April 29, 2011

Last week I attended a tsutsugaki workshop at the Australian Academy of Design. Tsutsugaki yuzen (tsutsugaki dyeing) is a 400-year-old Japanese dye-resist technique, a little like batik. Tsutsugaki utilises a rice paste to create designs on the fabric. The workshop was taught by Kobayashi Shumei, a tsutsugaki artist based in Kanazawa, Japan.

First, we use a weak dye made from the blue flower, aobana, to sketch the underdrawing onto the fabric. Then we apply the rice paste (tsutsunori) with the tsutsu, a cone-shaped bag like a cake piping bag. It’s not easy to use and takes a lot of practice to get straight lines, even though the fabric is stretched out using special bamboo poles. Once we have outlined our design with the rice paste on one side, we flip the fabric and have to apply it in exactly the same place on the other side, otherwise the dye will bleed and ruin our pattern. Usually, kimono makers don’t apply the pattern to both sides, but we do this to make the pattern more durable. The rice paste is made from rice flour and rice bran, kneaded to the consistency of ‘your earlobe’ and then steamed to turn it into a caramel-like consistency. In the past, if any of the mixture was left over the artisans grilled and ate it.

After the rice paste is dry, soybean juice is washed over the fabric with a deer-hair brush to smooth inconsistencies and because it helps to fix the paste. It smells like tofu.

Once the pattern is applied, the fabric can be coloured with dye (irosashi). We mix our choice of colours and apply washes or colour sections of our patterns in. My design has many sections so I can dye all of them in one go and don’t need to mask and over-dye. It also means I only need to steam it once. Kobayashi-sensei helps us with different techniques, teaching us how to graduate colours.

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Once my work is steamed, I can wash the rice paste out and fix the dye.

Kobayashi Shumei carries out all parts of the tsutsugaki dyeing process himself. In Japan this is rare as usually different individuals do the different steps in the process. As he says, ‘how can you call a piece of work your own if you haven’t done all of the processes yourself?’


Exquisite offerings

June 5, 2010

Set back a little from the bustling crowds of Sannenzaka is an unprepossessing building which houses some of the most superb examples of Japanese craftsmanship ever produced: the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum. It’s the first museum to hold as its permanent collection metalwork, cloisonné, lacquer and Satsuma ware created for the Meiji Era International Expositions.

1867 was the final year of the Edo period. The new Meiji government wanted to show the world its power and ability in the industrial arts so works were created for the international expositions in Paris and Vienna. Few of these works remain in Japan. In fact, Director of the museum, Masayuki Murata, first came across Meiji art in New York City. He began collecting about 20 years ago and these works form the basis of this museum. As so many of these pieces were bought by foreigners, Japanese people have few chances to see works from this period. The artefacts represent artisans both from the Imperial Household as well as complete unknowns and Murata believes they show a ‘world of transcendent technical finesse that no one can now produce’.

Pages from the museum catalogue

There are censers the height of people; intricate cloisonné incense burners; lacquer furniture rich with gold leaf laid over black; vases dripping in cherry blossom, chrysanthemums, peonies and wisteria; ceremonial sword hilts and scabbards decorated with reeds and butterflies; boxes covered with spiders webs spun with gold; lids topped with insects made of silver; and human figures flying on cranes that spiral around a pair of Satsuma vases. Gods, demons and mythical beasts abound but the scenes of nature are just as spellbinding. One of the most splendid pieces is a folding screen, unsigned, with a design of wild geese and reeds. The geese are inlaid with ivory, bone and stag horn, the feathers illuminated with mother-of-pearl.

Satsuma ware from the museum catalogue

If you visit one museum while you are in Kyoto, get to this one.