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 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!