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?’



September 4, 2010

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About three weeks ago a new Japanese shop opened in Fitzroy. Ura has a distinctly Kyoto feel to it and is everything I love about Japan. The atmosphere is warm, relaxed and cosy with traditional tansu (chests of drawers) and wooden display tables. Owner Yutaka Matsuda’s concept for the shop is to stock ‘treasures’ that customers will discover and fall in love with, hence Ura sells a mixture of seemingly random items—pottery teacups, second-hand clothes and kimono, Japanese school badges, noren and tabi socks. But perhaps the most exciting product Ura will be selling from September are jika-tabi, the traditional Japanese-style shoes with the separated big toe. The jika-tabi are made by a company I know well, Sou Sou, from Kyoto.

Sou Sou prides itself on the fact that its goods are designed and made in Japan. The Sou Sou design concept is based on traditional Japanese clothingshirt collars influenced by the crossover kimono, wide sleeves, side ties and simple flowing lines. Designer Wakabayashi-san says that designs have to be useful so Sou Sou aim to retain the convenient aspects of traditional Japanese clothing but create something modern. ‘We want to upgrade the kimono, like you would upgrade your computer.’ The fabric patterns are modern Japan—funky flowers, hiragana letters, dots and stripes, mon, colourful stylised chrysanthemums. Wakabayashi-san says that Japan has a history of making things that suit the environment, designs that depict the seasons and the physical world. He also points out that Japanese are collectors, a fact very much reflected in the eclectic mix of contemporary Japanese fashion and style. ‘[You can find a] world museum in Japan.’

As a company, Sou Sou is not interested in being a fashion brand. As Wakabayashi explains, they see fashion brands as mostly short-term trends because 90% of fashion brands fold relatively quickly. Sou Sou is in it for the long-term, and have collaborated with other very well-established names such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Le Coq Sportif. However, for me, their best product is the jika-tabi. This kind of footwear have a mixed image in Japan. Often, the only time the young wear them is when participating in festivals. Older generations are reminded of traditional workmen’s shoes, especially construction workers who used the tread on their jika-tabi to help them climb the bamboo scaffolding poles on building sites. It’s still possible to see construction workers today wearing jika-tabi and the baggy genie-style trousers that go with them. The basic design of Sou Sou’s jika-tabi is based on these Taisho-period workshoes, but the fabrics and molded soles definitely give them a radical upgrade. So, if you are keen to get the iPad-equivalent for your feet, check out Ura.

28 Johnston St
Fitzroy 3065
Ph: 9416 4503

On Saturday I photographed the Pagong spring fashion show. Surprisingly, it is only their second show to date but they are planning more and in other countries, namely Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia (Pagong is available at Isetan Department Store in Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur). I have been wearing Pagong clothes and been interested in the company for several years now. I also interviewed Company Director Kameda-san in 2007 for the ‘Kyoto Lives’ issue of Kyoto Journal. At that time, Kameda-san told me that Pagong were not interested in expanding or going international. It seems that things might have changed on that score, perhaps prompted by the economic downturn in the last couple of years. Naturally Kameda-san was a little preoccupied on Saturday so we didn’t have much of a chance to talk to him about his plans. He didn’t even seem to remember me even though I hailed him with, ‘Hisashiburi’, but it might have just been a case of the typical Kyoto reserve.

The last time I spoke with Kameda-san he told me how his inspiration for the company had originally come from aloha shirts. His family has a long history of kimono production but obviously demand for kimono these days isn’t so great. Looking for an alternative, he heard the story of Japanese emigrants to Hawaii who cut up their kimono to create aloha shirts. Kameda-san took the idea and created Pagong, originally producing men’s shirts in cotton or silk. Since the foundation of the company in 2002 it has branched into women’s fashion and women by far make up the majority of Pagong’s clientele. This was clear at the fashion show on Saturday where women outweighed men by about ten to one.

The summer line for Pagong is mostly made up of their usual strong colours and bold designs. New apparel for 2010 included: a striking u-shaped top with a pattern of red, black, white and yellow and a different pattern on the back; a 3/4 sleeve white blouse with Chinese neck-line, printed with blue, black and red chrysanthemums; a v-neck hip-length top with side-tying sash in pastel purple, turquoise and glittering silver; a purple v-neck dress with a bold pattern down one side; and a colourful men’s shirt in pink, blue, green and yellow multiple overlaid designs. Pagong now has three shops in Kyoto – their honten (main shop), a Gion shop and a new shop in Kyoto Station. They also have another brand called Sanjo (the shop is on Sanjo) which favours chiffon dresses and blouses in pastel colours. The new summer line for Sanjo is bright and breezy with floaty long-line tops that made me wish I had much longer legs.

After the show we were shown around the factory. It’s incredible that Pagong can produce such a large range of clothing and accessories when they only have five people working in the factory. As we watched the artisan making up dye from the powdered pigments, one of the staff explained that if it is out by a gram or two it can ruin the whole batch. Much of the skill for kyo-yuzen 京友禅 (Kyoto dyeing tradition), is the mixing of the dye and the choice of colours for each pattern. Each colour must be laid down separately so the complexity of the pattern and number of colours determines the number of times it has to be printed. Some pieces take more than 20 different colours.

One of the new designs Kameda-san was keen to show off was an aloha shirt with a design taken from a work in the Tokyo National Museum. Kameda-san explained how he had to obtain special permission to use the image featuring a giant prawn. Having seen his stock of kimono patterns in the factory warehouse, I was surprised at this decision. He literally has hundreds of designs as his disposal but he has an innovative streak, witnessed in his development of a manga about Pagong, and his new haunted house concept. The latter sprang from a collaboration with detective film director Professor Kaizo Hayashi. Part of the Pagong factory has been turned into a haunted house for Pagong members, and apparently features chilling special effects.