Home again, with an extra suitcase or two

I left California two weeks ago with a half-filled medium-sized suitcase and a nearly empty duffel bag. I returned from Japan two days ago with those bags packed to bursting and added even more; a new, larger suitcase and a box, both filled with kimono, haori, obi, raw silk, furoshiki, books, obijime, yukata, and other odds and ends.

There were books, many books, all carefully crammed into the duffel bag and hauled through three different airports as my carry-on baggage. A few have already been listed in the shop, with more to come over the next few days. Clothing pattern ideas, small crafts, kanzashi, and dolls round out the library. There were kimono, folded neatly and tucked into bags to keep them safe, layered like precious cakes inside of the new suitcase. Those now wait for a sunny day to be taken to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco for a photography session. There was chocolate, most of which has now been eaten, and a few souvenirs for the family.

Most of all, my brain has had so much new information loaded into it I can hardly see straight. I’ll do my best to share that new knowledge with you, as soon as I can download it from my brain through my fingers and into the computer. New items will be listed in the KimonoMomo Etsy shop as soon as I can get them all in there. It may take a while.

Also of note: I will be adding insurance to all orders shipped outside of the USA. This is for your protection, as I cannot be held responsible for orders not insured that go missing once they leave the USA. If you would prefer not to have this extra fee on your order–for example, you’re only ordering a few skeins of sashiko thread for a nominal amount–please let me know and I will refund the fee.

Thank you for your support over the past 6 months since I’ve reopened the shop! It means so much to know you enjoy the same things I do, and that I can provide what you are looking for. I’m very fortunate to work with what I love, and I truly enjoy sharing that with you.

Book Review: Sashiko by Agnès Delage-Calvet

  • Sashiko : japanisch sticken

  • by Agnès Delage-Calvet with photographs by Frédéric Lucano

  • 2007, Haupt Publishing. ISBN 978-3-258-07134-3

  • Language: German

I stroll through Amazon from time to time seeking out new sashiko books to add to my library. It doesn’t matter what language they are in, all are welcome.

This slim volume starts off with a visual bang for me right on the cover with a cast iron teapot on top of a stack of sashiko textiles. It’s all blue and white from the start, and continues that way for the next 64 pages. There is a section in the beginning with the usual “do this, don’t do that” graphics, which are always a nice reminder that while sashiko is a technique with rustic roots, it still has rules.

Projects include a selection of traditional geometric designs, a few cranes and the like, and several florals. The florals are based on Japanese designs, but they appear more European to me, and I like the dichotomy. I think I actually squeed like a schoolgirl when I saw “Rechteckiges Kissen”, the large indigo pillow with a spider mum in white on page 16. Even better was “Betttuch und Kissenbezüge”, the lovely set of ivory bed linens with indigo flowers on page 12.

The photos are not unlike those of a Japanese craft book, but darker and moodier with a touch of hope, like a Nordic spring. I’m of Northern European roots, so the visuals really resonate for me. The colors are so cool, but the textiles so inviting, especially “Plaid”, the creamy white wool flannel blanket with indigo stitches on page 30. You won’t find that in any Japanese sashiko books, at least none that I’ve seen. I’d never thought of working with fuzzy or fluffy knits, either, which is exactly why I think this is a book worth having; it stretches the imagination to include a different view of what sashiko is. The Japanese do sashiko so well, and even Silvia Pippen with her tropical designs sheds a new light on this old task, but to take something traditional to one country and make it look like it naturally belongs in yours… that’s magical. I’m happy to see an artist do it so well.

If you already have a working understanding of how to do sashiko, this book will serve as delightful visual inspiration. If you are a beginner and only read English, it might be a nice book to have for later. If you read German, go for it. I took a year of German in high school and barely remember any of it, so I enjoy the pictures and leave it at that. Besides, my German language teacher was Austrian and the book publisher is Swiss, so there may be differences… Sadly, I confess I have no clue.

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Octopus or Jewel?

Flipping through reference books while looking for examples of goldwork embroidery, I stumbled onto a page in Flowers, Dragons, & Pine Trees that made me pause, somewhat concerned, and turn the book upside-down. The image, plate 77 on page 234, is credited as an indigo dyed Kasuri Futonji from the 19th or 20th century. From the text, the design is identified as that of an octopus, probably originating from a workshop on the San’in coast. Click on the images below for a closer look.

Ikat Octopus?

Ikat Octopus?

The origin location makes it sound like an octopus is quite likely for this design. The main shape is round, and it has tentacle looking appendages.  But it isn’t an octopus. This is an octopus. A very clever, tsutsugaki-rendered octopus (currently hiding in storage at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The image presented in plate 77 is (in my humble opinion) a houju (宝珠), or Buddhist sacred jewel. From JAANUS:

Also nousashou houju 能作性宝珠, mani houju 摩尼宝珠. A sacred jewel, said to remove suffering, and capable of granting every wish. Usually has a round base and pointed top, sometimes surrounded by flames. According to legend the nyoi houju is said to have emerged from the head of the dragon king ryuuou 竜王, or to be made out of eleven precious materials, including Buddha’s ashes, gold, silver and various aromatic woods. Found as an attribute *jimotsu 持物, held by Buddhist deities such as *Nyoirin Kannon 如意輪観音, *Jizou 地蔵, and *Kichijouten 吉祥天. A good example is the mid-9c Nyoirin Kannon in Kanshinji 観心寺, Osaka.

The indigo dyed kimono shown here courtesy of Vicki Shiba Antiques.

The sleeve shown here is part of a larger country-made textile. This men’s cotton kimono, dyed in indigo and decorated in the tsutsugaki technique with what were once more vivid colors, would have been worn during festivals or other times of celebration.

And that upside-down page? Here’s how it looks (as I believe to be) the right way.

Ikat Honju!

Ikat Honju!

Aside from my disagreement with the author’s photo identification, I would highly recommend Flowers, Dragons, & Pine Trees; Asian Textiles in the Spencer Museum of Art by Mary M. Dusenbury for your reference library. It is image-dense, research-heavy, and covers several countries and regions of what we collectively refer to as Asia. Your local library may have a copy. If not, ask at the reference desk, visit your local bookseller, or check it out on Amazon.

Book Review: The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook

Susan Briscoe is a familiar name to many sashiko stitchers here in the West, and rightfully so. The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook: Patterns, Projects and Inspirations (2005) is a book I would suggest anyone getting started with sashiko would benefit from having in their library.

The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook starts the reader off with a colorful history of sashiko, including examples of country textiles and black and white photos from the early 20th century, when sashiko was still used for practical purposes, not just decorative ones. Susan goes on to discuss equipment, fabrics, and basic techniques, followed by several projects and a comprehensive section of stitches with instructions. At 128 full-color pages, I highly recommend this book to both new and experienced sashiko stitchers.

Originally published in the UK, I found a copy in my local library here in the US. If you’re stitching on a budget, ask your librarian if this is available. If you’re building up a craft library, this is a good book to have on hand as a reliable resource.

Having a fondness for Japanese craft books, I’ve unfairly avoided the majority of English-language craft books out there, but over the past few years many new titles have arrived on the market that offer Western crafters a comprehensive education on Eastern techniques. Susan Briscoe writes with an obvious fondness for Japanese culture, and I look forward to checking out more of her books in the future.

Book Review: Flowers, Dragons, & Pine Trees

Flowers, Dragons, & Pine Trees: Asian Textiles in the Spencer Museum of Art by Mary M. Dusenbury, Hudson Hills Press, 2004

This is a hefty, coffee table-sized book filled with color photos, maps, and a wide selection of textile items from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, Kansas City, Missouri. The original collection of Asian textiles was a gift from Sallie Casey Thayer in 1917. Since that time the museum has continued to add to the collection, which has now grown to an impressive catalog of items from all over Asia, including South Asia (India, Pakistan and Kashmir), Iran, China, and Japan. Broken up into regional sections, the book examines individual items and their history, accompanying each with several color photographs.

As a reference guide, this book would be useful for those researching textiles ranging from Imperial Chinese court robes (chao fu and long pao), historical examples of embroidery (the gold couching examples are particularly beautiful), Japanese stencil making, priestly vestments (including the Japanese kesa), Kashmir shawls, Persian carpets, and all manner of gorgeous textiles, most produced prior to the 20th century. Essays for each geographical section cover these and other topics, many of which I’ve found quite useful. Each section is heavily footnoted.

The cover price is $65-75, but I have seen it for much less online. My copy was purchased on sale through Paragon Books, a favorite resource for books on Asian art, history and culture.

Hidden gems in your local library

Traditional Crafts of JapanTwo of my absolute favorite books for kimono and kimono-related research are The Traditional Crafts of Japan, volumes 1 and 2 of an eight volume series on traditional Japanese crafts published by Diamond, Inc. in 1992. The volumes are rich with historical background and gorgeous color photos, and are eye-catching in their brick red slip cases. When I first started seriously researching kimono, I found these in the oversized book section of my local library in Bend, Oregon. Month after month for nearly two years I would check these volumes out and renew them until I had to return them, then wait a few weeks and check them out again. They served as valuable resources, and even occasionally as rather uncomfortable pillows when I’d fall asleep reading them in bed.

One day I went for my regular kimono-research fix, but the books were nowhere to be found. Had they been checked out? Moved? Retired? I panicked. The reference librarian reassured me that they had only been checked out, and asked if I’d looked for copies of my own from an online book retailer. Considering that they had never been issued for retail sale but only donated to public libraries, I had assumed that wasn’t possible. “Of course it’s possible,” the reference librarian told me with a smile. “What do you think we do with all the books that are retired from libraries? We sell them, one way or another.” Ooooh. Aha.

And so the search began. It had a rocky start as I tracked down a very few copies and found prices ranged from the hundreds for single volumes to thousands for the entire eight volume set. Finding volumes 1 and 2 from one dealer, I contacted her to verify the cost (the listing was vague, was it for one book or both?) and how soon she could ship, only to be told she could no longer locate the books and had possibly sold them already. The next dealer on my list raised his price shortly after I first found his listing, and I could no longer afford the cherished books. I kept my eyes open for a pair at a reasonable price for another year, and finally landed a set thanks to a generous tax refund. Thank you, Uncle Sam.

The set originally came with all eight books in slipcases and included a few VHS videos to complement the series. As I haven’t own a VCR in years, I had no interest in the videos, although I did check them out from the library and watch them on a borrowed VCR just so I’d know what I was missing. Watching a Nishijin silk weaver at work is impressive, as is hearing the swish-clack-clack, swish-clack-clack of the shuttle and loom. Seeing oversized, full color images of the finished product isn’t half bad though, so I won’t complain about a lack of video reference, especially as there are several good videos available on YouTube featuring such information in both English and Japanese.

If you are a kimono or craft fanatic and would like to see these for yourself, ask at your local library. If they do not have any copies on hand, ask for an interlibrary loan, either from another library in your area, or from a college or university library. If you would prefer to own some copies for yourself, ask around. It’s possible to find them on Amazon and Alibris from time to time, and once they are retired from circulation, libraries do sell them off by the volume or by the set.

Tsuzure Ori

I was warned years ago that if I started studying Japanese and didn’t have many opportunities to speak the language, I’d lose it. This has sadly come to pass. Taking a few steps away from my kimono-focused business over the past few months, the words have been gradually slipping away from me. Conversational Japanese went long ago, as I’ve had very few opportunities to practice. What truly distressed me recently was when I attempted to identify an interesting textile from my mother’s collection and couldn’t think of the words for the life of me. Thank goodness I unpacked my reference library this morning.

The textile in question was an example of tsuzure ori (“nail weaving”), a type of tapestry weave that differs from regular loom weaving in that instead of using punch cards as a regular jacquard loom does, tsuzure is woven completely by hand. The design is first laid out on paper, which is used as a guide below the warp. Many shuttles may be used for the weft, as the designs can be as simple or complex as the artist desires. Some tsuzure weavers file serrated edges into their fingernails to aid in the weaving, but not all do. Due to the high level of visual focus necessary to make proper tsuzure ori, some weavers find their eye sight affected over time.

The beauty of tsuzure is that gorgeous, free-form designs may be created that appear to have been brush painted onto the fabric instead of woven into it. Extreme delicacy and dimensionality can be achieved by carefully blending threads from slightly different hues, gradually changing the color and tone of a design to simulate the appearance of brush strokes or falling shadows. The resulting textile is often quite thick and somewhat stiff, evidence of the amount of time and care taken into weaving by hand to a higher standard that mechanical loom weaving.

Excerpted from The Silk Weavers of Kyoto: Family and Work in a Changing Traditional Industry
by Tamara Hareven:

So I think that the powerloom has its own merits. It makes more beautiful lines, but tsuzure [which is completely handwoven] has its own traditional beauty in its colors and appearance. For example, if you look from a distance at women wearing obi, you can identify a real non-tsuzure obi from among them instantly. You can tell at first glance that the good one is made by a handloom. Tsuzure has a future despite the powerloom. While the powerloom can produce a lot of products with the same design, tsuzure is not made that way. Unless we receive a specific order, we don’t make one. So tsuzure will probably be more valuable.

Interview with Mrs. Fuwa, Artistic Handloom Weaver, p.135

Tsuzure is often mastered by women, as they tend to have the dexterity and patience to work each project through to the end. An apprenticeship of 9-10 years may be required to achieve a level of technical experience that can be considered necessary for producing high-end pieces. The traditional weaving industry in Japan is one of the few places where both men and women are paid according to the level of skilled work they do (regardless of gender), and the work may be produced from home. This allows both husband and wife to work and earn the same pay if they choose, unlike much of contemporary Japanese society where the wife is expected to quit working after marriage to stay home and raise children.

To make tsuzure, you can do everything by yourself. You do not have to get mongami [punch cards for the jacquard] and you can draw a picture by yourself, though it takes time to master tsuzure. So it is different from weaving on a loom with a jacquard. When I was weaving at home, I got my raw materials from a weaving factory, and I made weavings for the factory. But if I wanted to make something for myself or for my friends, I had to prepare my warp and designs myself. [...]

More people still work at home on handweaving than in factories. If a weaver works with a tsuzure loom for five years in a factory, she knows enough how to do it at home and looks forward to doing it at home. As a housewife, she can be with her children. [...]

My husband is a weaver. He weaves on a handloom [tebata] for eight hours a day. My work, tsuzure weaving, needs higher hand skills, but not high mechanical skills. As for the mechanical aspects, the handloom is more specialized, and the powerloom is even more specialized. So there is a balance between my skill and my husband’s.

Interview with Mrs. Shibagaki, Artistic Handloom Weaver, p. 125

Back to the library for now… a visit to the Bonhams & Butterfields auction of Fine Asian Works of Art in San Francisco on June 21 opened up an interest in garments (longgua, magua, danpao, etc.) from the Chinese Imperial Court and I’ve got some reading to do.

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