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.