Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Indigo Fermentation Started

Posted on my tour blog...sorry for repeats.

I got two decent harvests of indigo leaves from the same plants this past summer. Stripping the leaves off the stems gives you cleaner indigo balls. It is debatable if the is really worth it. (Some good sake and some friends talking as you work is enough to tip the balance.) The leaves were dried in the sun and kept up under the rafters to keep them as crispy as possible. It is really cold now and time to start them fermenting three or four months to make the bacteria laden sukumo/indigo balls. First we gathered some oak leaves and laid a good solid 50 cm bed on the dirt floor inside the recently cleaned out kura. The indigo leaves were wet and then half wrung out and placed in a straw bag. The wet indigo leaves bag gets put on the oak leaves and covered with another 50 centimeters of oak leaves and then a heavier straw mat placed on top and heavy stones to weigh it down and keep out oxygen. You want a slow ferment not a quick rot!

I am hoping that the fermentation goes slow so I can open it up when the tour is here in April. If it gets too warm it goes a little ripe. Fingers crossed!

Wishing everyone who reads my blogs a peaceful and meaningful winter holiday season.


Monday, 26 December 2011

Loom to Go.

There are just too many looms in the house. I've collected a dozen or so old Kanagawa Takabata over the years. They were an easy find not so many years ago. Easy to spot in barn lofts and attics. Always missing parts and always slightly different from the others so spare parts had to be made from scratch. This one had to be over a hundred years old and like a three leg dog it got a little more love than some others that ended up as firewood.

Suzuki san is the infamous miser in the village. He had heard that I had bought a loom in the neighboring village and asked if I needed another. His grandmother had woven on it. It was black from the fireplace smoke. It was just pathetically rotten and eaten. As well as missing just about everything. When I loaded it on the truck and then went in for tea I asked him how much he wanted. I expected a "just take it" and I would hand him 10 000 yen and there would be show down to make him accept that. I laughed out load when he said he wanted 30 000 for it. I counted out three bills and told him what a great deal he was giving me. ( So he could grind his teeth all night that he didn't charge me more.) When he was young he was the only guy in the village who could read well. He worked on the board of education and he found out that the government was subsidising the mountain villagers to grow cypress that was needed for the rebuilding after world war two. He then leased all the land off as many willing villagers he could convince for a pittance and collected the subsidy money for himself. What a crook.
I love to hear the old stories from the villagers. Twenty one houses for hundreds of years...the same families and a whole spectrum of characters.

Anyway, I used the loom on and off and figured it was time to retire it to the wood stove. Takeshima san came to the rescue and it is now living in Adachi ku in downtown Tokyo! It practically fell apart as we attempted to dismantle it and lower it out the second floor window. Takeshima san will put it to good use.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Scandinavian Looms Alive.

The two big Scandinavian Looms are alive these days. Kamei san finished up weaving four panels for a bed throw. She wove steadfast and sooo cleanly. I am proud of her. She had to weave to the last last centimeter possible to make the length for the fourth panel. Good work! I will post a picture of the work when it is stitched together and finished up.

Takeshima san is on the other end of a big project. Threading the reed. She is about to weave a poncho like blanket. Some dyes are natural and some chemical. It is her first time weaving a tweed. She is playing around with weft threads to get it just right before she starts the long haul 8 meter weave.

Dying with Cedar Bark and Alder cones on Silk

Left: Alder iron mordant overdyed with a single indigo dip. Middle: Alder cones with Copper mordant. Right: Cedar bark with copper mordant.

The mountain's decidious trees are vibrant copper and the veins of muted lumberjack green colored cedar trees that climb the gullies and hide the family graveyards were the inspiration for Tuesday's dyed silk.

The students who come regularly on Tuesday travel up to several hours to come to the house to study. I try to fit in some extra activity each week to make the trip worth it. It might be picking mushrooms or citrus or watercress from near the house for lunch. Often it is a walk to get dying materials. Something seasonal. This time we stripped off some cedar bark and used that as a dye. While boiling the bark we added some strong acidic agent to get a low pH. You can use vinegar but need about 50 times the amount. Once the dye bath was ready we raised the pH back to almost 6 with slaked lime.

Yashbushi / Alder cones The trees grow up the mountain in front of the house. (A hard climb.) I found a jackpot forest of alder trees on the slopes of Mt Fuji. My friend Mark and I gathered a good size bucket of these cones there once.(A good one hour drive.)

On the walk to get the cedar bark Kawamoto san saw some vines for making baskets just out of reach over a 15 meter drop off. So I ended up with three students suspending me off the edge by the top of my jeans. It was Ok. I was just wearing regular grey long johns.
Guillaume (back row) is the French Woofer helping me with farm and carpentry work recently.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Cleaning out the Kura

There is an old clay walled storehouse just outside my front door packed full of generations of semi-precious and semi-discarded belongings. Parking in front of it for 19 years and nothing changes except that more and more chunks of clay fall off and the twisted rice straw ropes and bamboo slats woven ingeniously into the heavy walnut pillars peak through..... like my own receding hairline. The covering is going to be shot sooner than later. Grin and bear it and think of eventual future options. A hat or some boards framed up the sides.

Last September the effort started by grappling and hauling out ten large wooden grain holders. Stepping on a rotten floorboard that whacked the resident Aodasho in head at the back musty dark corner I was lucky enough to have it wrap around my leg and bite me. Sheeeeesh.

The grain boxes have been sanded, oiled and outfitted and are being put to good use throughout the house as book cases, cupboards, tool cabinets.

The door has been left open since then hoping the snake would leave on it's own. He wasn't there when a small army of buddies helped rip out the floorboards two weekends ago . There was a collection of bottles of home made moonshine coveted away by someone. I heard from a neighbor that the great grandfather had fallen near the Snoopy-fall-in-river, broken a leg and then died from the injury just after the war. His secret stash lying there to be unearthed almost 70 years later. It was impossible not to ponder the changes that have taken place in the village and in the last century. Digging through the contents of the storehouse satisfied my inner archeologist. Old crumbling festival decorations to a kitchy 80's ceramic vase shaped like the Waikiki Hilton. Keeping an eye and an ear on the others to get a glimpse of what they were thinking and feeling I didn't register much. To them it seemed to be just a dirty old barn with the potential of being turned into a funky studio. They were probably keeping an eye and ear on me to see what I was planning to do with the space. (I am toying with a deadly cool bedroom/library/drawing room years down the road.)

There was plenty to think about as we hauled a mountain of everything out into the sunlight. Much of it hadn't seen the sunlight in a hundred years or so. And much of it smelled like it.
There were plenty of old saws and wooden buckets, barrels and tools whose functions are almost forgotten. A small horse saddle. (Visions of a poor miserable horsey in the cold up here where there was barely enough food for the people and plenty of back breaking work for him.) There were some poor looking loom parts and silk farming tools which I callously threw in the keep-warm fire without even closely examining them.

There were several broken down dressers with moth eaten piles of clothes. The older drawers contained kimono. A few hand woven men's silk kimono. Some badly deterioraed school uniforms from the 30s and the war period. The transition took place to western clothing in a single dresser. A heavy wool formal suit jacket and trousers. Neatly folded.

The clothing was spared the fire but thrown in the washing machine. Anything that survived the spin cycle would be considered keeping. A few items made it through.

One is this pilgrimage silk/linen jacket from before the war. It has been inked with a wood block of people climbing the mountain to reach some Buddhist figures and stamped with red ink. Beautifully galligraphed with the wearer's name, date, purpose and route of the pilgrimage. (The great-grandpa who had tripped and passed away three days later in 1946.) He had gone on a pilgrimage to a holy mountain and visited a Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple at the peak.

The owners of most of the stuff are long gone. They are in the family graveyard in the bamboo grove just above the house. It feels invasive to be rummaging through their belongings. It had to be done and decisiveness seemed to be the best defense against being creeped out. In the fire. In the garbage. In the washing machine. Re-boxed and put back.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Detour from Japanese Textiles

Space is a luxury in Japan and this fact of life manifests itself in peculiar ways. The economic asset-inflated economy was ballooning in the 80s and the air inside was thick with the smell of wet pedigree pet feet running freely around the previously off-limit rooms. Shopping was the national pastime. There just were not enough hours in a day to buy what you wanted. The size of the average home didn't change much though. And the rooms filled up quickly with overly enthusiastic purchases.

This is how a few semi-gigantic Finnish and Swedish Looms (and I remember a Bangladesh monstrosity made from teak that broke my floorboards) eventually made it to this mountain village. Tokyo sneezed years after the bubble deflated had splattered it's over sized purchases to outlying areas with rooms to spare. Some ended up at the dump or dumped on someone.

"I hear you weave...my aunt bought a loom on a weaving course she took in Helsinki in the summer of 88... She can't remember how to use it and it is taking up a full eight tatami room. She is looking for a loving home for it."

They looked like a giant boogers of sorts, wrapped in mountains of funky Scandinavian cardboard and bubble wrap .

Two were then taking up precious space in one of my ten tatami rooms. For years and years. Students eyed them and queried about what could be made on them. Besides a few long hours spent looking at the possibilities on YouTube I had no concrete idea.

I learned to weave in Japan on very old broken down soot stained kimono looms. Basic plain weave. I focused on thread making from cocoons and natural dyes and not fancy weave constructions with tons of peddles and heddles.

The students curiosity and my embarrassing ignorance of these non-Japanese looms got the best of me. I set up a cashmere warp of indigo and kihada. A simple herringbone tweed in mind. Things got out of control very fast with wild peddling and multi colored weft rants. I am happy with the result and it is keeping me warm as I blog away on a drizzling December evening.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Indigo Water Dragon Scarves

Two summers ago Kurihara san showed up several times at the old shop and asked if I was interested in making indigo dyed stockings with him. It wasn't that appealing and I was trying to be Japanese and just give him unenthusiastic answers and hope he would take them as a no. He persisted. He is 80 and retired but still has the huge tube knitting machines. He told me that he worked all his life on dying and knits and hunting down big orders. Now he wanted to do something enjoyable and different and not think about the bottom line. So he hunted me down and now we have been experimenting and playing with the possibilities this past year.

I was interested in doing some indigo knits. I often buy 45rpm indigo knit (a Japanese Maker) t-shirts and sweaters and cardigans. They are great but really pricey. I would have to learn to sew knits and design knits and learn knit thread weight. It seemed like too much but curiosity had me and I started dying threads and Kurihara san would knit them up for me on the 1950's American t-shirt knitter. I purchased a 50s four thread lock serger and started cutting and sewing. This is a lot of fun but with other more pressing commitments the piles of indigo dyed yardage started piling up. The shirts I was making were not really sellable. It will take a few years to learn to sew that well. The indigo faded slightly on the creases and in desperation I came up with the idea of water dragon scarves to reduce the piles of knit and prove my enthusiasm to Kurihara san. 2012 is the year of the dragon. (I was born in the year of the dragon so I should be having a good year in 2012) The dragon years are divided into wood dragons, metal dragons, fire dragons and water dragons. There are only two water dragon years in a century.


Water has a calming effect on the Dragon's fearless temperament. Water allows the Dragon to re-direct its enthusiasm, and makes him more perceptive of others. These Dragons are better equipped to take a step back to re-evaluate a situation because they understand the art of patience and do not desire the spotlight like other Dragons. Therefore, they make smart decisions and are able to see eye-to-eye with other people. However, their actions can go wrong if they do not research or if they do not finish one project before starting another.

(The last line makes me shiver...with so many projects on the go right now.)

The scarves are almost all silk and they look funky on anyone. I sew five or six diffent knits together and then dragon back down the edges with the lock-serger and braid/tie them up and stick the tail through the mouth. Selling well!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Harlequin Glorybower Dyer Season Again

In early November the local mountains and cliffs supply Harlequin Glorybower berries that dye a Korean pine-ash glaze porcelain color with an aluminum mordant. With some watered-down gardenia pod dye-bath you can under-dye to get some fresh greens. A too vivid yellow gets you a truly obnoxious Exorcist barf fluorescent green.

The berries are best when they are dark blue and almost black but still juicy. Use a blender to pulverize them and then bring them to an almost boil. Stop before it bubbles to get a fresh color. It is tempting to use more mordant when dying with unstable berry dyes. The thread can get sticky with mordant when using this dye so go easy on it.

I wrote about Kusagi dying on my MONDAY, 12 OCTOBER, 2009 post if you would like to read it.

Indigo Stalks Dye Sublime Grey on Silk.

After growing and dying with indigo for 19 years, you just about do everything possible with the stuff. But boiling the stems after stripping off the indigo pigment laden leaves and using that as a dye bath never happened.

A few weeks back, the mid afternoon shadows were already clammy and blackish and the coming cooler weather's pale fingers were just a few wool hairs away, almost brushing our shoulders as we stripped almost spiritless leaves off the indigo stalks.

Due to a few cool weeks in July only two harvests were possible. The pigment content was good and the plants healthy. Experimenting with fertilizer, two rows of plants with none. Two rows with a reasonable amount and two rows of complete overkill. Sadly, the fertilizer overkill rows were by far the strongest. The indigo field usually gets some locally produced dairy cow manure. It was too soon after the Fukushima nuclear accident to make any rational decision about the safety of manure and there was some old high-nitrogen chemical mulberry fertilizer gathering dust in the barn. (Raising silkworms in the early spring the mulberry is healthy enough with out it.)

The reddish stems in the stainless dye pot were as forlorn as we felt preparing them. And the resulting grey, brought to mind an overcast Canadian West Coast November walk at sundown near the water.. Gorgeous...and sublime.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Tsunamiland Workshops

I have been up volunteering several times in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures over the past six months. Shoveling tsunami gunk, sifting sand in yards, carrying debris, washing everything, making food and delivering it. It is getting colder up north and I am busy with carpentry work at the house preparing for the spring tour so I could only squeeze in one last trip up there. I got back home this morning. (To find that Snoopy had fallen down the concrete river embankments and was trapped all night in the heavy rain on a miniscule shrinking island in the middle of the river near my house. She was soaked, shocked and delirious. I fell in the river pulling her out.)

The people living in temporary emergency housing places have had their houses and spouses and children and big parts of their lives washed away. The shock has worn off and as the days grow colder and less sunshine, dreary reality sinks in. It took some effort to arrange in advance four indigo workshops at some temporary emergency housing places. It was worth it to see some very happy faces. In Spring after the tour is finished I will try to go back and hold some more. They need fresh ideas for their fundraising bazaars. Something clever with indigo? I have six months to think about it.

PS: Snoopy is now dried out and fed and sleeping soundly on my bed as if it all hadn't happened.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Chestnut Hull Dying

Autumn is here. The yuzu citrus on the trees are turning orange. Snoopy doesn't want to walk on her regular walking route this time of year because the road is littered with prickly chestnut hulls. She got pricked on her tender little paw bottoms years ago and won't forget that. (The damn monkeys scatter them all over the place.)
It is a shame not to follow the seasons. We picked up some hulls and squealed and yelped until they were boiled soft. Again we used old kimono lining with simple shibori.
I want the students to just get the process of mordants and boiling and what plant gets what color. Playing on this almost-free silk gives us the freedom to play without worrying about how to use the material. It is a shame when we get a beautiful color like this and we haven't dyed skeins of silk to weave. The moment of the season makes this process precious. There are still plenty of chesnuts around to re-do this one.

Woven Shibori

For all the weavers who want to try something new I recommend Catherine Ellis book, "Woven Shibori". She really has done a remarkable job researching and experimenting to the millionth degree the possibilities of 'weaving-in' the pull threads of shibori and the following surface dying .

Most of us Neanderthals have been painstakingly measuring and marking and stitching evenings away to get similar results. She shows us how to set our looms to get the stitching built in. It felt a little like seeing a "Ring-around-the-collar or 'Scrubbing Bubbles" or a 'Mr. Muscle your a good man to wake up to." ad for the first time. Too good to be true. But the results are in...and they work.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Music on Silk Crepe.

Today the rice paste was used to resist the stencil pattern as usual but instead of indigo, I boiled down different dye baths from high tannic barks and red madder and used them with an iron mordant to get this effect. It was steamed to set the color.

Something about this reminds me of Pablo Casals playing Bach. The fabric is a perfect silk crepe. This stuff if usually too refined and snooty. How to build on the chilliness without nodding off is the question. It may not be a moody, bloody, passionate Cello Suite but it made us smile in a similar way.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Banana Stock Threads to Fabric: National Treasure

The Okinawan islands are at the very southern tip of the Japanese archipelago. The islands are closer to Taiwan than the actual Japanese main islands. The climate is tropical and the customs and language quite different from the rest of Japan. The islands remained under American jurisdiction after world war two until 1972. The Okinawans have had it tough and still suffer living with huge American Military bases in their midst. Due to the strategic position of the islands it is doubtful that the military bases will be moved.

Kimono from this area has traditionally been made from the stalk of Banana plants. The woven textiles seem to have soaked in the sunshine and the hardship as well as the refinement and strength of the land and the Okinawans.

Taira Toshiko san grew up under the occupation and economically suffered most of her life. I've never met her but I have lifted a few inspirational patterns from her repertoire to use in my own weaving.

The process of making the threads is much like the traditional methods for making thread and weaving other plant fibers. The finished woven rolls of fabric are floated in the salt water to set the weave and color unlike their northern brethren which are laid to set on the cold frozen snow of the snowy regions of Japan. More or less Japan sits on a North-South Axis. The clothing tradition was enriched by the topographical and climate variations.

I would love to take a year off my busy life in the middle of Japan and head south to a slower paced life and study the Okinawan textiles. What a dream...