From Caterpillar to Kimono: a Journey in Silk, part 1

My brain is still on Tokyo time. I sit at the breakfast table with my tea and toast and contemplate the day ahead; only it’s almost noon and I’m still not really awake. Most nights I’m up until 1:00 or 2:00 AM, but I’m struggling to get back on a schedule the rest of the household can live with. Even the dogs want me to get to bed before midnight so I can feed them breakfast at a decent hour.

We learned so much on our Silk Study Tour in Japan. Ten days packed with information, travel, shopping, eating amazing food, and learning. I think my head is still recovering from all the new ideas I have to process. Going through my notes and photos I find there is so much to share with you, and so it begins.

Part 1 of the journey begins in on a sericulture farm in the outskirts of Tokyo, where we meet master sericulturist Koyota Okonogi and his wife. Along with a team of volunteer assistants and his English-speaking apprentice Noriko, the 90-year-old Koyota san showed us the stages of silkworm life from egg to caterpillar and pupa to cocoon.

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Koyota san and apprentice Noriko san.

There are hundreds of types of silkworm, and Koyota san chooses to use the very best he can find. The variety he uses on his farm is a type more commonly used in the Edo era, and rare in today’s sericulture market. Today’s more readily available silkworm stock is often hybridized to produce stronger silk or larger cocoons, but this older variety produces a fine thread with a beautiful sheen.

Conditions for the silkworms are kept as stable as possible. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are kept on woven trays in a small, dry, heated room where they are fed layers of fresh mulberry leaves. They eat and defecate as they grow larger, and the trays are switched out regularly to remove the fecal matter they leave behind. At all times the silkworms are encouraged to grow fat and happy. They do appear very content. The white powder is lime, used to keep the leaves dry and to discourage mold which might kill the young caterpillars.

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The silkworms mill about, eating and growing larger, until it is time for them to sleep. The sleeping stage is evident when a caterpillar stands with his head aloft, gently swaying a little back and forth. This indicates the cocoon stage is next, and racks are put out for the silkworms to crawl into and make their soft little homes. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of those as they were not being used at the time we visited. The frames are made of wood, about a meter wide and maybe a bit longer, about two inches deep, and are an open, framed grid. the worms spin their cocoons, one to each square in the grid, and sleep again. Once the cocoons are harvested, the pupae inside must be killed or they will burst out of the cocoons, which spoils the thread so that it cannot be used for fine spinning. Some sericulturists steam the cocoons, others kiln-heat them.

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Here Noriko san is assisting ShiboriGirl as she reels out silk from several cocoons at a time. The cocoons were put in boiling water for several minutes to soften the fibers, then a bundle of stiff rushes is brushed on each one to loosen a thread that can be used to begin reeling the cocoon out. Using this method, one person can reel up to 20 cocoons at a time, switching out the spent cocoons with the right hand while continuously reeling with the left. To stop reeling is to risk breaking the fine thread, and the work can be quite exhausting after a while.

silkworm4The silk filature is so fine it is almost invisible, until layers of it on a spool stand out as a testament to the spinner’s effort and endurance. I took the photo below with my right hand while turning the handle with my left. Some of the assistants found it amusing that I was juggling my camera in such a way, but I had been told not to stop spinning and I didn’t want to miss the shot!
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The small arm with a wire loop moves back and forth to keep the thread spinning evenly onto the square wooden spool. The thread is a naturally beautiful, creamy white.

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Another way to use the cocoons is to make mawata, layers of unrefined silk fiber. Boiled and softened cocoons are spread apart and stretched onto a wooden frame, layer by layer. Once dry, these layers make a single sheet of soft silk that weighs very little but has a great deal of tensile strength. It can be used as an effective bandage, as silk has many healing properties, or it may be stretched again to produce a thermal lining for a garment, or batting for a quilt.

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As the mawata is stretched, one or more pupae (visible as a brown spot in the photo above) must be removed. In the first coccon I stretched the pupae inside had spoiled, leaving behind a nasty, gritty mess. I held it out to an assistant, who wordlessly demonstrated for me to scoop the muck out and keep going. I did, and found the next few cocoons I opened were fairly clean. Layer upon layer may be added until the frame goes from transparent to opaque.

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When dry these handkerchief-sized mawata still retain their stretchability, and many of them may be expanded and layered to produce a comfortable quilt. It takes two pairs of hands to pull each mawata to the right dimensions, over and over again.

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Apprentice Noriko san and Koyota’s wife add to the fluffy layers. Many of us started yawning at this point, as watching soft clouds of silk floating down onto the table was quite soporific. [I've always wanted to use that word in a story! It means sleep-inducing.]

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Orange thread was used to tack the batting in place once the mawata was folded inside a cotton shell.
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Koyota san’s hospitality extended not only to his farm and workshop, but into his home. Newly built in a traditional style by highly skilled carpenters, it shows the best of Japanese construction and refinement. Antique touches mix and mingle with modern accents.
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Even the garden held a few surprises. I found this little saxifrage (“Yukinoshita”) hiding alongside a fence near the workshop. If only I could have brought it home!

Olympus Wagara cotton sashiko sampler project part 3

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After completing the Persimmon Flower background, I felt the coat needed something. Referencing vintage firemen’s coats I decided to go with a plain stitch, echoing the technique of stitching together multiple layers of cotton to make the coats very thick. Historically, the coat would be drenched in water before the firefighter went forth to battle a fire. The soaking wet layers of cotton would be very heavy, but also protective.

The printed design is of an open coat viewed from the back. With a real coat the back would be two panels of fabric wide, the front two more panels wide. I lined up the ruler along one of the imaginary seam lines between a front and back panel, and started stitching in the area with Indigo thread. Click on any of the images to get a closer view.

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Here’s how the work is going so far. I’m rather pleased with the effect. It’s not noticeable at first, but it does help with the puckering caused by all the Persimmon Flower stitches by balancing things out.

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My stitches may not be even and tidy, but I prefer the handmade look of this project over some of the more stiff and precise projects I’ve worked on before. The Olympus preprinted kits area a wonderful way to get a feel for sashiko, but there are times I find it more fun to play around with ideas and make a bit of a mess, especially when I have no idea how the project will look until I’m done with it.

Part 4 is coming up.

Olympus Wagara cotton sashiko sampler project part 2

Here we go, on to the fun stuff.

sashiko_coat1The magic of Persimmon Flower — Kaki no Hana (柿の花) — is how it evolves. Like an actual blossom, it starts off simple and innocuous, then blooms into something wonderful. And it’s all about the math; if you want the blossoms to be bigger or smaller, you adjust your lines accordingly. This is where graph paper comes in handy because you can plot out your design in advance. Obviously I didn’t, because I’m spontaneous like that. Some might say “headstrong”, “impatient”, or “sloppy”, but I like “spontaneous”.

Sewing a straight line on this fabric is easy. Unlike standard Western quilting cottons, the weave is open enough that you can follow the weft. If you’ve never sewn sashiko before and were considering using embroidery floss and Western fabrics, stop now. Nothing beats Japanese thread on Japanese fabrics. They’re made for each other. Literally.

sashiko_coat2 Every sashiko book with tell you to allow enough slack in the thread so that the fabric won’t pucker, especially when turning corners. Do I listen? No. You should see how I knit, too. I’ve been told more than once that I could benefit from drinking a glass or two of wine before picking up my knitting needles because I knit like my project has to hold water. Tight tight tight. Be loose. Enjoy the flow. Be Zen.

Why did I start putting in my vertical lines before I’d finished the horizontal ones? Because I didn’t bother to measure in advance, of course. I could see my lines spreading out wider after I’d passed the sleeves, and I worried that by the time I came to the hem things wouldn’t balance out. And besides, I’m spontaneous. Yes I am. And honestly, I wanted to see how the blossom was going to look. Because I am impatient.

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When I reached the hem area and could count the stitches to see they would not meet up as planned, I changed plans. This type of adaptation is evident on many vintage pieces, which gave me confidence to do what I knew had to be done. Persimmon Flower adapts to change so beautifully that it was almost a joy to revise my count and find that with just one altered vertical row I could make it work.sashiko_coat4
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How did it turn out? Tune in tomorrow to find out… and see what I did next!

Olympus Wagara cotton sashiko sampler project part 1

Last year I stocked a single bolt of Wagara fabric. I wasn’t sure if it was worth the investment (they are pricey, even at wholesale!), but once I felt the fabric in my hands, I knew I’d made the right decision. Olympus, the Japanese company who makes all the sashiko supplies I carry in my Etsy shop, has been producing Wagara (traditional design) fabrics for some time now, and every year I see new patterns coming in while old ones disappear. It’s a case of get-it-while-you-can with these, and I will be snapping up several bolts this year.

firecoat1I listed this fabric with Firemen’s Jackets earlier this month, and cut a panel for myself to experiment with. It sat on my desk, taunting me for some weeks, until I decided to cut it up and stitch away. I like to work late at night when the house is quiet and I can shut myself away in my office undisturbed, with only the dogs to keep me company. Laying out fabric, thread, and needle, I pulled a sashiko book from my library and looked for image inspiration.

The white and off-white Olympus sashiko threads were too bright for the creamy unbleached cotton color of the fabric, so I decided to go with a contrasting color instead. The fabric is indigo with the design printed on the surface, not resist-dyed as it might have been 100 years ago, but this does keep the cost down so I’m not complaining. It also means the fabric is not reversible, but it makes great decorator fabric for something like a pillow or a quilt.

I decided to use Cranberry Red in a persimmon flower motif as a background to the single jacket I’d selected. Persimmon flower looks complicated, but it isn’t really. If you can count to four, you can do this stitch. It starts with horizontal lines in alternating rows, like laying bricks. After the fourth row, you reverse and mirror the previous row. I counted my rows, “one-two-three-four, four-three-two-one” as I went. It may be difficult to see in the images, but that’s probably because my stitches were too small. I figured that out later.

Here is my progress and hour or two later (who’s counting anyway? Thomas was upstairs in bed with a cold and I couldn’t sleep. It might have been 45 minutes or 3 hours. I have no idea. I did spend a while just staring at the piece trying to figure out what I was going to do, but that’s part of the creative process, right?). At this stage it’s layers of horizontal lines, nothing special. But wait until tomorrow when we bring in the vertical lines… then it gets interesting.

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Sashiko Patchwork Apron Pattern

apronIf you’re looking for a fun little project you can make with recycled fabric, sashiko thread, and a little ingenuity, this Sashiko Patchwork Apron Pattern might tickle your fancy. I designed it for the Spring 2012 issue of Stitch and it’s now available for download. The pattern is $4.00, none of which comes to me, it all goes to the publisher, so (correction: apparently I do get a portion, but I didn’t know as it’s buried somewhere in my contract) this isn’t really a sales pitch so much as an FYI.

The point of the project is to really get a feel for sashiko. Play with the stitches, try something new, and learn as you go. I had a lot of fun working on the prototype, and I think you’ll enjoy it, too. It’s a great project if you’re the sort who uses an apron in your sewing room or have a child who would enjoy having a few extra pockets for bits of this and that.

Okay, here’s a sales pitch: I have tons of sashiko supplies in the Etsy store right now, and I’ve put in another order to replace all the stuff that sold the last time I restocked, just this month! I used a single 40 meter skein of Cranberry thread for this project, but you might want to mix it up a bit with other colors.

I’ll take some photos so you can get a better view of the project. There’s a lot going on that isn’t shown in the single picture they used for the magazine.

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.

Vintage Doll Accessory Packs now on in the shop

As promised, vintage doll items are back in the KimonoMomo Etsy shop. Sending out one or two little fans or tabi at a time was a major hassle, and as I’m getting down to the last of my supplies, I’m offering 8-10 items plus a meter of vintage kimono fabric in each pack. If you are looking to restore an older doll or outfit a new one, these items are wonderfully useful and hard to find.

vintage doll accessories pack 1

vintage doll accessories pack 1

Vintage doll accessories #2

vintage doll accessories pack #3

Each pack will be comfortably nested in bubble wrap and poofy packing material inside a Priority Mail box for US orders or a plain cardboard box for international orders. There are many more items available that have never been listed because I didn’t have decent photographs of them, or they were too delicate to ship on their own. I will be offering these as part of the packs as I go along and get photos updated.

In case you missed it, I’ve also listed several new sets of doll photos, also from the doll maker who collected these little artifacts in Japan back in the 1950’s. The photo sets are helpful if you’re looking for historically accurate doll kimono, poses, accessories or just to get the flavor of how art dolls were made back then. They are in black and white, and would look very suitable in a frame over your desk or in a doll collection area.

vintage Japanese dolls photo set #5

Vintage Japanese dolls photo set #5

vintage Japanese doll photo set #6

Vintage Japanese doll photo set #6

And for those who like to make their own… I have a very few arms and feet left in stock. These would also be good for restoring old dolls, but I’ve heard customers tell me they’ve used them for mixed media art or other doll making projects. The arms have wire in them to allow for a variety of poses, and the feet have a space between the big toe and other toes so that tabi and geta may be worn.

Japanese cloth doll arm and feet

Japanese cloth doll arm and feet

More sets are being assembled this week, so if you have requests, please let me know.

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.

A little sashiko video selection

Poking around YouTube today, I found these videos featuring sashiko. Each one is only a few minutes long, and helpful if you are just starting out, or want to see how others hold needle, thread and cloth. Despite finding very particular directions in every Japanese and English how-to book on sashiko, I’ve found that each person has their own personal style of stitching.

First, a sample of the items KimonoBoy carries in his online shop. If you are a collector of Japanese country textiles, you are probably familiar with KimonoBoy. I am rather fond of a farmer’s jacket I purchased from him several years ago. He specializes in vintage textiles including boro (rags) and clothing such as the vest pictured in this video.

This video is in Japanese, but worth a look to see how some of the stitches are done, as well as seeing some vintage examples.

The very talented Susan Brisco chimes in with this one:

Lazy Monk doing rows of shippou tsunagi…

And meet Miho Takeuchi of Aikio Designs. She is Japanese, but her instructions are in English. Hooray!

Quick updates for the holiday season

So much to do! On a whim, I offered to host a craft show/open studio December 15th here at Huckleberry House, which means putting together a group of local crafters and setting up tables just about everywhere throughout my home, but I’m looking forward to it. The house is a 1950’s cottage on a tree-lined street in a cozy neighborhood, the kind where everyone walks their dogs and kids play outside on sunny afternoons. It’s a good place to be, and I’m happy to have my studio here. I’ll post details on the event as soon as I finish putting things together later this week.

If you are a crafter in the San Francisco East Bay area and would be interested in participating, I’m still looking for more artists! Contact me here and I’ll be in touch.

A selection of new fabrics have been listed in the Etsy shop over the past week or so, and they are gorgeous, as usual. Two new tonals from Kona Bay’s gingko collection, and a selection of prints from Alexander Henry’s Asian collection offer many new possibilities for your holiday craft projects.

 

In the meantime, I will be writing up various articles on kimono to be posted here as soon as I finished editing photos, and there will be many new items listed in the KimonoMomo Etsy shop.

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