Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour

During our family trip to Japan I managed to carve out one day for a solo Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour. I combed through our guidebooks and the internet, and came up with an itinerary that seemed promising. Then I ditched my family and went exploring. As it turned out, some of my destinations ended up being great fun, while others … less so.

The Kyoto Shibori Museum

My first stop was the Shibori Museum, which happened to be within walking distance from my hotel. This small but pleasant museum has two floors. The bottom floor has a small shop selling books about shibori as well as hand-dyed fabrics and finished artwork. It also has space dedicated to classes.

The second floor features a detailed exhibition explaining different dyeing techniques, mostly from Japan but also from other countries. There is an English brochure, and the display has English signs making the dyeing process clear.

When I visited the museum, I was the only guest there. The staff was very helpful, and I got to have a private, English-speaking tour guide who took me through the exhibition and answered all my questions. Then I had my own, private shibori lesson, resulting in a beautiful silk scarf (that the director of the museum himself helped me unravel!):

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed my visit and highly recommend this museum! To learn more check the museum’s website.

The Nishijin Textile Center

After I finished my scarf, I headed over to the Nishijin Textile Center. Nishijin was Kyoto’s traditional weaving district. When I learned it had a Textile Center, I couldn’t be more excited! My excitement died down when I got there, however. Although informative, the Center felt like a big tourist trap. Tourists arrived by the bus-loads, and were swarming throughout the displays and shop. Coming from the amazing-yet-deserted Shibori Museum, I was very surprised to see so many people at a textile center…

The ground floor of the Center had an old-fashioned display, with fading posters explaining the Nishijin weaving process. 

The second floor was mostly a huge shop. It had beautiful fabrics for sale, as well as traditional Japanese clothes.

There was a weaving demonstration:

A wall display explaining the different kinds of fabrics:

And some other small displays:

The Center also offered an array of classes in different textile arts (such as weaving, or making your own hat or purse). Had I not just taken a class at the shibori museum, I would have surly done so here. 

The Center also featured a fashion show, showcasing different styles of kimonos:

To plan your trip to the Center (and maybe take a class there), check out their website.

Aizenkobo Workshop

From the Textile Center I walked a few blocks to the Aizenkobo workshop.This family workshop (or atelier), is located in a traditional wooden house on a small alley. It specializes in indigo dyeing, and the making of Japanese and Western-style clothing. The front room of the house is a shop selling functional (but rather old fashioned) pieces. 

When I got there, the place was very quiet and I was the only visitor. Eventually an elderly man came out to greet me. He showed me to the work area at the back of the house. In very broken English he explained that his son, the artist, wasn’t there. I understood that the family wasn’t making the indigo dye themselves, but rather bought it from other parts of Japan. Their expertise was the dyeing itself. The language barrier made it difficult for me to understand much, and my host didn’t want me to take any pictures. Sadly, the visit ended up feeling rather awkward. 

If you wish to visit the workshop but can’t speak Japanese, I suggest coming with an interpreter (or possibly the artist himself speaks some English?). You can also check their website for more information.

Orinasu-kan

A rather long walk in scorching heat then lead me to Orinasu-kan. Established in 1989, this small museum is dedicated to preserving Kyoto’s traditional dyeing and weaving culture. It is housed in a beautiful (but dark) old building that was once an obi (kimono belt) shop.

When I entered the museum, I realized that, once again, I was the only patron. A grumpy receptionist who spoke no English reluctantly greeted me. He then got really upset with me when I didn’t understand where he wanted me to put my shoe-less feet…

The ground-floor display was interesting, but with sparse English explanations. It had some beautiful Noh costumes, as well as fabric-pattern books.

The small upstairs gallery had some coarser woven fabrics:

The receptionist asked me something about a tour, and I said yes. He then showed me into a darkish side room, gave me some tea, and left me there alone for half an hour. I must admit that I was a bit nervous at that point, not sure what was going on. I regretted not bringing my family along (though I knew my kids would not have enjoyed any of it).

Eventually, the receptionist told me to go back up to the second-floor gallery. Once there, a door I haven’t even noticed opened in the far wall. A man came out and motioned for me to follow. I did, although I wasn’t at all sure if that was the right (or safe) thing to do. The man told me not to take any pictures. Then he showed me into a room-full of weaving looms. The room was very hot, humid and crowded with looms. There were only two weavers present, however, each working on a different type of fabric. Seeing how they wove the intricate designs was interesting.

If you want to visit this museum, I suggest to take someone along, to make it less awkward. I couldn’t find a website for the museum, but you can read more about it here. And do expect to be yelled at as you attempt to take your shoes off…

Nomura Tailor House

By the time I was done with the Orinasu-kan Museum I was rather exhausted, but there was still one destination on my list: the Nomura Tailor House, a large fabric store. I took a bus and then walked some more. When I got there, melting and thirsty, I found this:

I almost burst into tears. Luckily, the second branch in this chain was only a couple of blocks away, and I made it there safely.

My family joined me as I was shopping, and we all went to a cafe. There, I cooled down with a well-earned iced matcha latte.

 

Khmer Ikat and the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles

Last December, my family stopped over in Cambodia to see Angknor Wat. Discovering Artisans Angkor and learning about traditional Khmer crafts was an unexpected bonus. But my luck didn’t end with that. The hotel we stayed at was on the outskirts of Siem Reap, and every time we rode a tuk tuk back we passed by this sign:

As you can imagine, the words “Traditional Textiles” ignited my curiosity. I just couldn’t bare the thought of leaving Siem Reap without checking this place out! And so, after a full day of touring the temples followed by a visit to Artisans Angkor, I dragged my exhausted family to one more place before ending the day with a well-deserved dinner. 

We walked into the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) to find an unremarkable yard surrounding a traditional house on stilts. In the large area under the stilts, straw mats covered the concrete floor. Rows of looms and other devices filled the space. A few women worked sitting on the floor:

I felt a bit like an intruder, not sure whether we were allowed to be there or not. But then someone pointed to the “store” sign. We climbed up to the second floor to check it out. There, we met a very friendly Japanese woman speaking fluent English, who was generous enough to tell us more about the Institute and take us around. 

History

IKTT was established in 1996 by Kikuo Morimoto. Morimoto was a master kimono painter from Kyoto, specializing in natural dyes. He fell in love with Khmer silk while visiting Cambodia in the early 1990’s. With help from UNESCO, in 1995 he was able to tour remote villages in the still-war-revenged country, searching for weavers who were skilled in traditional weaving. He soon realized that war and modernity threatened the continuation of the art. Young people were no longer interested in learning weaving skills that would not allow them to support their families. Once the old generation died off, Morimoto realized, the art of traditional Khmer weaving will die with them.

And so, he established IKTT, and gathered the few old women who still knew the traditional craft into one village. He brought silk worms, set workshops, attracted young weavers and even bought land on which to revive the natural forest (the source for traditional dyes). It took many years, but now the Institute owns 23 hectares of revived forest; supports a self-sustaining textile village that is the home of 160 people; and runs the main office and shop in Siem Reap, which I visited. IKTT currently employs around 250 people.

Khmer Silk

Khmer silk is made out of yellow cocoons created by the silk worms native to Cambodia. These cocoons are smaller than the white cocoons used for Chinese and Japanese silk, and they produce much shorter threads: about 300 meters (984 feet) per cocoon vs. 1,400 meters (4593 feet) per white cocoon. However, the silk they produce is of higher quality.

Artisans cook the cocoons in banana ash. This removes the proteins and allows extraction of thread. They spin the thread by hand, creating an unevenly-thick thread that later creates a textured cloth:

After they spin it, they prepare it for dyeing.

Natural Dyes

Traditional Khmer dyes, like traditional Peruvian dyes, are extracted from the natural world: plants and insects collected from the forests. There are five main colors: yellow, red, green, blue and black.

Of course, despite the similar look of the Peruvian and Khmer natural dyes, each culture relies on the plants and insects that are available to it. Whereas Peruvian purple, for example, is extracted from purple corn, Khmer purple comes for the Lac insect. Sadly, this insect became extinct in Cambodia, and is now imported:

Artisans wrap the dyed thread on a wheel to dry, and then roll it into bobbins:

Weaving

Plain or Plated Cloth

The simplest Khmer silk cloth is plain, with the warp and weft threads being the same color:

Shot silk has two different colors: one for the warp and one for the weft. While visiting IKTT I saw two such examples, one with black warp and yellow weft threads resulting in darkish-yellow color:

And the other with red warp and yellow weft, creating an almost golden color:

IKTT artisans create plaid by using different colors in the warp, mimicked by a similar pattern of different colors of the weft:

Khmer Ikat

The most amazing Khmer silks, however, are those with Ikat patterns. These are the most complex and time-consuming to make. Khmer Ikat is a weft Ikat woven on a multi-shaft loom. This means that artisans have to weave each weft thread exactly in its right place to create the design. This type of weaving creates an uneven twill weave, meaning that the weft threads are more visible on the front of the fabric. 

Ikat silk is born when weavers divide threads into small bundles. They stretch these bundles on a frame that is the width of the final textile:

They then tie banana fibers on each bundle, at the place where they DON’T want the dye to take hold. That means that they need to know the final pattern BEFORE they even begin dyeing:

Now the threads are ready for the first dye. Artisans dip the tied thread bundles into dye pots. Once dyed, they stretch them again, remove the original ties, and put more ties to cover the parts which they don’t want the second dye to cover. This is painstaking work that takes many, many hours:

Artisans repeat the process for the third and any subsequent dye, until the threads reach their final color.

Amazingly, the patterns are not written anywhere. The motifs and designs are passed down through the generations, with each artist re-creating them from memory. Thus, every complete textile is unique to the person who created it.

Weavers weave the dyed threads into a fabric. The threads you see in the pictures above, for example, look like this on the final textile:

The traditional Khmer textiles were skirt wraps: Sampot Hol for women, and Sampot Hol Kaban for men. The most complex Khmer Ikat was the Pidan, a traditional wall hanging for religious ceremonies. In the latter, the pattern has no repetition at all!

Many of the textiles created by IKTT artisans take over three months to create!

The Shop

The second-floor shop offers the finished silks for sale. Don’t expect to find bargains here. IKTT silks are of the highest-quality. Their prices rightfully reflect that. Keep in mind that for your money, you will get a unique piece of art, support an entire community, and help preserve a traditional Khmer art.

Many tourists visit Artisans Angkor, but IKTT is a hidden gem. It truly is a must stop for any textile lover.

For more information on the Institute visit its website.

 

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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.

Peruvian Textiles and Tourism

About a year ago I was casually scrolling through my Facebook feed, when a post from TAFA List made me pause. The post advertised textile tours to Peru, and featured a beautiful picture of amazing textiles in vivid, bright colors. I clicked on it and started drooling.

For a while I considered taking one of the tours, but the dates didn’t work out for me, and I also didn’t want to leave my family for too long. Hence was born the idea of dragging my kids, yet again, to South America.

Luckily for me, everyone enjoyed our Ecuador trip so much, that they were eager to explore the region further. And so, this past December, my family and I found ourselves in the Cusco province of Peru, the Mecca of textiles.

After we arrived, my kids got one day to rest and acclimatize in Cusco city. The very next morning a bus belonging to the tour company Apus Peru came by to take us down to the Sacred Valley and some weaving communities.

Apus Peru is a relatively small tour company specializing in cultural tours. This was the company that operated the textile tours I saw on Facebook. They employ knowledgeable, English-speaking guides, and engage in culturally-responsible tourism. Apus Peru actively give back to the communities they take tourists to, not only through financial support, but also by providing training and education to local groups.

Our original plan was to go to Pizaq Market and ruins, and then up the Andes to the weaving community of Chayhautire. The trip down to the valley took about an hour, however, and involved some windy roads. My daughter started suffering from motion-sickness, and I myself felt the unpleasant effects of elevation. The thought of an hour or more of driving up a narrow, windy dirt road suddenly didn’t seem that appealing, even if it was leading to a remote weaving community…

So we changed plans. We went to the ruins first and the market later (Pizaq Market, supposedly the Otavalo of Peru, turned out to be a little disappointing). Then, instead of up to Chayhautire, we drove on a relatively straight road to Chinchero, another weaving community.

This change of plans turned out to be a lucky stroke, as on the way we came across a local procession in honor of the Conception Virgin. This involved costumes, music and dance, and turned out to be very interesting:

Chinchero is a small town with several weaving centers. Our guide took us to Balcon Del Inka Centro Artesanal, which, he claimed, was the best one.

Being at the top of the hill overlooking the town, it certainly had the best view!

Women form several local families run the Artisan Center. The Center has two areas designed to show tourists how wool is prepared. It also has a small outside market. Women don’t actually weave on the premises. Everything is nicely set, however, and the English explanations are clear.

The Making of a Peruvian Tapestry:

Women gather wool from the desired animal. This could be a sheep, or one of the four camelid animals of Peru: ilama, alpaca, guanaco or vicuñaa. Ilama wool is rather course. Alpaca is softer, and baby alpaca is even softer than that. But the softest wool of them all comes for the undomesticated vicuña. This wool is hard to gather, and is therefore the most expensive on the planet.

When sheered, any wool is rather dirty:

To clean it, the local women grind a jabonera plant root that, with water, froths like soap. Local nickname it “Andean Soap.”

Women then wash and scrub the wool:

Once washed, the wool is clean and ready to work with:

Women spin the wool into thread. During our stay in Peru, we’ve seen women walking and spinning, working and spinning, cooking and spinning, caring for children and spinning. Women, in fact, seem to always multitask…

After it is spinned, the wool is ready for dyeing. Many women in Chichero and the vicinity still use natural dyes, made from local plants. In the picture below, you can see the different colors and the plants that make them. I especially loved the purple wool, dyed with purple corn:

The biggest magic, though, involves the color red. Red is made from cochineal,  a parasite that dines on one of the more common cactus species in the area:

When collected, this parasite appears white, as it is cocooned in a web-like fluffy substance:

But here is where the fun begins, and our hostess delighted in showing us some magic: when squished, you see, a vivid, blood-like red fluid appears:

Mixed with a bit of lime, this fluid gets an orange tint:

Mixed with salt, it becomes more purple:

Playing around with these various shades, the weavers can tweak the colors to whatever shade they like. The number of times a piece of wool is dipped in the dyeing pot, and the length of time it stays there, determine the final color:

The result is beautiful, vividly-colored wool:

Women then pull the wool onto looms. Looms are easily portable, allowing women to weave in their homes or outside in the fields.

Here are some finished pieces, at the market part of the Center:

Of course, we couldn’t leave without buying something. This is our new table runner, with the artist who claimed to make it:

How Tourism Complicates Things

Textiles are historically an integral part of the Peruvian culture. However, after a few days in the country, I realized that the locals don’t actually wear traditional textiles, nor do they use them. In fact, tourists are the only ones walking around with vividly-woven fabrics. The locals wear jeans, t-shirts and the like, like the rest of us.

The few women and kids who roam about the old city of Cusco dressed in traditional clothes, often carry sheep or alpacas, and are there to take photos with tourists for money. Even in the more remote areas, the people wearing traditional clothes are mostly doing so for tourists (and wear synthetics). People told me that in really remote villages people still dress like that for real, but I haven’t been to any of those. The few houses I visited in different parts of the region didn’t have traditional textiles as home decor. If they had any textiles at all, they had the cheaper, industrial/synthetic kind, most likely imported from China.

The beautiful, traditional textiles, it seems, are made for tourists these days. They are also sold at tourist prices. These textiles are not cheap, even in American standards. Tourists have to splurge on them. The locals can’t afford them at all.

In fact, it seems that the art of weaving in Peru, like many traditional arts around the world, began to disappear. Even natural dyeing almost gave way to the easier, industrial kind. That is why several local and international organizations, The Center for Traditional Textile of Cusco and Apus Peru being some of them, intervened in an effort to save the craft.

Weaving is a very time-consuming task. Even when selling their work at tourist prices, weavers still make little per hour. It is not surprising, therefore, that many try to cut corners, by using cheaper, synthetic fibers, for example, or by selling sub-standard products. Many tourists can’t tell the difference anyway. The money that textiles bring, therefore, leads to all kinds of gray areas and dishonesty. Read this post to get an idea about some of those problematic issues.

So, as much as I enjoyed learning about textiles in the Centro Artesanal, I couldn’t but also realize that the entire place was a nicely-set illusion. The ancient craft shown was artificially kept alive. The entire display was a myth that tourist companies and the fashion industry spread, and which tourists, myself included, really want to buy into. The  tourist industry in a way re-invented the old traditions. This includes the descriptions given to explain the different designs, that often have very little connection to the actual historical origin of those designs.

In fact, in order to appeal to tourists, even the traditional patterns have been changing. Many of the fancy boutiques sell items with patterns and colors that appeal to Westerners, as do fashion houses selling Peruvian clothes in the West. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and the textiles are still beautiful. I just found it interesting how the economy surrounding tourism preserves old traditions while, at the same time, profoundly changes them.

Working To Make Fabric Possible: The Training of a Textile Designer

Fabric is everywhere. Most of us are wrapped in it the minute we come out into the world, and again when we depart. We wear fabric, sit on it, sleep in it, step on it. We wipe our mouths and bodies with it, and use it to clean our kitchens. We decorate our houses and persons with it, wrap it around our necks, and carry it with us shaped into accessories. It’s all around us, everywhere, all the time. And yet, instead of being grateful for fabric, we often barely notice it, and hardly ever think of it. We take it for granted the way we take breathing for granted, or our own mothers. And we never, ever think of the many people who labor unseen to make fabric possible.

I’ve been thinking about fabric a lot since I started sewing seriously almost two years ago. I’ve been admiring the richness of the fabrics I use, the great diversity in their textures, colors, designs and feel. The more I work with them, the more curious I become about their origins. Where did these fabrics came from?, I wonder. How were they made? What kind of knowledge, work, and creativity went into creating them? Who were the people who made them possible?

Luckily for me, my friend Monika Ryser was able to shed light on some of the latter questions. Monika comes from a long line of Swiss textile experts. Her grandfather and father were in the textile business, and so it was only natural that, as a young adult, she, too, joined the industry. Monika’s experience illustrates how textile experts were trained in Europe in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, and demonstrates what it took to become a person who made fabric.

Textile Assistant Apprenticeship

In the late 1980’s Monika made her first steps into the textile world with an apprenticeship as a Textile Assistant. For three years she worked for a Swiss factory that mostly produced woolen fabrics for the Swiss army, as well as fabrics for car and plane seats. There, she learned hands-on how to make fabrics. She learned how industrial looms worked, as well as how to use them. She also learned how to design different-textured fabrics by drawing patterns on grid paper. Here, for example, is one of her designs, with a piece of fabric she wove from it:

Here are two more examples:

She also learned how to test the quality of already-woven fabrics .

Once her apprenticeship was over, Monika went to Germany, where she interned for half a year at the Hoechst Company, working mainly with artists who designed prints for mostly synthetic fabrics.

Fabric Designer Studies

After her internship in Germany, Monika returned to Switzerland to continue her studies. At this point, she had four options. She could have chosen to become:

  1. A Textile Designer: a person who either designed the technical components of fabric, or its looks.
  2. A Textile Mechanic: a person who could design, build and maintain the machines that made the textiles.
  3. A Textile Dyer: a person who specialized in fabric dyes, dying techniques, chemical treatments, and fabric printing.
  4.  A Textile Salesperson: someone who specialized in selling yarn and fabrics to customers who made things out of them.

Each of those options would have required a different course and detailed training and specialization.

Monika chose the first option. She enrolled in the Swiss Textile School (Schweizerische Textilfachschule Wattwil), where she spent another year and a half learning to be a Fabric Designer, specializing in the technical composition of fabrics. Monika jokes that whenever she tells people that she was a textile designer, they immediately assume she designed fashion. In fact, she was responsible for the basic composition of the fabric itself!

Her studies covered topics that included information on the raw materials from which fabrics were made: where cottons were grown, how cottons from different areas were different, which sheep to use for wool, where they were raised, and so on. Monika also learned how to choose threads, which threads to use for which fabrics, how to weave different kinds of threads, or how dense the weaving should be. She learned what fabrics to use for which purpose, and how to determine how well they held up with use or in the laundry.

Altogether, Monika spent about five years learning her trade. It took that long since creating fabric is a complex procedure that requires expertise in many different fields!