Sunday, 30 December 2012

Reeling Silk/ Spinning Wool

It is just bloody cold in this house in the winter. How did they survive in this place for hundreds of years with just small charcoal braziers?

Fedora sits in the kitchen reeling cocoons and Noriko sits in the sitting room spinning wool on a Saturday class. The rhythmic sounds of the wood machines adds some warmth.

Fedora bought some 'B' class cocoons to reel for warp thread as they were out of 'A' class cocoons. She makes gorgeous impossibly thin paper thread by hand for weft thread.  She has the patience of a saint to reel these rotten cocoons. One of the pleasures of reeling silk is to witness the clean perfection of the cocoons unravelling to find the chrysalis inside appear slowly as it's protective cocoon is reeled away meter by meter.

But the sheer magic of getting this pure white silk from the discolored cocoons is a marvel.

These are the cocoons that just wouldn't reel. I boiled them in a slightly high pH solution and made floss from them. Fedora will spin and dye this and combine it with her paper thread. 

Noriko's wool to be woven into a shawl.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Indigo on Linen. Perfection

 There has been too many mediocre pieces of cloth going into the indigo vats. It is time to start policing as it seems students cannot police themselves.  Grrrr. It is depressing to see mass-produced machine woven boring junk soaking up precious indigo.  It is better to dye a small scrap of good stuff than ten meters of stuff that will be much closer to the garbage bin a year down the road.

What is good stuff? 
This linen came from an old noren  curtain with an obnoxiously simplified rabbit-in-the-waves motif dyed with chemical red from the 60's.  It was hidden in a drawer in the new knit studio. Boiling it in some bleach with some slaked lime pretty much erased the rabbit. This stitching to create accordion folds is a useful shibori technique to master and expand on. It built on Serge's last piece's technique. 

Here he is proud of his most recent masterpiece. Serge also wants to become an indigo master. I am thinking of taking him on for a few years. From indigo seed to a perfectly crafted work. 

Kamei san was busy finishing up year end projects. She Persian knot wove/tied this small carpet to use as a pillow on the loom bench. It is so plush. Warp is camel and weft is naturally coloured wool.

There is plenty of warp left and she wove up a cool small leg warmer blanket.

She also spent a long time laboriously shibori stitching and tying round motifs on this Indian hand woven cotton material. Wonderful that she finished these up as the year comes to a close. I am sure she will have some beautiful projects finished in 2013 as well. Good work Kamei chan!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Indigo Guru Wanted

Someone shows up at your door and bows... "I've driven twelve hours to get to your house. I almost died in an accident I was so tired.   I have to talk to you. "

Just wanting to close the door and pretend it was an illusion, I snickered and replied... 'the guy you want is in another cave on the next mountain range.' (He doesn't speak English so my snarky wit just fell on the floor, waiting for me to step in later.)

"I want to be a live-in indigo disciple for two years."

Instant stomachache.

After a frown filled impatient coffee, a chill of the guilty MacNasties found me reluctantly asking him to drop by a few days later to try some indigo dyeing.  He had left 'a searching-for-the-foriegn-indigo-farmer-trail' around town and sure enough he had driven from Kyushu to find an indigo guru. He had met my good friends around the town at restaurants etc. and told them he was looking for me. His eager-beaver bushy-tailed enthusiasm filled the bench with supporters before I was even in the picture.

Requests for long-term live-in students who want to learn to grow and process indigo or learn to weave or farm silk do arrive in my inbox and occasionally at my doorstep. Not taking them too seriously, I make an effort to tell them to find something more productive to do with their lives. (Endlessly weeding mosquito-infested mulberry fields in sweltering summer days by myself, wishing to be and do anything, anywhere but there often sums up life .) These kind of requests are becoming more frequent,  I have yet to give any substantial  thought as to why. (I do have a few hunches though.)

When I asked him what and why questions he replied, "I have loved making things since I was a kid.
I want to learn a process like indigo dyeing from scratch... from a seed to a beautiful work of art. I don't care about making a living. I've read....."

Bob Dylan said,

 It's a feeling you have about yourself that no one else does.  The picture you have in your mind about what you are about will come true. It's a kind of thing you kind have to keep to your own self because it is a fragile feeling and you put it out there someone will kill it. So, It's best to keep that all inside.

I winced. These could have been the exact words out of my mouth when I was 25. (The indigo guru seeker's words, not Dylan's.)  I kept them to myself.  Recklessness or straightforward knowing himself. Hmmmm.

Shunpei will come by in early January to clean up the extra indigo field I have so he can start growing his own indigo next spring

Here he is with his first indigo dyed work. We used one of the stencils I picked up earlier last week.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

30 Layers of Persimmon Paper Stencils

Instead of regular class at the house on Tuesdays my students and I visited an antique dealer's house in Tokyo who had come to have several thousand old katagami stencils for luxury kimono. The master  craftsman who had owned and used them had passed away over 20 years ago and his children were cleaning up his old studio/ house to tear it down and sell the land.

Antique markets in Japan always have a few stalls selling rolls of these stencils for someone to purchase and use as an interior design object. Lampshades or perhaps to be framed. Very few people know how the stencils were actually used. We were there to purchase stencils we could use as well as glean ideas for stencils we could design and cut ourselves. Some were just so breathtaking in their complexity we bought them just to have and marvel at on a rainy day.  This was an untouched intact, previously unpicked over jackpot of katagami stencils. Oh la la. 

Uncomfortably rummaging, not only through someone's life but also through a nearly extinct and breathtaking  kimono dyeing technique was both debilitating as well as invigorating. We were seriously burnt-out after a few hours of evaluating stencils as our eyes and criteria sharpened with each hundred leafed-through, while filling out our personal collections.

Many of the stencils came in bundles of 30. Wrap your head around this.... It would take 30 (or many more) individually hand-carved stencils, for each colour and to resist areas with rice-paste to dye the background colours. These were for Edo Sarasa stencil technique kimono from the 1960's through to the late 80's when the craftsman had passed away.

A book could be written about the pile of stencils and sketches and cloth samples on the table beside me. It hasn't been written and I don't have the time to do it. Just a blog entry.

With some bundles of stencils were the hand drawn original sketches for the patterns that also acted as colour keys for the dyer to use. Here are a few I picked up. You can see the Indian and Arabic influences along with the pure Japanese stuff. These are the patterns that would be repeatedly dyed on 14 meters of silk with seamless accuracy. A thousand hours of work? More?

An individual stencil would be cut for each colour and a series of stencils cut to resist the pattern so that the background colour could be applied.

This leaf pattern stencil is easy to understand. Only three stencils instead of thirty. The paper is the smoked persimmon tannin layered paper that has been developed over hundreds of years to perfectly fit with these dyeing techniques.

Here is a small swatch of Edo Sarasa cloth. 

I will write more about that day in the next few blogs. The ingenuity of the stencil designs and the how we will use some of our given-up-for-dead stencils. I would prefer for my students to design and carve our own original stencils but since we bought these we should respect them and use them a few times.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Indigo Guys

It has been good to have some guys over to indigo dye recently.  (My women students are happy with this as these guys have all been handsome and creative.) Serge is back semi-woofing and semi-indigo studying. One day up the mountain cleaning up the tea terraces, the next day sewing cloth, the following day cutting down bamboo and the next day at the indigo vat. He brought some great linen from New Zealand and took his time to bring out the beauty of the cloth in this piece.  He is toying with the idea of being an indigo craftsman. He has the patience.

Ted came by twice to shibori and katazome. He has a good eye at the antique market. (This is the way to get the teacher's attention. ) Working as a designer in California with a Japanese wife, I am sure I'll see him again when he visits Japan next year. He caught the indigo bug fast.

The sashiko re-inforced corners of the furoshiki are so cool that I started Ogata san on a copy immediately.  Ted found these at the antique market in Kyoto.

The Spring 20I3 Indigo Workshops at my Farmhouse in Japan:

Sabi Frozen Indigo

The conversation often turns to Japanese ideas of aesthetics after a few rounds of hot sake in the chilly evenings with friends from overseas. The words Wabi and Sabi are almost worn out. I lifted this definition from some book years ago and never ran across it again.

'Wabi refers to a cricket on a leaf sheltered by a second leaf over the edge of a misty pond, chirping forlornly with no one listening.'

'Sabi can be seen in the dry yellowed curling bottom two leaves of a wild chrysanthemum  in late autumn. The sun barely gives enough heat and the last blossom of the year won't have the energy to open.'

Blandina, Judi and fellow indigo sisters poked holes in the dry dirt in the seed trays and carefully dropped in a few indigo seeds on their way out the door last spring.  The seedlings grew in front of the house and they were watered and cared for throughout the sweltering summer. One good harvest of indigo leaves in August and then they were left to go to seed for next years crop.

The seeds are ready to take but the beauty of the forlorn bitter frozen blue leaves and the wilting chrysanthemum plants amongst them made it hard to uproot them. The birds will find the seeds sooner than later.

 These terms are used for pottery,  lifestyles,  textiles. Sabi is harder to get a direct hit with.  It is nearing the end of an exhausting, eventful and fulfilling year for me. Sabi was ascendant just moments before.  I just watched this youtube of the Little Drummer Boy,  and the spirit of Christmas hit me right in the chest. And good ol' Dylan playing and implying a few roles at once....the singer, the drummer and the king. A tissue in each hand might come in handy for this one.

I'll pick the dried indigo flowers and winnow the seeds tomorrow. Sabi is over for this year. Time for some yuletide spirit in the mountains of Japan.

The 20I3 Spring Indigo Workshops at my Farmhouse in Japan:

Monday, 3 December 2012

Indigo and Persimmon Silk Knits.

Several kilograms of silk laboriously dyed with persimmon tannin last summer were headed for a loom but somehow are ending up on the knitting machines. (Perhaps a tad prematurely.)  It will take a few months to get the hang of the small sock knitter. There are so many mysterious mechanisms on mechanisms that perform some subtle function. One of the old craftsman told me that more than a few of the gears and levers and feed lines were never used in the past 40 years since he has been operating the machines. With this said, my hope to master the whole machine and knit process, was left with a few runs in it. (Like the runs in socks when a needle is slightly off kilter.)

Liza and I fed and re-fed the machine with wool and linen and silk and cotton of different gauges to take some of the guesswork out of the finer tuning nuances of the machine. We learned something but it will take many hundreds if not thousands of hours standing beside the machines and trying new things out to play it well. Learning the scales so to speak. And then by chance, some masterpieces of subtlety might even appear.

The shinier of the persimmon dyed silk (It had been de-gummed more.) worked beautifully with a random gradation lightly indigo dipped spun silk thread. The excitement of the possibilities of the combination of these two threads gave me a splitting headache. Too many synapses firing at once. Overheat.

Unfortunately the persimmon dyed thread is slightly too thick. Dyeing  thinner thread will have to wait until May until the ultra-violet rays are strong enough to dye.  What a dream to have the shelves at the shop full of indigo and persimmon dyed silk of all gauges and shades.

These are a start. The stripes are borderline court-jester and have to have their density and width adjusted. To do that, the plier pulling out and changing of  a few dozen small pieces on the machine will have to wait until more pressing techniques are more familiar.

There is a hole in my life with Snoopy gone. I'll go pick her ashes up tomorrow from the pet crematorium. Next weekend we will have a Snoopy farewell get-together outside the front door and put her in the garden there next to the little Buddhist stone sculpture and near the plum tree. She will be close by and I can 'toss her an imaginary dog biscuit' whenever I come and go from the house.
I like to think of her like this. Coming back from a walk by herself. Smiling.

 I think the last paragraph of Charlotte's Web went something like this:
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte although he loved her children and grandchildren deeply. None of the new spiders quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. 

As Snoopy was.... It is not often a dog comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Snoopy was both.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Oyasuminasai Snoopy

I lived with Snoopy for nineteen years and I was her third owner. I suppose she was over 23 years old. She had a good life. Free here in the mountains. She passed away in her sleep a few hours back. She has been suffering since last August. I am going to miss her. 
Goodnight ol' Snooperoo.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Fair Trade Textile Buddy

Safia and I share almost the same birth date and year. We arrived in Japan 24 years ago around the same time. We area both textile nuts. We used to spend so much time together and now we squeeze a years worth of gossip, updates and future plans in under 24 hours. She is the founder of People Tree and Global Village. Always on the go. A dozen conversations and ideas going at once. Wish you were here more Saf. If someone out there is interested in Fair trade please Google 'Safia Minney'. She knows more about sustainable textile development in the world than almost anyone.

A few years back in Laos.

Indigo Knit Studio Open

Driving back and forth to Hon Atsugi over the past year and slowly tearing down and rebuilding the old place, gnome-like in a dark cave, suddenly seemed worthwhile this weekend as the knit machine started to humm and buzz and to well.....knit  The studio looks somewhat magical and creative energy is ready to burst forth. There will be four of us for the time being. Daphne, Liza, Kurihara san and myself. I am being cautious at first. Not wanting to force anything to germinate that isn't organic and healthy. The original footing is important. I am excited about the possibilities of making some cool clothes from natural dyed silk, cotton, linen and wool knitted on our mid-50's knitters. My three partners are all gung-ho as well. Learning how to work these babies. The samples we made yesterday were great.

Justin and Noriko came and helped out last moth. Thank you to all the helpers.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Respect for Indigo

I would love to understand and hear more about your respect for indigo. I know it's in your writings about your processes of working with indigo, but what is it that you feel is not right about just putting something in the dye pot, without the care you think it deserves? on Indigo Dyeing Old Fabrics

Hi Cynthia,
I thought about what you wrote as I drove to the new studio today. I pictured a microwaved turkey with not even a drop of butter basted on. Served on some cold microwave-safe dish with no garnish and eaten in silence. 
The poor turkey. The lazy cook. The lost chance for a warm gathering of people and a full tummy.
When I first started indigo dyeing I took the train a few hours to an indigo studio that you paid by the gram what you wanted to dye. They have a dozen indigo vats in a beautiful reconstructed barn with a stone floor.  The human atmosphere was miserable. The owner was a drunk. The staff were afraid of him.
I would spend hundreds of hours tying a cotton kimono and then take it there to dye. As a fermentation indigo vat exhausts after time the bubbles on the top are a pale blue and the whole thing looks sickly. These were the only vats the paying customers were allowed to use. I would dip and oxidize over twenty times to get a medium blue. I begged to use the better vat and was turned down. 
I understand their policy.  To make the customer understand how expensive and precious indigo is. To make the customer appreciate the skill of the staff who take care of the fermentation vats daily. To stop anyone one from just dumping in a pair of old jeans thoughtlessly, killing the vat with too much oxygen.  There was a religious feeling of awe towards the vats. It was spoiled slightly with the stale smell of potato alcohol breath from the chief dyer and the egg walking nervous glances of his staff who were in love with indigo dyeing with no other option to find work.
The place was not welcoming. If I were to ever open an indigo dyeing studio to the public I would encourage the customers to enjoy the process and the preciousness of the experience. 
 I have problems balancing that. Like the turkey dinner, there is so much potential with indigo. The dyed cloth should be perfect. Why waste your time and effort and money on less than great material? I don't want to be a  boar and grumping over every item that goes it the vat. There are times that I think and feel I should be ( or at least pretend to be) the alpha indigo troll and bark at anyone who steps within a meter of a vat. Standards would go up. Satisfaction with projects would go up. Playfulness would take a direct hit. 
It boils down to taking time and having high standards. I am spreading myself far too thin these days. It would be too cynical/hypocritical of me to be an out and out ruthless teacher. I settle for encouraging words and nods and tugs in the direction I feel the students should go.

The standard should be to have the students make their own thread from nettles and silk. Dye it with a dye they made themselves and weave it on looms they make themselves. I do teach all these these things. Perhaps next year when I am less overwhelmed with work I'll put the focus where I deeply feel it should be.

Again, the brochure with information of the spring workshops at my house in Japan:

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Indigo Dyeing Old Fabrics

People often show up with some item of clothing they want to dye blue in the indigo because it has a stain on it or they are bored with the colour. Someone gave me her Issey Miyake cotton wedding dress and asked me to dye it blue...'the marriage only lasted a few months and I really liked the dress'.
Just dumping in the indigo usually makes it worse. There is little thought gone into what the outcome could or will be.  A particular shade of blue is about all that is considered.

Flat machine plain weave usually looks tired when dyed. Polyester stitching remains white and looks cheap. Indigo is precious. Treat it with respect!

Kawamoto san had this interesting white material and I stopped her as she was about to dip it a few times. I know from experience it would come out looking like a blue dishrag.  I showed her how to take a little time and scrunch up the wet material. Then pour on spots, let them oxidize and repeat three times. Open the cloth and squeeze it out. Re-scrunch and repeat this over and over. The gauze-like material looks cloud-like and the applique arabesques are charming instead of annoying.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Back Strap Loom Kasuri

With all the excitement of the autumn workshop and the new indigo knit studio opening soon, my faithful students are as productive as ever. I haven't documented their work as well as I wanted. I'll try to catch up a little. Yamaguchi san sat quietly on the second floor weaving away as late summer turned to autumn just outside the window. The regular student traffic honked and sped along downstairs.

It amazes me at the quality of material that can be woven on such a simple loom tied to a pillar. She tie- resisted all the thread, indigo dyed it, and patiently wove it up, a shuttle pass and beat slowly and surely. 
As it gets cooler it is time to give the indigo dyeing a break and weave more. I'll nudge the students towards the warping board tomorrow. 

Ogata san is caught in the Japanese gift giving cycle.  People love to spoil her with presents and she loves to dye indigo towels and scarves to give as thank yous for the present...and the cycle keeps going. I taught her how to fold the tenugui slightly differently. So this time she has a dozen hexagon shaped patterns. They look great.

On the katazome front, Catherine is knocking us all down with her straightforward and concise patterns she cuts out. The woman's washroom symbol was a clever idea.

As this is a blog and things go down, I'll add the link to Spring Workshop in Japan at the end of each blog post for a while. I have a few members signed up already. The thought of having some spring guests will keep me looking forward and counting down the months to the cherry blossoms are out.