The Nagamachi Yuzen-kan Silk-Painting Museum in Kanazawa, Japan

During our summer trip to Japan we visited many of the country’s famous attractions. Every now and then, through, I dragged my kids a little off the beaten pass to see some textile-related wonders. This is how, during our visit to Kanazawa, we ended up in the Nagamachi Yuzen-kan Silk-Painting Museum.

Housed in a modern, indistinct building in the Nagamachi district, the museum was a bit hard to find. Although not big, it was very informative, and is a worthy stop for any textile-loving tourist. The first room in the museum depicts the process of silk painting, describing each stage of the process in both Japanese and English (!). The second room displays some spectacular samples. The museum also has a small gift shop that sells some hand-painted items.

Hand-dyed silk is a work of art that requires many hours of work by several highly-skilled artisans. Since I assume some of you might not be able to visit the museum, I thought I’d give you a virtual tour. All the explanations  below are based on the signs in the museum.

Room One: The Stages of Painting Silk

The Kaga Yuzen designs combine traditional design elements with the artist’s observations of nature. Each design starts with a pencil sketch on paper, in the same size it will eventually appear on the finished product.

Once finished, skilled artisans trace the design onto white silk. They do this with fine brushes and blue ink, and use a steady hand to draw flowing, evenly-thin and quick lines.

Then, artisans apply a thin line of rice paste onto the sketch. They put the paste into a Japanese paper tube with a brass tip, and squeeze it out (similar to how many of us decorate cakes). After they cover all the lines with paste, they spray the silk with water and then let the paste dry.

Once dry, specialized artisans paint the design with fine brushes. It takes seven years to learn the technique, ten years to refine it, and a hundred (!!) kimonos to practice it on…

When the design in all painted, artisans carefully cover it with rice paste before moving on to dye the background color. They have to do this with great precision, so that no white patches are left.

After they cover the design with paste, the artisans dip the silk into soy bean juice to prepare it for absorbing the background dye.

A day later they use large brushes made of deer hair to evenly apply the background color. They let the color dry slowly, and repeat the dyeing several time to achieve an even dye.

Then, they put the silk in a large steamer for about an hour to set the colors. This, too, requires skill and experience.

After steaming, people immerse the cloth in water to wash off the remaining paste and access dye.

And the fabric is finished!

Artisans use the painted silk to make screens or sew kimonos.

This first room had a little staging area for visitors to make-believe and take pictures. I couldn’t resist 🙂 My kids love it, too!

Room Two: Some Amazing Finished Examples

The second room in the museum, as I mentioned above, has some exquisite samples of both painted screens and kimonos.

Japanese buy a hand-painted kimono for several tens of thousands of dollars (!!), mostly for special occasions like weddings.

Boro: The Japanese Art of Mending That is Hard to Find in Japan

On my recent trip to Japan, I found art where I didn’t expect it, yet didn’t find the art I expected to see everywhere.

Boro, the Japanese art of mending, and its twin art of Sashiko (decorative stitching), are very popular among textile artists in the West. Many non-Japanese artists throughout the world, myself included, now incorporate the art of patching and restorative hand-stitching into their work.

I made this journal cover, for example, using some simple Boro-style patching and stitching:

Nowadays, clothing using some elements of Boro and Sashiko are making a comeback into the world of high-end fashion. Boro-style items are selling for hundreds of dollars. Original antique Japanese pieces of patched cloth can go for thousands of dollars.

It was only natural, therefore, that, before going to Japan, I assumed I will see Boro everywhere. That did not turn out to be the case.

When we arrived in Japan, we had only one day in Tokyo before heading out to other destinations. I vaguely knew there was a museum dedicated to Boro in Tokyo, but assumed there would be many such museums in other parts of the country, too. We therefore used the few hours we had in the capital to visit other sites. I later realized, that one of them was painfully close to the museum…

Sadly, for the duration of our subsequent nearly month-long trip, I did not come across any other Boro museums, nor could I find any on the internet. Not only that, but I haven’t seen Boro anywhere. I didn’t see it in any of the numerous big and small museums we visited, including several crafts museums. Nor in gallerias, tourist shops or artisan villages. Certainly not on the streets, on any of the thousands of well-dressed Japanese we encountered.

Only in our very last stop, in the tourist-oriented part of the old capital of Nara, did I see a hint of Boro. It appeared on the outfits of two delightful Oni (=demons) that decorated (or maybe guarded?) a high-end clothing boutique:

(Despite what the sign says, I did ask–and received–explicit permission to take pictures of these dolls :-))

On the same street, by the way, I also found the only artist atelier that sold patterns and clothing using Sashiko:

So, why isn’t Boro more prominent in Japan, it’s birth place, despite being so popular in the West?

I believe the answer is that Boro was the child of poverty, and as such is still associated with destitution in Japan.

The imperial family and the upper classes never wore patched clothing. They cloaked themselves in expensive silks and exquisite textiles. The lower classes, on the other hand, not only could not afford silk, but, in the Edo Period (1600-1868) were actually banned from wearing it.

The poor could barely afford even the cheaper fabrics, which were still expensive. They had to make the rare garments they had last long. When clothes or blankets started wearing thin, they had no choice but to mend them with any bits and pieces they could put their hands on. Winters in Japan are cold. Poor families had to make do with what they had, passing valuable patched garments from one member of the family to another, sometimes from one generation to the next.

The people who created Boro didn’t use silks and high-end textiles. They used the cheaper hemp, linens and, later, cottons that were available to the working class and the poor. Most of the fabrics they had came in shades of indigo. This is why we now associate Boro with that color.

The word “Boro” itself means “tattered” or “ragged.” Wearing Boro-ed clothes wasn’t the result of aesthetics. It was a necessity. And as such it marked the wearer as a member of the lower, poor classes.

Japanese today don’t wear Boro (unless they can afford some of its high-end, modern-day manifestations). Museums don’t show it because it’s not a traditional art form that the culture is proud of. Modern artisans are more likely to practice Sashiko or Shibori (textile dyeing), which they see as more “artistic.” And so, although Boro is all the hype among textile artists and consumers in the West, it is mostly absent in its homeland.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t appreciate it. The authentic, old Boro clothing were made over a long period of time, and were often a collaborative effort. People added patches and stitches whenever they needed to fix something. Sometimes a garment passed through several hands and even several generations, with many people adding to it. And even the poor did their best to mend beautifully, resulting in artistic stitching. Many of these old garments are, indeed, works of art, even if their makers didn’t see them as such.

This jacket, which I found on pinterest, is but one example:

If you’re interested in Boro and are planning to visit Japan, do go to the only Boro museum in the country. If the rumors I heard are correct, you should hurry, as the museum might be shutting down soon… I now know that you can also find Boro in flee markets throughout the country. Regrettably, I didn’t get to visit any, but perhaps you will have better luck!