Sunday, 11 March 2018

Katazome...Japanese Stencils: Recreating Antique Japanese Textiles

I've seen thousands and thousands of pieces of Japanese katazome indigo stenciled cloth. I don't get too excited.

Only a well-drawn stencil, a cleverly designed stencil, a rare motif, exceptional indigo color and often a nostalgic stencil a friend or old student has cut can make me pause, examine and think.

I picked up this Japanese butterfly patterned cloth at Morita Antiques in Tokyo a few years back. Butterflies would not make it on a list of favorite motifs but the clever use of other natural motifs set in the wings was so elegant yet humble. The use of soot to get the gradations of grey to black and the delightful shades of faded blue made it irresistible.

Pre-industrialised poetry. Before electricity.

It is from the late Edo period  1800 to 1850.
It is made of handspun  Japanese cotton and handwoven at a 36-centimeter width.
It was part of a cotton kimono or an afterbath kimono worn by a man. Samurai class or perhaps merchant class. 

The background is naturally dyed indigo. The black and grey parts are dyed with soot and bound to the cloth with soy milk. 

The pattern is finely drawn. Natural motifs of peonies and bamboo leaves are inside the wings of some of the butterflies. Typical of Japanese design.

I took the cloth to my old friend 7th generation Noguchi san's studio and told him I wanted to reproduce the cloth and needed his help with the eventual pasting.

He looked at it with disbelief.

 The main obstacle to reproduce this antique cloth was finding someone who can cut the stencils for it. I thought of trying myself but simply do not have the time or the skill level. I found the master of masters, Isao Uchida from Ise in Mie prefecture. (This town supplied all the stencils for all of Japan historically. ) He is the head of the Japanese persimmon paper stencil preservation association. He is a tsukibori stencil cutter. He uses the board with the holes underneath the paper so to cut graceful lines. 

I visited his home and studio 5 years ago and took the above pictures.

I took a  sample of the cloth and headed down south to meet him and ask for his help last month. 

He agreed.

It took him a few weeks to complete the cutting.  I can see how he cleverly reproduced the stencil with the use of carbon paper and his God-given drawing skills and infinite patience with a razor sharp knife. 

People are bigger than they were hundreds of years ago and I asked him to add a few butterflies on the 36cm width to get a full 40cm width.

The stencil arrived today and they are beautiful. It takes seven different stencils to recreate this pattern. Three for the white lines alone and four to help cover with paste the grey and black areas once they are painted in with soot and soy milk.

The stencil would be too fragile to be cut on a single piece of paper. So the fine lines were spaced apart from each other and spread over three papers.

You can see the pattern with two of the three overlaid on each other.

Whiteboots photobombed the stencil to be used to resist the grey sections. 

I started writing a book on Making Japanese Hanten Jackets. Starting with indigo seeds. 

The reproduced butterfly stencil will be used to dye a gorgeous lining for the jacket.

I'll take the stencils to Noguchi's place with my first wave of workshop students this spring and see what we can do.

Very very exciting days...

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Monkeys, Drag Queens, Glasgow and Van Morrison & the City of Paisley.

I went running a few days back and a group of twenty-odd monkeys came racing up the mountain from below out of the tea fields and spilled up onto the road around me and ran with me a few dozen meters.

At that moment I was listening in rapture to Van Morrison on earphones. Thinking about the opening lyrics to Domino with a big grin...

Don't want to discuss it
I think it's time for a change
You may get disgusted
Start thinkin' that I'm strange
In that case I'll go underground
Get some heavy rest
Never have to worry
About what is worst and what is best (get it)
Oh oh Domino (all right)
Roll me over Romeo

There you go

Lord have mercy
I said oh oh Domino
Roll me over Romeo
There you go
Say it again
I said oh oh Domino
I said oh oh Domino,

I had to stop and laugh and dance for the monkeys....."there you go... Lord have mercy..."
I punched the air Rocky-style smiling so hard I couldn't laugh and I swear a few of the monkeys joined in with me for the following verse dancing in the trees...
The Van Morrison and the monkeys....agh...  I never finished writing that blog in Glasgow started in December.

Domino Van Morrison

Back in Glasgow after some quiet time on the Isle of Skye I wandered for hours on end in the streets holding my camera by my waist with the flip out viewfinder secretly taking endless pictures of mostly unsuspecting random people walking down the street or preparing for a Christmas parade or staring into a pawnshop window looking at guitars.  I've been in the habit of this for years. In Russia,  Georgia, New York, Melbourne, India..
You get drunks and punks and mates. Occasionally a couple in love, a toddler with a walleye eating a sugar glazed donut.

The moment was gone.

The already low-angled solstice sun lowered, it was raining and snowing and the buskers were mixing in Christmas carols next to Rolling Stone covers. I nicked into a pub to sit quietly and edit out the blurry pictures, the empty frames, close-ups of down jackets and think about the habitats of the city I captured for my own amusement digitally.

I got my pint and some chips and glanced around the pub to see who my fellow sleet-escaping buddies were.

A little on the gloomy and serious side.

All ages and no specific dress code. Even the matron who moved in on me and was curious and looking to start up a conversation as soon as I looked away for my camera editing.....

Where you from?

I had to smile.

She was speaking with a deep Glaswegian patter.

She had to smile back...she raises both arched eyebrows, one at a time, and turns her head slightly, glances sideways, coyly up and away and takes a sip through a straw of her cocktail and lets the razor stubble, eyeliner and peculiar cleavage and husky voice register and then the eyes move back to meet mine and then the head follows for dramatic effect.


A few pints later I had heard her family story.

A North Irish bricklayer father who had eloped with her Scottish mother to escape the troubles and then escaped the troubles of looking after a family and vanished. She was living with her bloody handsome straight brother, built like a refrigerator, who came back from Iraq with a post-traumatic disorder and was between wife number three and four.

So what do you do in Canada?

I'm a farmer and a textile designer and actually, I have lived in Japan for the last thirty years.

I raised my eyebrows, turned my head slightly, gave it my best world-weary distant gaze, (probably man-spread a little), took an intentional manly drink of my beer and then moved my eyes back to meet hers and then slightly pivoted my head so the vision and the nose lined up and locked at 90 degrees.

I thought of that old song..."When love congeals, it reveals, the faint aroma of performing seals."

She blinked those clumpy mascaraed lashes in rapid succession. Three quickies and a slow rise. Set them and smiled while seemingly making her incisors grow a little...

Well.... you must go to Paisley then. It is only an hour away. That is where all the paisley was made for the world in the days. The trains leave Glasgow station every twenty minutes.

So the next day...

No weaving has taken place in the town of Paisley since before WWII. Living in my village in Japan where every single house had produced silk for hundreds of years I know how that industry determined generations of local's lives. Again, the not-well-funded-aesthetic of small museum rooms with donated looms with moth-eaten threads dryly suspended from the front and back beams, rusted heddles and miscellany of weaving production awkwardly displayed on poorly made display boxes and cabinets.

It was a wonderful three hours non-the-less. Reading through the placard history of the weaving union workers and the history of the shawl adaptations as styles changed and seeing some beautiful work was well worth the short trip from Glasgow.

The sad Christmas fair with almost empty amusement rides in the town square I'd have to pass through again to enter the train station made me reluctant to brace the cold and wind. I bought a good book on Paisley from the museum gift shop and sat in front of a life-sized paper mâché Darth Vader near a radiator and read it until it was 5:00 and the museum decided to close.

This makes the paisley shawl make sense. One minute clip.

I did go back to the Scottish pub in Glasgow the next day humming, 'Madame George' but she wasn't there.

Pure Heaven.

Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George
Marching with the soldier boy behind
He's much older now with hat on drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
The cool night air like Shalimar
And outside they're making all the stops
The kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops
Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops
Happy taken Madame George
That's when you fall
Whoa, that's when you fall
Yeah, that's when you fall
When you fall into a trance
Sitting on a sofa playing games of chance
With your folded arms and history books
You glance into the eyes of Madame George
And you think you found the bag
You're getting weaker and your knees begin to sag
In a corner playing dominoes in drag
The one and only Madame George
And then from outside the frosty window raps
She jumps up and says, Lord, have mercy I think it's the cops
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below
And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George
And as you leave, the room is filled with music
Laughing, music, dancing, music all around the room
And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all
So cold, and as you're about to leave
She jumps up and says, hey love, you forgot your gloves
And the gloves to love, to love the gloves
To say goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George
Dry your eyes for Madame George
Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street
In the backstreet, in the back street
Say goodbye to Madame George
In the backstreet, in the back street, in the back street
Down home, down home in the back street
Gotta go, say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Dry your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye, your eye
Say goodbye to Madame George
And the loves to love to love the love
Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Say goodbye goodbye, goodbye, goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George
The love's to love, the love's to love, the love's to love
Say goodbye, goodbye

Get on the train
Get on the train, the train, the train
This is the train, this is the train
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train, get on the train

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Sad Days

I have been hibernating the past few months.

There was record cold streak here in the mountains.

I didn't mind it. Of course, this old house is freezing in the winter. Pipes freeze. Toilets freeze. The outdoor bath is heaven once you are in it. It is getting undressed and into the shower and slipping on ice on the wooden floor in your bare feet.

But it makes you feel alive!

The new year has not been without textile adventures. I've gone to Japanese kimono sewing classes once a week for the past few months. It is said that you cannot call yourself a kimono maker until you have sewn 100 of them. Not 98 or even 99 but 100.

 I am on hanten jacket 20 something.....still a few more to go. I'm taking meticulous notes and photographs for........a book I started writing on the subject. Shooting for 2020...

I set up the big Finnish loom with some gorgeous handspun alpaca yarn I picked up in Victoria, BC last June. Indigo Carole sent me some gorgeous Scottish yarn that is working itself into the weft.

Many thanks.

I usually weave things that show the beauty of the yarn/thread. Plain weave or an occasional twill.

Not this time.

Having spent some time in Europe in the winter I felt nostalgic for something old and religious. I decided to weave some gothic crosses blankets. Listening to some Doestovski chapters on monastery life in Russia and Dark Nights of the Soul by St. John of the Cross while I weave away in the cold silence. Pets around the heaters keeping me quiet company while Hiro is in Brazil to escape the cold.

It is a shadow weave with 8 harnesses. The peddling sequence is 52 steps for one pattern. I made a few boo boos the first few repeats but seem to have it correct now.

I visited my friend in the hospital almost every day the past few months. He was born in this old silk farmhouse 79 years ago. Many of you who have come to visit or study here have met him. He would come by almost every morning to visit. We cleaned up the mountain underbrush. Kept the tea terraces in good form. Picked yuzu oranges together. Dug bamboo shoots in the spring. He was born into a silk farming family and silk farmed a good part of his life. He was a charcoal maker as well.

His old farmhouse was full of silk farming and kimono weaving equipment.

"Use it or burn it."

And he showed me over the years what many of those odd-looking tools were for. He smiled when I had a tattoo of one of his old silk farming trays drawn on my forearm.

He let me live in this house 24 years ago. It is a very conservative village. No one would think of lending a house to a long-haired broken-Japanese speaking (at that time) Canadian guy with a scruffy beard and a scruffy dog.

He did.

Just for the fun of it.

Open-hearted and helpful.

He was patient, resourceful and affectionate.  A cheerful homebody.

He wasn't quarrelsome or greedy.

Always watching the foibles of the often close-minded villagers with a wry smile.

Never any ill-will to anyone.

He spent all his life in these few square kilometers.

A sparkle in his eyes.

Thanks to him hundreds of people from around the world have had the opportunity to stay in an old farmhouse in the mountains of Japan and have some context for the textile history and techniques they come to study from me. Celia sent her thanks to him a few weeks ago.

I explained to him in the hospital that a red-head beauty from Holland wanted to thank him for helping her life. I think he understood.

I sat with him yesterday and told him about the last of the snow melting. How much my dental work was costing.  Hiro was back from Brazil. The monkeys ran up the side of the mountain and joined me for a jog.

He passed away a few hours later.

I will miss you Kiyotaka Sugimoto.

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.