Wednesday 3 June 2020

So much for my ten-day silkworm challenge. In a ten-day album challenge it would have been like running out of energy on day four on the Bob Dylan side of The Concert for Bangladesh.
“It was raining from the first and I was dying there of thirst so I came in here.
And your long time curse hurts but what is worse is this pain in here.
I can’t stay in here.
Ain’t it clear?
That I just don’t fit.
I believe it’s time for us to quit.
When we meet again, introduced as friends, please don’t let on that you knew me when, I was hungry and it was your world.”
The presence of great art uplifts us. Everyone is poisoned and stabbed dead on the stage in the last scene of Hamlet.
While we are breathing deeper with straighter backs. 
The past few days have been so dismal. No wonder the silkworm eggs didn’t hatch.
I don’t blame them. 
“If I were an alien passing by earth I would lock the spaceship door.”
I found myself praying while that stinking pile of orange shit held up the Bible. “One big bolt of lightening please.” And let the Bible gently fall to the ground miraculously open to the Sermon on the Mount.”
Anyway… the silkworm eggs are hatching. 
Not all of them, so I will wait until tomorrow morning to start feeding them. 
They are pepper-sized little furry babies looking for some thinly sliced gourmet mulberry leaf, chilled to just below room temperature with some Bach Cello Suite playing softly in the background. 
They will take four breaks in their mulberry feast in the next 28 days. Their belts become too tight and they need to open it a few notches. (They actually shed their skins four times.) 
A feather is needed to gently round up the babies so they don’t get buried beneath the sliced mulberry and suffocate or wander off to a place where they can’t find any mulberry leaf. 
They may dislike the interference from a higher authority. 
Some of them may hold resentment. Most of them just want to get on with the business of eating. I haven’t witnessed any antifa, silkworm identity issues, victim mentality amongst the silkworms on my trays.
Perhaps because I use a beautiful pheasant feather and not a brutal finger to keep them from hurting themselves. 
The beauty in the woodblock print gently brushes the new born silkworms onto paper where they can be taken care of. Note the Japanese honeysuckle blooming in the background. The first silkworm eggs hatch when the honey suckle starts to bloom I noticed years ago. 
I’ll stop the Animal Farm stuff now. I know where it leads.
A boiling pot of water.
Hee hee hee…(evil laughter.)
And I am the bourgeois puppet master...after some bourgeois silk to satisfy my melancholic appetite for long tedious processes at the expense of sentient creatures.

Day 3 of the silkworm challenge.
Three videos on this post. Watch them and change your life.
The silkworm eggs didn't hatch today...oh oh. This is getting tedious.
I asked Minako, the old woman who taught me about silk farming and weaving and dyeing many years ago. ‘Why is that silk thread rough and that silk thread smooth?’
She replied, ‘ One is reeled and one is spun.’
Meaning that one type of thread is made when you unravel the cocoon and the other is made when you make a fluffy floss and spin it.
Today I will write briefly about spinning silk.
The silkworms eat for 28 days and then the liquid in their guts is spat out forming a cocoon around them. The thread they spit out is held together with a sticky substance. This makes the cocoon firm. This glue melts in alkaline and washes away and leaves just the fibers.
Think of too much starch on a shirt and you wash it in the hot cycle and the shirt softens up.
The soft de-gummed silk is shiny and soft. The silk with the natural starch left in is more subtle and lustrous and stiff. This is silk literacy 101.
Minako needed an alkaline. She bundled together a handful of straw and lit it on fire. She took the cup of black ashes and put it in boiling water. She wrapped up 50 cocoons in a piece of cheesecloth and boiled it for an hour. The alkaline from the ashes melted the starch in the cocoons and they collapsed into flat wet fluff. (With gross silkworm gunk still in the collapsed middle of the mess.)
There are chrysalis inside the cocoon. It is the stage between the silkworm and the moth. These are picked out and the silk cocoons stretched out on a wooden frame into silk hankies.
The hankies are dried then stretched open and then spun.
Here is my spinning machine. It is not that noisy. The iPhone just picks up the sound too well. I am spinning the floss into thread. I will later use barks or leaves or roots etc to dye the silk thread.
In the old day the b-grade silk cocoons were spun into thread and the higher grade were reeled into finer silk thread. I actually prefer the rougher spun stuff. It has more warmth and character.
I could write a book on spinning silk alone.
I could write a book on removing the starch.
I could write a book on reeling silk.
I am not going to.
I should have been writing and documenting this stuff for the last 25 years. It is too late to start.
I have boxes and boxes of silk thread and yarn upstairs. I will never use it all in this life unless I start now and weave some big stuff. Just look what I dug out yesterday. I made this thread over 15 years ago. I got around to degumming it today…. Jesus. Those greens were gorgeous yesterday. I may dye this silk and weave some green blankets.
Thank you Covid for making me face up to my evil ways.

Friday 29 May 2020

Day two of the silkworm challenge. 
These bamboo trays (Ebira or Kago) are used to raise silkworms on. 
There is not a single respectable old farmhouse in Japan that doesn’t have a stack of these things under the rafters or in the corner of a barn. 
Japan was closed off to the rest of the world for hundreds of years. (Except for some Dutch who were allowed to trade on a small island off the coast of Kyushu.)
When Japan opened to the rest of the world they desperately wanted to avoid the fate of other Asian and African countries that were colonized and raped. They needed foreign currency and knowledge to build their country quickly before American and European interests could establish a system to exploit and control them. 
Silk was the only thing that could bring in large amounts of foreign currency. (This was before the development of synthetic fibers. ) Every house that could raise silkworms in the country did so from the late 1800s up to the Second World War. The industry continued after the war but has almost died out since the late 1980s. The technology the Japanese developed is used in other countries now. Flatter spaces with cheaper labor. China, India and Brazil produce most of the worlds silk right now. 
Bamboo is plentiful throughout most of Japan and used for construction and tools. 
I still see these trays peeking out of barns and attics. Artists and farmers use the ubiquitous trays creatively to make fences and for decorative purposes.
Here another translated page from the book I am working on.
Washing Silk Farming Tools in the River.
‘As the season changes and the water becomes warmer preparation begins. Under the rafters where the silk farming equipment has been stored over the winter, it is now taken out and tossed into the river.
Bamboo brooms in the river go, ‘swish swish’ as they splash away the grime. A war to sterilize before the rearing season starts makes everyone busy. The village is suddenly alive once more. Depending on the strength of the sun the green leaves come out. It’s time for the kids to start mucking around in the river as well.’
The eggs did not hatch today. I took the bamboo trays down to the river and gave them a swishing with a bamboo broom. 
Years ago I wanted something graphic and connected to my life on my forearm. A bamboo silk farming tray filled the criteria. 
A few people commented on the green silk I dyed the other day. I dyed some more today.
I hand spun the silk from floss from my cocoons a few years ago. Two dips in indigo and rinsed and beaten at the river. I then mordanted it with alum and over-dyed it a vicious yellow from boiled gardenia pods. Rinsed well again. I will ply it with a darker green to get a slightly marled warp thread.

Thursday 28 May 2020

Silkworm challenge.

Silkworm eggs....Yeah...exciting stuff.
Instead of the ten day, ten album challenge to see what ten albums have shaped my taste in music I will take the silkworm challenge.
Eggs to thread and perhaps to textile.
Plenty of comments.
I have these Utamaro woodblock prints on the wall on the third floor near the far guest rooms. No one ever sees them. They are a series on silk processes. (Yes, they are originals.) 
No, the silk farming beauties did not wear such gorgeous work kimono.
In this picture you can see the beauties with two silk moths with their legs tied to threads so they can’t fly away. This is where the eggs come from.
One moth lays 500 eggs. 800 grams of silk to make a kimono without a lining. Basically 5 moths worth of silk. A full kimono with lining and sash and coat would require 10 000 silkworms. 20 moths worth of eggs. 
Let’s start here. 
First the highest quality cocoons are chosen. Then the best chrysalis are chosen and the males and females are separated. 
Once the moths emerge the long process of introductions is started. A complex logarithm of ancient Chinese astrological significance and individual current political tendencies are taken into consideration as well as countless hours spent with the individual moths flicking left and right through the Silkter, (the silk moth equivalent of TInder/Grindr.) 
I didn’t breed for eggs last year. I bought these 1000 eggs online. 
Finding tiny face masks for moths and taking responsibility for their Covid-19 protection was too much responsibility. The male moths were swiping way out of their league and the females were way way too picky. I have better things to do with my time than deal with that vanity. 
These pictures are from a few years ago. 
The eggs are due to hatch tomorrow.

The wooden machine below is a warping wheel. 

The black box in the picture is important. The eggs are placed inside and the lid opened and closed several times a day to condense time so the eggs will be tricked into hatching on a certain day.

Utamaru's signature. Absolute calligraphic perfection. 

1000 silkworm eggs.

Males on left. Females on right. Magnifying glass used to determine sex. Dish of shed silkworm skins.

Males are smaller.

I put cones on the females so they will lay eggs in a circle. Easy to count. 

Tuesday 26 May 2020

I’ve been living and making my living in this 650 year old mountain hamlet and 150 year old silk farming house for over 25 years now. I didn’t think much about it and basically enjoyed the time and seasons go by. 
The house, the village and I have aged and changed. The ancient ghosts on the paths and near the streams are much the same. It just took me many years to simply acknowledge them by diverting my eyes when we meet so not to offend. 
I suppose I am the type of person who is relatively fine with uncertainty. (Unlike others who gulp for oxygen if the washing machine eats a sock or two.) 
Showing up in Japan on my 25th birthday with a backpack and a single five-word-sentence from a conversation with my bestie Ingrid Mclainewhen I told her I was going to try to set up a life in Japan. 
Decades ago the backpack was given away but the one syllable laugh, a double nostril expulsion of air propelling my head back with a slight eye roll.
“Yeah…something will work out.”
The sentence is still at hand and just as sustaining as it has been all this time. 
I never did figure out which one of us actually said it. Probably Ingrid. 
Remembering vividly the first time I was inside a Japanese farmhouse. It was truth. 
When we see or hear or read a truth we nod our heads and say…yeah…that is the truth. 
Years later I got me own old farmhouse and looking back someone might have confused the Canadian for Megan Sussex on the moving day in to the dump. 
A self-satisfied smirking Cheshire Cat…. might have even had a green shirt on… different shade of course. 
I digress.
Walter Gropius the founder of Bauhaus wrote an introduction to a book on Japanese domestic architecture in the 1950s :
In revealing the meaningful cultural aims and the high craftsmanship of the Japanese domestic architecture as it evolved through the centuries and in laying bare the compelling motives that directed its development …. 
The Japanese example of the dedication of a whole nation to the task of giving form and substance to recognized spiritual values comes here as an eye opener to all those who doubted that such a unity of purpose could ever exist. 
The design conception had started from the very bones of the building and not merely at its skin as a cosmetic play. Spiritual and practical requirements of living had been coordinated into an artistic approach that represents one of the most valuable contributions to a universal philosophy of architecture. 
I have another old beaten up picture book I found on a garbage can in the rain many years ago. It is a local history book. Watanabe Kahei san from a neighboring hamlet spent fifteen years on two hundred paintings depicting life in these mountains from his youth the early 1920s to 1935. Another local man, Kawaoka Takeharu wrote the descriptions under each picture in the book. 
The original set of pictures for the book started with thirty paintings of the sericulture and weaving culture that appeared in this area where life was so rough that, ‘Five houses share the rare flat land where there should have only been one.’ 
I usually leaf through the disintegrating picture book with my newly arrived workshop guests on their first day here. 
The images of life are worth much more than words. 
I translated the last few lines of the forward without an ounce of elegance.
Nothing has left behind a richer imagery than the unpretentious pictures of life here.
This book, ‘Life in the Mountain Village’ is an outstanding work representing the lives in that period of time expressed through paintings. Now we should honestly go back and deal with these things. I think we can find the basic roots and sources of our lives in the world depicted in these paintings. Even if this evaluation of traditional culture happens, it probably won’t lead to better times…..will it?
I have started to translate the entire book. As I go along I will think about how to use the translation to get across something I found that was important to me. Like Walter Gropius’ insight to Japanese architecture I found a seamless connection between the material and spiritual aspirations of the people. He saw it in architecture and I see it in the life and textiles made in these dark, hidden valleys.

This old house was filled with not only silk farming equipment but silk reeling equipment and loom parts. They were a broken tangle of sooty chaos under the rafters and in hidden corners of this old house and out buildings. Unused for fifty years. It took me years to fix them or replace them and replicate the processes from breeding silk moths to weaving kimono. 
It took me as many years to look at these old timers around me, twenty-five years of working with them and drinking tea with them to get an idea of what their lives had been like. With trepidation I have not introduced myself but simply worked cutting grass around the graveyards behind the houses and keeping the paths clear of overgrowth and getting to know the gods and ghosts that sit around in their old impoverished work kimono. 
My eggs hatch in a few days. The fresh mulberry leaf in the early days of the rainy season await to be picked and fed to the honorable silkworms.
I was down at the river this morning washing the spun silk I have made the past few years and get it ready to be woven. The colors are an attempt to replicate these dark and earthy mountain forests. Lots of indigo and tree barks. Tea harvest is finished for another year. Very little rain this spring so it was more quality that quantity this time. Thank you to the helpers. I finished weaving this madder dyed spun silk a few days ago. It had been on the loom for ages. It was a slow slog weave. And what is a rambling post without a cute cat picture? Whiteboots is eyeing the goldfish in the lily pots while he takes a drink at the front door. The second indigo vat is not in use so plants have moved in.

Friday 31 January 2020

Procraftination & Craftermath

" I cursed you as I procraftinated for weeks and then double cursed you in the craftermath."
The workshop participants are usually on their best behavior the first few hours of the workshop.
We meet in a calm hotel lobby in the chaos of downtown Tokyo at ten in the morning and I have them in the quiet mountain village by twelve for lunch. There is always that WTF-how-did-I-get-here-? feeling in the house as they peek in their rooms and check out the house and pets and bathrooms. Then they stealthy eye up their fellow indigo otters. (And the otter chief.)
But the happy-happy-craft-holiday-in Japan-spirit is present and thick. 
After lunch we gather round the table and look at the dreaded homework. (They inevitably shyly boast of how they were stitching the last twenty rows on the airplane.)
A total group of strangers and they have to show what work they have done in preparation the past few months.
Judgement time. 
I send out a homework box from Japan to their homes around the world in advance. There is not enough time to stitch and cut stencils once they are here. I use the homework projects to keep them busy to the point-of-almost-desperation the entire ten days. 
There are two bigger projects that take time and talent.
Cutting a few stencils on the smokey smelling traditional persimmon tannin paper.
A woodgrain stitching project that can take up to 50 hours of stitching. A pattern is drawn on and the horizontal stitches and jumps determent the pattern. I send an amazing 2 meter piece of crinkle fine linen for this project. It dyes in indigo to perfection. 
The patterns each has chosen and drawn on with disappearing orchid ink are of endless interest to the young indigo otters. Each person stitches differently. Some have incredibly fine even stitches covering the entire cloth. Others have rough irregular stitches. These details are quietly noted with pursed otter lips and twitching whiskers standing around the table. 
Over the next ten days the threads are meticulously drawn up and tied and dyed in indigo twelve dips/ twelve oxidations and then opened rinsed and taken to the river and beaten until the water runs clear and the blue is deep and gorgeous.
The process binds the otters as they see the pride and hard work and determination in each other through the steps. 
One Scottish lady years ago had a tad too much rice wine at the welcome lunch. She didn't seem so plussed about putting her work on display either. 
" I cursed you Bryan as I procraftinated for weeks and then double cursed you in the craftermath."
Fer a wee moment we taut 'er accent was bit 'ard to understand.( Or she 'ad a wee bit of a wisp. )
Then we all cracked up.
I am putting together the 50 spring homework boxes right now to get them in the mail in a few days. 
It has become a winter tradition. Hiro was in the hospital this winter and that gave me plenty of time at home being serious and focused on methodical tasks.
Finding cute stamps for the box, endless postal form filling and double checking everything is in each box and they inch towards the post office....
The country town post office workers dread the days I swamp them with a truck load of homework boxes. 
It is comforting to know that the boxes are opened all over the world with anticipation and delight. It adds to the excitement of their trips to Japan.