As a followup to the last post, I continue with the weaving portion of my trip to Amami.
On the way to Higo Dorozome Friday, I saw a sign that read “Oshima Tsumugi Village” so we decided to start there on Saturday. I didn’t realize until afterwards that this is where Jackie did her mud -dyeing workshop (we later compared notes). Since I had already done the sharimbai/dorozome workshop we opted for the basic tour and focused on weaving. They have a good but short tour of the weaving process but the real highlight was the addition of a weaving session on one of their looms where you could weave and keep a length of Oshima silk tsumugi. This was purchased at the beginning of the tour with the entrance fee.
Of course, the plain weaving of a piece of silk oshima tsumugi is a fairly basic process even for a novice. The real work as most weavers know, is in the preparation of the warp and the set-up of the loom. Oshima tsumugi takes this to new heights with its complicated pattern drafting, the precise dyeing of both the warp AND the weft threads prior to measuring and warping the loom. In addition, starch is also applied to the silk threads prior to “shim-bata” weaving as well as after the dyeing prior to warping. the starch or glue is made of specific types of local seaweed.
The process of dyeing the threads: Prior to the late 1800’s, the threads were wrapped with banana plant fiber to resist the dye and form the kasuri patterns. Other methods, from various areas dyeing resisted threads for kasuri weaving, include tying and clamping the threads, but in 1907 two men from Amami in Kagoshima prefecture invented a new method. This consisted of weaving the warps and the wefts temporarily with cotton threads on a special shim-bata loom which resulted in more precise and complicated patterning as well as improvements in production quantity and quality.(The tightly woven cotton wefts over the silk warps resist the dye in shibori-like fashion.)
We saw the preparation of the warping threads-the weaving of the patterns from a precise draft of the pattern desired as well as the additional colored dyeing of the wefts post-dorozome dyeing. Apparently there are 28 (!)preliminary processes that take place in preparation of the actual weaving. Once the loom is warped (we did not see that process) the weaving begins and the weaver takes over. The weaver handles the shuttles adeptly and quickly, stopping every 7-10 centimeters or so to adjust the threads with a sturdy needle and correct any errors in the pattern caused by tension issues, by adjusting the warp threads before continuing on.
I was sat at a loom and after a brief instruction in Japanese and (international hand waving) I wove about 20 centimeters of beautiful plain woven silk, alternating shuttles filled with a variety of solid and multi-colored silk bobbins. It was like magic! The finished piece was a simple striped pattern and the resulting cloth was very smooth and lightweight.
It really is amazing how the skills for this type of silk fabric came to be developed, practiced and cherished by the Japanese of Amami Oshima and beyond. You can really appreciate the very high prices of this fine silk cloth once you have seen it first-hand. You can read about it, see photos & videos, but to experience it first hand- even for a short time is precious. One of the weavers told me she had been weaving for over 40 years. She said that anyone could do it but that it takes 4 years of 8 hours a day weaving to achieve the correct quality as a weaver of oshima tsumugi. I actually thought that might be understated. I told her I have a lot of catching up to do! The whole process is such a team effort and the failure of the materials or quality at any point in the process has the potential to ruin the work of all the prior steps taken by the other artisans to that point. Everyone is very focused on a good outcome.
A couple of other points to note- the silk used is not filature silk, meaning that it is not reeled from the cocoon. It is referred to as a yarn, meaning that it is spun from a silk like mawata. Apparently, sericulture was (is?) practiced on the island but I did not get to see any of that this time. Further research ahead… I’m interested in seeing how the silk used for the Amami oshima tsumugi is spun and prepared for weaving here, who does it, and where. Another note- during our tour of the tsumugi village, our guide/driver Kounosuke tells us that his mother was a weaver on the island before she had children (4). AND that his grandfather was a dyer….he has lived on Amami his entire life and had not seen the weaving process before.
About the guided tour at the Amami Oshima Village: If you are not there to do a workshop, the tour seems quite rushed. They have a specific amount of time devoted to each group before ushering them into the gift shop. I get the impression that there are a lot of casual tourist that go through there by the busloads in the high season. The gift shop does have two parts- the VERY expensive side featuring full kimono, full bolts of woven silk, obi, and various other very fine clothing items and also another side which is filled with fine but more affordable and smaller items- all beautiful and interesting to see. Kounosuke told us that the high season is of course Golden Week, July and August (when school is out and workers have vacation time) as well as during the Hatchi-matsuri or August festival. He said that was his favorite holiday of the year in Amami. Our other guide who did speak English was Yui who grew up in Yokohama (!)and came to live in Amami one year ago after visiting it on vacation. It’s that kind of place.
Here is a photo gallery from the tour:
As before- there is a lot of video to edit so perhaps on the plane I will do some of it. To follow, the rest of the day tripping around Amami and then time traveling again back to Kyoto.
Rather than going back in time to Kyoto at the moment, I’m going to skip ahead to Amami-Oshima and my visit here to see first hand the dyeing and weaving for which this small island is known.
First, a little bit about about Amami- this is the northern-most island in the Okinawan archipelago. Just south of the southern tip of Kyūshū, it is volcanic in origin, surrounded by coral reefs (reef break for surfers! ouch-or as Kounosuke says-surfers tatoo(scar). To the west is the East China Sea and to the west , the Pacific Ocean. We are in the northern part of Amami-Oshima.
Next, a little history from Wikipedia:
It is uncertain when Amami Ōshima was first settled. Stone tools indicate settlement in the Japanese Paleolithic period, and other artifacts, including pottery, indicate a constant contact with Jōmon, Yayoi and Kofun period Japan.
The island is mentioned in the ancient Japanese chronicle Nihon Shoki in an entry for the year 657 AD. During the Nara period and early Heian period it was a stopping place for envoys from Japan to the court of Tang dynasty China. Mother of pearl was an important export item to Japan. Until 1611, Amami Ōshima was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The island was invaded by samurai from Shimazu clan in 1609 and its incorporation into the official holdings of that domain was recognized by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1624. Shimazu rule was harsh, with the inhabitants of the island reduced to serfdom and forced to raise sugar cane to meet high taxation, which often resulted in famine. Saigō Takamori was exiled to Amami Ōshima in 1859, staying for two years, and his house has been preserved as a memorial museum. After the Meiji Restoration Amami Ōshima was incorporated into Ōsumi Province and later became part of Kagoshima Prefecture. Following World War II, along with the other Amami Islands, it was occupied by the United States until 1953, at which time it reverted to the control of Japan.
The beach near us (a one minute walk away) is filled with shells and bit of coral. Unfortunately, the daily tide seems to bring in many floating PET bottles as well. Not sure where they are coming from but it’s a striking reminder that even a place this remote is plagued with this problem. While I was here, I saw an article in the Mainichi that said that Coka-Cola will be begin using 100% recycled materials for a new product line in Japan with a goal of increasing that to more of it’s products in the future. “The Japanese government on Friday set a goal of reducing disposable plastic waste by 25 percent by 2030, and completely recycling or reusing all such waste by 2035.” (from the article) The Japanese are much more fastidious and organized at recycling their containers and trash than we are in the US. A very high % of people here comply with the rules of sorting trash and recycling. They do have a problem with over-packaging which is starting to be addressed. They are looking at banning single use plastic bags country-wide. While here, I carried a small nylon bag for any shopping and tried to get shopkeepers to not bag my purchases. It’s gonna be a hard learning curve here as they love to package but when they get on board I trust they will do it very well! But as Maura said today on her FB -WE ONLY HAVE FIVE YEARS! (Hi Maura- love you and all you do there in Kolkata and beyond…)
Now, back to Amami… My fascination with kasuri weaving (ikat) over the years has grown-perhaps with the decline in the actual making and appreciation of the skill it takes to do this type of dyeing and weaving. For those not familiar with kasuri, it is cloth with patterns woven into it that utilize resist dyed threads either for the warp, weft, or both. These pre-dyed resist threads create a patterned cloth that is further complicated by special and advanced techniques such as as dyeing both the weft and the warp (lining up the two to make sure the desired pattern is achieved), painting the warp directly before weaving, weaving the warp or weft (or both) before dyeing-then unweaving it to do the final weaving. This type of weaving can be done with various fibers but my main interest is cotton and silk. So many variations and advanced complications. It’s really all in the preparation of the warps and wefts as the cloth itself is a plain weave in most cases (always exceptions of course!). This is a simplified explanation and apologies to all serious weavers out there… I was tempted to come to Amami as one of the participants in the silk tour had me arrange an extension to Amami to do a little research into mud dyeing here-or dorozome as it is called in Japanese. (doro-mud, zome/some-dyed). Jacqueline Roberts had come on the tour once before and if you recall from several previous posts, she wrote the book “American Silk”. She has been doing other textile writing for journals and such and has done some writing on mud dyed silks of Canton, China. So, as I was doing the research and setting up the extension I was tempted to come as well since it offered not only dyeing, but weaving AND coastlines-sometimes surf-able as Phil would accompany me on this part of the trip. Perfect combination!
Yes, a bit of rambling here but hey-my blog, my ramble! Feel free to skip ahead to the pretty pictures (and there are many!) Soooo….upon arriving we had to figure out how to get around and where exactly to go. We stayed in an AirBnB so not central to anything except peace and quiet, the beach, and the ever-present walkable “conbini” (convenience store) and a bus stop (yay!). The AirBnB host’s manager offered to pick us up at the airport so off we went and arrived at our not so little spot on the beach. (the AirBnB in Ikebukuro was a postage stamp compared to this but of course was located in the city).
Our new friend (Kounosuke) who picked us up at the airport asked us how we were going to eat and get around and when I told him that we would figure it out- (combini) and perhaps hire one of the Amami guides I had seen online, he offered to take us over to the dorozome workshop the next day during his work lunch break where he works taking care of the elderly here on the island (a much needed service in this aging population). We took him up on his offer and he even took the next day (yesterday) off to guide and drive us around with an English speaking friend of his. What good luck we have! And that wasn’t the only good luck. It is the rainy season here in Amami and we had clear weather for the first 3 days and all through our adventures here. About an hour after returning to our Amamian Paradise yesterday it started POURING-with lightening and thunder galore and pretty much has not stopped- it’s still pouring out there right now-Saturday morning. The two of them are in their late twenties and great fun! I’m glad to pay them for their time and contribute a bit to the local economy. When asked, Yui told us that jobs were easy to get -elder care, resort work (as this is a popular place in July & August and during Golden Week), but pay is low- about half what it is in Tokyo area. Kounosuke is married with two small children.
So, now onto dorozome! I looked over the possible choices (there are only 2-3 on the island) and settled on one I thought would be interesting and different from the one that Jackie had participated in (we could later compare notes). We ended up going to Higo Dorozome. Fortunately we had Kounosuke to take us there since it was not at all on any beaten path. Not wanting to abandon us there, he arranged with the owner to secure us a ride back to a bus stop from which we could return. Phew! I had called ahead and told them to expect us around 2 pm and they confirmed that would be ok. There was no English spoken there at all. But dyers dye and words are not always necessary- we speak the language of the cloth… To give you an overview of the dorozome process before adding the gallery of photos and a few video- dorozome is done using wood chips of the Japanese hawthorne bush (sharimbai). This wood is used fresh (not old and dried) with the sap still in the wood. The wood is plentiful in the local area and after collecting, it is chipped. A huge basket containing about 300 kg. is lowered into a large drum of water and boiled and soaked for 4-7 days (unclear how long) to release the tannins in the wood. The heat comes from a wood burning stove that utilizes the used chips once they are dried- nothing wasted! A sort of fermentation takes place and I believe they also add lime (to up the pH) once the soaking is done and the solution is skimmed and moved to other vats. I was told that it is a fermentation vat and the smell confirmed such a notion. It is at this point the dye is ready to use. Cloth is submerged in the solution many times with additional rinsing in a lime rinse between each dip followed by spinning out. So, prior to the mud bath:
-submerge and work dye into cloth for 4 minutes -rinse in water and lime -about 30 seconds -spin out -repeat at least 4-5 times (for amateurs/workshop) -the final dip into the sharimbai is not rinsed in the lime solution-just spun out
Now on to the mud. The facility at Higo dorozome had a square steel mud vat for practical purposes. They may still utilize a spot near the river as well but for commercial dyeing these days, it behooves one to use more practical production methods. Remember- we are trying to make a living here and not just become a museum! The vat was thick with clay-like mud at the bottom and had to be stirred well with a paddle each time before use. Mud dyeing process:
-submerge cloth and swish around and squeeze for 1-2 minutes -remove and squeeze out -open to the air for a minute or so (oxidixing?) -repeat above 2-3 times -rinse in clear running water -repeat the above again -inspect and return to the sharibai bath for additional dips -then back to the mud. -final rinsing and inspection of the color before opening cloth
So prior to the beginning the dye process, I was directed to choose the item(s) I would dye. I chose a t-shirt and a hemp scarf. The pieces were prepared (bound resist). I just did a simple and quick shibori binding with elastics provided. Interestingly the cloth was not wet out at any time prior to dyeing (as in indigo dyeing). Then it was on to the dyeing…see above.
More about the dorozome dyeing…the sharimbai (Japanese hawthorne) is full of tannin which is mordanted with the lime. I also read somewhere that wood ash is used in the vat but did not confirm that at Higo. The clay/mud is a dark gray full of iron which reacts with the tannins and darkens the cloth- just like when you use iron water in botanical printing or natural dyeing. Lime is abundant on Amami which has some limestone caverns and even underground rivers-did not visit there but saw info at the museum. Also, the island is surrounded by coral reefs- you guessed it-calcium carbonate (lime)! So everything is there- naturally, to produce this type of dyeing.
Some other observations- Higo Dorozome is a commercial working dye studio. I say this to contrast it against the Oshima Tsumugi Village/Sight Seeing Garden which does seem to do some weaving (not sure how much of it is serious commercial weaving) but the set-up there is definitely more geared towards the average tourist who wants to get an overview of the process and visit the gift shop. I also say this because as these sorts of crafts decline, many of them are turned more towards museum status (not unlike the Orinasu obi weaving studio in Kyoto-more on that in the Kyoto post). Higo has been there for 40 years and over time the main work of dyeing dorozome and indigo silk threads for oshima tsumugi weavers has steadily declined due to several factors-fewer wearers of kimono, the high cost of producing in current times, the aging of the artisans whose supreme abilities are harder and harder to pass along. I’m sure there are other more complicated factors that I’m missing here but the end result is less demand. So, that is why it is necessary for dye studios such as Higo to produce other items that are more accessible to the modern general public, to open the studio to visitors for workshops, and to educate new generations of the importance of continuing and innovating these craft processes. Nature, handwork, passion, commerce, beauty all come together in a distinct and geographic spot such as Amami. There are people in this chain of commerce devoted to seeing it gets sold in shops in the mainland, on the Ginza (as in the shop that we visited previously-see earlier post) as well as those connecting up with designers and retailers of modern clothing. Aside from my interest in dying and textiles, I’m also very interested (necessarily) in the commercial aspects of it all. I want people who choose this type of difficult work to find a way to make a living and to keep doing so. AI can’t produce this type of work and it won’t be replaced by robots. I am interested in finding the path…making the path, wondering, and following the moon.
Next post will cover my time weaving some silk oshima tsumugi…!
Kudos for your ganbatte in making it through this post! I add the photos here en-mass due to time constrictions. And now for the photos…
-There are many more photos and also lots of video that needs editing but I’ll have to get to that later. I’ll have a lot of that to share at the July 27-28 workshop at the Japanese American National Museum. I think there are still a few spots left- you can sign up here.
Stay tuned for Amami Oshima tsumugi weaving- it’s really amazing!
I’ll end this post with a little video of the Amami beach…
I’m finally getting a bit of time to do another post or two while I’m still here in the Tokyo area (I’m now in Amamioshima)! I really am struggling with all the information and photos I have collected-trying to get it put together into some order that makes sense without just rambling on and on… Not to mention that Hirata sends me folders of photos each day on dropbox to share with participants and some were mistakenly deleted and I had to sort through that and figure out what was missing and get them re-uploaded. Easy to do if you are not used to dropbox. Need to get a new system for that. Anyway,here goes…
The last day of our time in Tokyo we headed to Kamakura where Hirata is always eager to share the sights and sounds of his hometown. Everyone got a taste of riding the train and learned to use their Suica cards to enter and exit the stations and I’m glad to say that this time we didn’t lose anyone (it has happened-but the lost is always found in Japan)! They saw the first of their temple and shrines- Engaku-ji, Tsurugaoka Hachimangū and the Daibutsu (the Great Buddha) as well. Schoolchildren and tourists crowded Komachi-dori (the main shopping street) and at a point we broke up into smaller groups with the promise to either meet up for the return train trip to Ginza or to adventure it on their own. Hirata’s wife Rumiko and good friend Megumi welcomed us to their home to rest and have cold tea to those who needed a break from the heat and the walking. Photos from Kamakura…
The next day we checked out of the Ginza hotel and our charter bus whisked us away towards Kyoto for a four night stay via Kawaguchiko and one night there. The Star Pegasus was complete with wifi, USB charging, and a bathroom! Not to mention the best bus drivers ever-they had some crazy skills!
but first… a visit with Fumiko Sato to see her studio, have a demonstration of indigo dyeing and opportunity to view and buy some of her work, as well as enjoy a bento lunch of macrobiotic vegetarian sushi that was almost too beautiful to eat!
it’s always hard for me to say goodbye to Sato-san-I want to stay, work and spend time with her. Unfortunately, this time I won’t be able to return as I usually do.
Afterwards, we headed to the Ichiku Kubota Museum to see the work of this imaginative shibori dyer who took tsujigahana dyeing to a whole new level. It’s always a pleasure to take people here since it’s such a mind-blowing experience. Unfortunately, the gift shop here no longer carries any books or postcards depicting his work. When we asked why the answer was “copyrights” without any further explanation. Also no photos this time. I’m glad for the ones I do have. The bead collection is wildly diminished and not on view as it was before. ¥500 additional gets you into the cafe where there are a few cases but we opted out of that in order to get to our hotel and relax in the onsen. Perhaps they sold off the collection to raise funds. Not sure what is going on there. Still, a beautiful museum and ever changing collection of his work.
After a full day we retired to the beautiful Kakuna Hotel for a one night stay. Views over the lake towards Mt. Fuji (which only peeked out from behind the clouds here and there as we visited the rooftop onsen) and a beautiful dinner put the day over the top and we slept with dreams of indigo, tsujigahana and beautiful Japan swirling in our heads.
The next morning it was off to Kyoto for 4 nights which deserves it’s own post (or two)!
Let’s see if I can get the next post started (Kyoto)tonight- today in Amamioshima it was very warm and humid but the day was filled with dorozome- (mud dyeing) which also will be it’s own post down the road. But just to tease a little bit…
It’s the end of Saturday here in Japan -only three days into the tour and we have already experienced many wonderful things! I always think I will have more time to blog our adventures than ends up being the reality. There is a desire to record the day to day-ness of it all, balanced by the reality of the schedule while still remaining in the moment. So tonight I have a bit of time to catch up here, so will backtrack a bit first…
There are certain stages of the tour …milestones of a sort. The first one being- having spent almost two years gathering the group and organizing the details-I finally get to meet everyone in person! The majority of us departed from LAX (Los Angeles) and others we will meet in Japan at Narita Airport. We had a little time at the departure gate to introduce ourselves and put names that have been on lists and in emails to the actual faces! We have three people traveling with us that have been on previous tours but even still I have not seen two of them for many years so it feels good to catch up a bit! As always, when I meet the rest face to face, I’m so pleased that this tour always attracts such a wonderful group of people who want to learn more about silk, Japan, and textiles in general. Cloth people are just good folks! I’m not quite comfortable until the plane door closes and everyone is on board. At this point, final boarding is done and the door closes- I relax. A 10.5 hour flight passes quickly and uneventfully in relative comfort. Watching a movie or reading a good book wearing noise cancelling headphones takes one away like an old fashioned Calgon bath. A couple of people knit the hours away. Arriving at Narita we gather up the rest of the group and Hirata san who has been at the airport ahead of time to meet the early arrivals leads us and our luggage to the hired bus for the trip to the the Ginza where we will stay for the following 3 days. Hotel check-in and a brief rest was followed by a short walk to Hirata-san’s favorite Ginza shabu shabu restaurant with those who were interested.
Tokyo Ginza is where we stop first with a small hotel one block off the main street. The first day was reserved to visit the Mingei-kan- the Folk and Craft Museum which represents the finest of simple and masterful craftwork for use in everyday life. We traveled there by train and with 17 people trailing through the train stations for their first time and using their Suica cards we arrived without too much confusion! Once inside the museum we were given a short introduction in English by a docent. The Mingei folk and craft museum celebrates the beauty in the handmade object-useful items used in everyday life. Beauty is appreciated by all and to have and use basic things of beauty enhances and enriches ones life. Simplicity and beauty can be seen in everyday objects here. We were fortunate to discover that a temporary exhibit of shibori by Motohiko Katano was on display during our stay and a highlight of the visit. No photos inside the museum are allowed so here are a few from the outside and a short video…
From there we divided into two groups- one headed to a craft and folk art shop called Bingoya to see works by current craftsman across Japan. My group returned to Tokyo Ginza where a couple of us were to meet up with Megumi-san who would introduce us to a kimono shop specializing in Amami Oshima Tsumugi. Two of us will travel to Amami Oshima at the end of the tour and this visit was to educate us a bit about Amami textiles and dorozome (mud dyeing) which is done there. Completely fascinating and a very special treat! Following this Megumi-san (an expert in kimono and known to the best shops in the Ginza) took us to several shops to see the finest of kimono made with top quality textiles.
Tea was enjoyed at the end of the day in one of the oldest tea shops along with fruit and agar. Returning to the hotel, everyone went their own way, some meeting up with Hirata-san who led a group to Tsukiji for sushi dinner and others who just couldn’t walk one more step went next door to Ginza Six for dinner.
Ok…gotta run! It’s monday and we’re in Kyoto where I was able to steal an hour of early morning computer time. Will do more catching up later!
Wednesday’s post was long enough so I didn’t add specific information about the side trip I’m taking after the Silk Study Tour to Japan ends. Prompted by one of the tour participants who is researching the mud dyeing traditions of various cultures and locales, I was inspired to go and see this for myself and add to my Japanese textile knowledge. I will spend 4 days there learning and exploring the textiles of Amami Oshima. Amami Oshima (oshima means island in Japanese) is the northernmost island in the Okinawan archipelago.
While the Ryuku Islands (and Okinawa) are well known for their Indigo dyeing and beautiful weavings using tropical plant fibers, Amami Oshima is known for its tradition of plant and mud dyeing on silk, often supplemented with indigo. Its beautiful and intricate weavings using the previously bound and dyed warp and weft threads are called Oshima Tsumugi. This link has a good description of the process and terms. Japan seems like it is filled with endless opportunities to learn and discover so many textile traditions and this is one I have not previously explored. Interestingly, I realize I have already collected a small sampling of these textiles! I’ve seen them here and there in Japan and picked some up when the price was not too steep just to study and enjoy them. A sampling:
A recent video shows more of the process and the issues facing the economics behind weaving this very time consuming textile. There is also a lot of indigo dyeing that occurs in the Ryukyu Islands perhaps in part due to its tropical and mild climate as well as the weaving of choice bast fibers, especially on Okinawa. I expect I will also see some of that on Amami Oshima as well. I also read where they produce a special type of sake there using sugar cane…will have to try it!
So the fabric collections I will be putting together for you includes one selection that will be collected only from Amami Oshima and I wanted to explain a little bit more about what that was all about. You can see the various collections that can be ordered here in the shop.
I look forward to sharing my Amami Oshima adventures here on the blog in early June.