in an artifact of clothing lying on the table we surrounded. Later in the evening after a few cups of sake I pictured the table as a gurney...

There had been no warm body in the clothing. The maker/creator was more with us than the wearer.  (Which is not  bad thing in itself since we are all textile makers.)

It was my last working night of 2017.

Something special to mark the occasion was appropriate. In the evening two local bamboo flute players to come to the house and give a performance to the Swedes.

They have been playing the instrument for 45 years each.

Last night was the first heavy frost of the autumn.

The well-prepared area around the roaring campfire in the yard wasn't going to work so we quickly made space in the living room for the show.

Momo was not going to give up her favourite chair to the musician so he was forced to share unknowingly as she hopped up from behind once the music started.

The shakuhachi bamboo flute music was not like the old clothing on the table. It was alive and we had to deal with it live. It was not a clean piece of antique cloth that we could admire and revere.

Once the music started the common music cultural reference points were hard to find with the immediateness and strangeness of the music played right in our faces/ears. It wasn't a cozy concert of familiar songs by a familiar singer. 

The breathiness and instability of the quivering notes was uncomfortably intimate at first.
 (Like an unwelcome musical hand on your knee I thought briefly) 

It took me a song or two to fire enough synapses to create a safe space....

The value of the unique experience started to form over a few songs and talking to the gentlemen after the performance in such a confined space left a subtle other-worldliness to the evening. 

A very good paragraph on the instrument.

The shakuhachi is a testament to the elegance of traditional Japanese culture. Made from the root of the bamboo, its aesthetic is organic and simple. Hidden inside this rustic form, however, is a bore that is carefully crafted with the utmost precision. This instrument produces a sound that is said to replicate the full range of natural life on earth.
The shakuhachi is an end-blown flute tuned to a pentatonic (5-note) scale. By various fingerings -- half- and quarter-holings -- and by controlling the angle of mouthpiece against the lip, all twelve tones of the western chromatic scale can be produced. The mouthpiece consists of an oblique blowing edge whose design is unique in that it enables the player to control the pitch produced by changing the angle at which the flute is being blown. This, in turn, produces a delicate change of intonation -- a swelling or bending of notes characteristic of the traditional music. Alterations in embouchure, intensity of blowing and cross fingerings allow the player to create a wide variety of subtle and incredible sounds. The timbre of the instrument is mellow in its low tones, although it is equally capable of producing loud, penetrating and breathy tones in its middle and upper registers. Little can be said of the sound of the shakuhachi without first hearing its hauntingly beautiful ring. With this in mind, noted ethnomusicologist Fumio Koizumi concluded: "Because of the religious origin of its music, the sound of the bamboo flute leads the mind directly into spiritual thought. Thus a single tone of the shakuhachi can sometimes bring one to the world of Nirvana."
Traditional Japanese music played on this instrument reflects the many voices of nature. Gentle and warm, the summer rain. Frayed and gusty, the autumn breeze through the bamboos. Shrill and honking, the cry of a wild duck, winter on its tail. Quiet and sweet, a mountain lake fed by early spring runoff. 

The musicians were generous. One of the handsome players came from on old samurai family and he brought two old swords to show us. (They are terrifying unsheathed.) One was from 1650....350 years old. The metal was so clean it was still a perfect mirror. We were all taken aback but unable to resist taking photographs once the killer weapons were back in their lacquer cases. 

I  try to create a context in the workshops to bring more meaning and life to the indigo and silk workshops. My old Japanese silk farming farmhouse provides the shelter. The austere carpentry joinery and smoked patina of the pillars and beams gives a hint of the refined poverty aesthetic from the old days.  (Then... I pack it to the ceiling with all sorts of clutter...) There are hundreds of antique garments and textile scraps and textile related tools and books carefully boxed and shelved and close at hand to use as reference material. The indigo fields and vats are just outside. We trip over the still-in-use weaving and silk farming equipment through-out the house. 

It works. 

But there is always room to improve.

I have over three months off work now to think of how I can make the cultural roots of these beautiful textiles more alive in future workshops. How to momentarily create a  more holistic  images of the life of the old textiles.  (And then finally...give insight and instruction on how they were made.) 

It is full autumn now. The sky is brilliant blue. The house is sitting in half-shadows for a few months now. 

Hibernation starts.


Whiteboots has the right idea.

Noguchi san. Thank you for giving life to my work and workshops throughout the years. I'll see you in the spring.

Thank you to the indigo vats as well. Another year past. I am away to Scotland in a few days for a month. The last dyeing of the year. Kibiso silk for Diana in Vancouver.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Japanese Book Binding at the Japanese Textiles Workshop

Today the members of the first Ten-Day Japanese Indigo Book Binding Workshop left the well-fed comfort of the farmhouse and made their way back into Tokyo. There was some indigo vat separation anxiety. Momo and Julie and Whiteboots will be missed by all.

Debra managed to get a whole bevy of semi-unmanageable  book binding cats to Japan and the village and the indigo vats and the work table on the third floor. They were all over the ladders and in all those nooks and crannies of the house. Yamazaki Yo sensei was very patient with the felines. Focusing on getting the tasks done he was like a soldier book maker/teacher. Many thanks to him.

The house is quiet once again the day was spent reflecting on the workshop.  As usual there was too much to do in too short a time. The course will run again next year and a small notebook was filled today on ideas for improvements. Sharper scissors and taller tables.....

With a good collection of antique indigo textiles, stencils, indigo vats, indigo fields and every book on Japanese textiles in this filled-to-the-rafters-with-textile-tools old silk-farming house it is easy to create some present and past context for the regular indigo workshop content. It is exciting and inspiring to have all the textile artifacts surrounding us.

There are old Edo period hand-bound books and Edo period Ukio-e prints etc around the house. But there has to be more. More Japanese paper and book binding backdrop is necessary. Next year the students will have to have more contact with old paper and books, ink and brushes.

There has to be a talk about Buson and Ryokan.

What did the Japanese fill their exquisite book binding culture with? Not blank pages....

So many more things to show and talk about. It was most of the participants first foray into indigo and textiles. We covered a lot of material. It was a challenge to splice in a second workshops worth of material. Indigo dyeing and Japanese book binding and Japanese book box making.

For authenticity's sake we drove to a local paper maker and made paper from mulberry fibres.

The participants received the regular pre-workshop homework box with stitching projects and persimmon tannin paper stencil cutting several months in advance. The stencils were cut to use on a piece of linen. That linen is dyed in indigo and then backed with paper to be applied to the stiff paper board that forms the box.

Here is Josephine using rice paste to resist the indigo on the linen.
After a few days of hard work she competed the box that holds the hand-bound paper books. She drew wonderful tiger motifs from Tibetan rugs.

Marie used some wonderful nautical motifs.

Tara free cut her patterns so they were refreshingly clean and balanced.

Debra planned out her design to go with her mid-century modern interior of her house.

Maria went feminine floral.

Prema had a bold pattern that was tamed slightly with a sophisticated subdued lining colour.

Rachelle's overall pattern was well balanced between the blue and the white.

Beatrice was all bold subtlety and French charm.

Glenda and packed you boxes and didn't let me photograph them...Grrrrr

We visited a book binding paper shop in Tokyo. Wow. All those numbered drawers filled with book binding paper.

We harvested some flowering indigo together in a short break from the book binding and indigo dyeing.

Like last year, the last harvest is used to make indigo sediment.

Ishi san's indigo harvest is composting perfectly already. The smell was pretty shocking.

How is it possible to teach/host a ten-day workshop and make it resonate deeply with the participants?  
How is it possible to teach the techniques while giving insights into the culture that was the source off the craft masterpieces in ten short days?

The heat of the summer is gone. It is rainy and misty.