Up to this point, I was still naïve to the Japanese textile craftsman’s society and work life. So with some trepidation I was bundled into one of the Chiso company cars and taken to the outskirts of Kyoto.
At this point it is worth mentioning that I visited the craftsmen ‘out of order’ from the step one-to-twenty five processes. A lot of the decision in the schedule was centred on my being able to get the hands on experience and complete a small 30cm length of yuzen, though Chiso utilise many different textile techniques in their kimono.
Yuzen Resist Craftsman:
We pulled up to a house in an unassuming suburban street. Greeted by the craftsman, we were led upstairs to his workshop room (3/4 of which is shown in the first picture) laid out with two lengths of cloth, stretched with bamboo. This craftsman specialized in the resist paste application. At 68 years old, he has been working for about fifty years as a craftsman. He apprenticed for five years, not including the three years where he initially learned the technique from his father, who was also a yuzen resist craftsman.
This is where I realized that not just each process, but each stage of a process is separated between different craftsmen. Their specialisms for a technique are narrow, but honed to such a high level of understanding and ability. It will be interesting to see how this develops in terms of the positives and negatives
We discussed the paste method and ingredients and how he alters the recipe depending on application. Under his guidance I traced the paper design to fabric with the traditional blue flower dye, a temporary guide for the paste. Then, under his watchful eye, I drew out the design in paste using a waterproofed paper tube (much like an icing bag) fitted with an ultra-fine metal nozzle. Training my hand to hold the implement correctly and achieve consistent line revealed how effortless and speedy his experienced technique is. The result was slightly shaky, but not a complete disaster.
Before we left for the next appointment, the craftsman’s wife offered us green tea, still warm rice in seaweed and Fuki (preserved giant butterbur), they were charming and gracious hosts with easy conversation (despite delays for translations).
Oke Shibori Craftsman:
On our way to the next craftsman, I discussed the job of Arikiyo-san, who acted as an independent but integral liaison between Chiso and the craftsmen. He is highly knowledgeable and very aware of the changes in production. Shibori (tie dye) is probably Japan’s most well known textile technique exports, but is also the most risky. Normally within yuzen the cheapest or riskiest processes are completed first, working their way down to the most expensive/ safest. Many companies have gone out of business in the last 20 years due to the riskiness of shibori – where a wrong stitch, loose knot, incorrect dye colour can cause a length of silk rejected.
Welcomed into the next craftsman’s home, I can see how integral the precision of his job is. He constructs the Oke Shibori ready to be taken to the shibori dye factory. Oke, meaning tub, protects parts of the cloth from dye, leaving the internal cloth perfectly white and allows for the neat joining of colours. Well into his eighties, he deftly combines clean paper, cotton wadding and newspaper to protect the cloth from any dye that might remain in the wood of the oke from previous dips. Dressmakers pins ensure the dye pattern edge desired is exposed, and then an impressive feat of strength as he pressurizes short planks of wood with rope, tightened with wooden pins and a mallet. The key, he says, is not to expect to keep the water out, only the dye.
Shibori Dye Factory:
The final stop of the day was a small-scale factory, closer to the centre of Kyoto. Inconspicuous from the outside, the interior was stone cobble floored, wet and with the familiar scents of dyes cooking. Stacks of oke stood by the door, ready to return to the craftsman for a new silk to be prepared for dyeing. There were two craftsmen working over steaming 200 litre capacity vats, surrounded by cold-water pots soaking shibori.
I watched on as they eyeballed the dye colour additions to the vats, filled their gloves with cold water and set about dyeing the oke. As you can see in the video below, the process takes advantage of the shape of the tub and is fast, taking less than 5 minutes to dye the fabric before the craftsman checks the colour.
As a final and impressive reveal, one of the craftsmen opened up one of the oke to show that the rich purple dye hadn’t touched the internal fabric, still crisp and white.
Tomorrow will be visits to embroidery craftsmen and the brush dyeing factory. Now to eat!