Kyoto weaving

September 12, 2012

How fitting it is that I am researching Japanese textiles while staying in what was an old weaving workshop in Nishijin. When S & A bought this house, S said it was full of the old looms and they were unsure whether or not the looms were to be taken away before they moved in (they were). The only thing remaining from that period is an old oil bottle that must have been used to oil the power looms.

On Sunday we could hear bumps from the house next door. They were dismantling the weaving looms after over 60 years of weaving. The weaver (81) and his wife (77) decided that it was time to stop. They came to the door on Sunday afternoon to give us boxes of soap, a gift to apologise in advance for the noise that would occur on Monday when the looms were taken away. They said that the industry has been hit hard by the Tohoku disaster, that they have lost a lot of business from up north. It’s ironic that I am here to document the way in which young artisans are taking the traditional techniques into the future and this couple are giving up their business. They have no one they can pass on their business or skills to—a refrain that has been heard throughout the industry since the Second World War.

However, as I sit here I can hear the rhythmic clacking of the weaver a few doors down, so there are still a few weavers producing material. It’s so hot that everyone has windows open in order to catch the slightest breeze. When I walk along the narrow neighbourhood streets, I can peer in to see people at their looms. I get much more of a sense of Nishijin than I have on previous trips. It really is, or was, a whole community devoted to weaving. I had a short chat with the workman next door who was clearing the looms. I said it’s a shame that they have been weaving more than 60 years and are now retiring. He thought for a minute and agreed. He chatted to me a little about it but he said the other man I could see working in the gloom of the interior knew a lot more about the business. They were busy and I didn’t want to disturb them too much. The pieces coming out are cogs and spindles, and some twisted and ripped pieces of what looks like composite metal—they won’t be used again for weaving.



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?’

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.