Monday, 8 February 2016

Japanese Bamboo Basket Making

There are various kinds of bamboo growing throughout the village. Aotake is the prized one for fine basketry. The bamboo is harvested from November when it has stopped drinking water for the cold months.

Such an amazing natural resource. Like most of they traditional crafts the Japanese have taken the use of bamboo to a head-shaking-in-disbelief astounding level.

Luckily I have a human resource nearby as well. Many of you know my driver, Ishikawa san and have purchased his fine work and taken it back to your home countries. I've studied on and off over the years how to work with bamboo. I've had a few workshops at the house the past few months and I participate myself trying to keep a cool head.

There are blankets that need weaving, stencils to cut, Japanese jackets to make, indigo fields to plow and silk to spin......the last thing needed is another passion. There isn't enough time. 

Ilkka is a sweet and bright Finnish guy staying here at the farmhouse for two months to study with me. He has fallen in love with Japanese crafts. Ishikawa san came over for the afternoon and showed Ilkka how to weave a basket from bamboo freshly cut and sized down to workable strips.















Takeshima san and me removing the natural oil from the bamboo over the fire. The Japanese go through those extra time consuming steps to get it right.  Perhaps in the future I will set up bamboo residency programs at the farmhouse. In five weeks the workshop members could harvest bamboo and process it into strips a few hours a day to build up a stock to take home. For a few more hours a day they could study basket design with Ishikawa san. I would take the time of myself to participate. 




Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Fermenting Indigo Leaves in the Snow

The sun is hitting my bedroom window again. This means the calendar has clicked ahead another notch. 52...full deck of cards.

The silence in the blog has not been caused by a lack of activities. There has been a lot going on. Leila and Frank wove their blue and red Christmas blankets and they have gone back to the UK to regular life. I feel sorry for them without having Hiro to cook for them every day.

The warp was dyed with madder and the weft with indigo. A regular herringbone. I ordered the wool from Nancy Zeller in New Hampshire. 10% silk blend gives it a slight lustre. We warped four blankets. I just finished up the third blanket. I used madder with a slightly higher pH for a slight contrast in the weft.




The third blanket is on the back of the chair. Geiger is celebrating today. (Remember he is a Fukushima refugee who spent 14 months abandoned and wandering around near the nuclear accident before he was rescued and brought to live here. ) He has had a few rough months. He had a cancerous tumour removed a few months back. Then on Christmas Eve he became really sick again. The vet discovered a huge tumour on his spleen. It took a few weeks of IV drips and love to get him healthy enough for the operation to remove his spleen. We found out on Monday that the tumour wasn't cancerous. Geiger is such a lovely dog the vet shed a few tears of happiness when he told me the good test results. 

Momo was upset and wouldn't eat while he was in the hospital. Hiro had to hand-feed her. They are happily together again, sleeping by the kerosene stove with their paws tangled up. 


Madder dyed wool/silk blanket fresh off the loom.

Yesterday it was minus 7 in the morning and cold enough to start fermenting last year's indigo leaves into indigo compost. The process takes three months in this cold. We knocked together a new wooden fermentation box and gathered some oak leaves in the crisp morning to line the box with. This keeps an even temperature in the box and the right amount of moisture. Mt Fuji was in the background keeping us company.


Henri's friend, Illka (Happy Birthday today Illka!) is here for two months from Finland to help and study. 



The leaves have been stored hanging from the rafters under the roof in net bags to keep them crisp. I harvested twice last summer. The indigo needs to be wet with stream/rain water before being stuffed into rice straw woven bags. The net bags made this easy. We just climbed over the snow and dunked them in the pond. There were fourteen of us suffering the bitter cold in good cheer to get the process done and back into the warmth of the house and some of Ogata san's (and friends) food. 




On top of the wet indigo leaves stuffed in the straw bags we placed another layer of oak leaves and then some straw and placed on some heavy old millstones as weights to keep the oxygen out so the leaves can compost and not rot.
By April first the indigo paste will be ready to use to ferment again in the vats and can be used to dye.


I figure we have about 15kg of indigo balls in the making. I have to think of something very precious to dye with the indigo that was so time consuming to make.

This is the indigo field last summer. The leaf quality was excellent because of a ton of good fertilizer and some good rain and then hot sun just before the harvests.  The indigo will be excellent this year. 


Our man Yumbo dressed in indigo gave me a helping hand with the harvest. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Forlorn Indigo & Cotton

The sun sits lower and lower on the horizon each day. Last week it lowered into the bamboo grove on the mountain near the south face of the house. The sunlight twinkles throughout the leaves now. The monkeys are tripping back and forth across that face fighting and looking for a few forgotten persimmons in the leafless trees. No direct sunlight on this old farmhouse until the third week of January. It then hits my bed in the morning of my birthday.

 Hibernation time for now. There is a week left before the sun starts to slowly ascend day by day.

Leila and Frank have come from the UK to help me with carpentry projects around the house and bring in some festive cheer into this grumpy no-Christmas house.

Leila has mince pies baking in the oven right now. Frank is making some hot chocolate. Joni Mitchell is singing, "River"

It's coming on Christmas,
They're cutting down trees.
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace,
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

But it don't snow here,
Stays pretty green.
I'm gonna make a lot of money
And and then I'm gonna quit this crazy scene.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

I wish I had a river so long,
I would teach my feet to fly.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby cry.

he tried hard to help me,
he put me at ease.
lord,he loved me so naughty,
made me weak in the knees.
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

I'm so hard to handle,
I'm selfish and I'm sad.
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I've ever had.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

I wish I had a river so long,
I would teach my feet to fly.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby say goodbye.

It's coming on Christmas,
They're cutting down trees.
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace,
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

Hiro made a Christmas flower arrangement yesterday. Ogata san is showing off her latest minimalist shibori...."I should have added a second circle."


The week before she made some gift handkerchiefs. It is cold outside by the vats and she is using her 97 years to get the young ones out there to help with nine of the ten dips. (While she supervises on the heated side of the glass doors.) 


If I go to Switzerland for Christmas I manage to hum a few Christmas tunes while decorating the tree and setting up the nativity scene under Barbara and Martin's tree for the kids but there hasn't been a tree in this place for 26 years. What a miserable scrooge.

There are other traditions though.

The trip to the indigo field when the seeds are hardened and the sparrows are not hungry enough that they will eat them.  The timing has to be just right.

Gathering indigo seeds to send to friends all over the world over the holidays and for the field and garden next spring.

The indigo stems were not a festive red but the scrappy blue leaves were the best instead.


The fallen indigo seeds have sprouted before winter sets in. Tomorrow's frost will do them in. 



I've never quite seen the mulberry in this state. A unseasonably warm day or a bitter cold wind will decide their fate. 


The earlier frost burnt  leaves off the cotton plants.  Some white cotton fluff still clings marvellously.  Revealing there were more bolls I'd missed while harvesting


Friday, 16 October 2015

Charcoal Maker and Silk farmer



In the mountain villages just outside Tokyo on the west side, the villagers made their living as silk farmers from May until October and charcoal makers from November to April.

There are no mulberry leaves for the silkworms in the winter and the trees stop drinking water in the in the winter so the quality of the charcoal is better.

There are hundreds of old stone charcoal kilns in the mountains around my place. As the old guys move on to the next world the last few in operation are abandoned. Walking by them on daily dog walks I can remember the smoke and the persimmon trees heavily laden with fruit around them.

Hiro asked me to pick up some charcoal for his Brazilian BBQ night a few days back. Instead of the crappy stuff from the local supermarket I drove out with my workshop members past an old active kiln to visit a local potter and glass maker. I noticed old man Takasaki's truck in front of his kilns.

He was the last major silk farmer in our town who quit 13 years ago. (He is in his mid-90s now) He had a huge barn with mostly mechanized rotating trays.  Many years ago I would help him out with cocooning. I haven't seen him since. He was really happy to hear that I was still farming silk on the other side of town. He let out a good sized roar of laughter when I showed him the tattoo on my forearm of an old traditional bamboo silk farming tray.

His charcoal is amazing. (I guess it should be with about 90 years of experience!) Hiro's BBQ was delicious. It was the good-bye dinner for the members of the autumn ten-day workshop. Thank you Anne, Maureen, Emma, Renee, Tobie, Jaime and Kate. Many smiles and much laughter. You made my life richer.  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.




Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Forest Grump.

August came in like a lion. Two weeks of record-breaking heat and the bluest skies. Up at the crack of dawn. Tomatoes and fresh greens....endless summer happiness.

Now we have had a month of rain and cloudy skies. Today another typhoon pummelled us. Grrrrrrrr...grumpy as hell. A glimpse of blue sky before sunset. The autumn insects have takes oven from the soaking cicadas.

The president of Seiwa (The natural dye supplier and textile college in Tokyo we all know and love dearly.) came over for lunch a few weeks back in the sweltering muggy grey heat. They have a small gallery in the entrance of the shop before you take the elevator up to the school. He asked me for something to display in the gallery that was dyed with the indigo his company produces. Reluctantly, I lent him a few of the paper/linen stencil dye scarves as he went out the door.

The staff sent me a picture of the exhibition and my scarves when the exhibition was over. They had displayed them inside out.

The designs on the back are very cool. But they are obviously the back.

Helpless helpless helpless.....like the mouldy summer just greyed and gone.





There were a few bright spots. I grumpily guarded my free time in the gloomy humidity this summer. Annemarie is an acquaintance of an old student. She brought some Dutch sunshine into the house for a while. An email just arrived from her and it seems she wants to make Japan home for a while now. Thinking about this as I went for my late afternoon walk/jog and surveyed the damage of this morning's typhoon. 

There is still a magic in Japan that will convince people to give up their comfortable lives and move here. This contrasted with the tragic flood of humanity out of Syria had my head spinning as I picked up wind fall branches on the road and threw them off to the side in the rich-green-misty-wet mountain cream-coloured sunset of a depopulating mountain village here in Japan. 








Saturday, 1 August 2015

Quiet Days and Silk Floss Weaving.

The blog has been quiet all July. I had thought that I could have all the preparation for the autumn (and next spring already) workshops finished by July 1st.

There was more work involved than imagined. It was a non-stop  14-16 hour a day two month slog of administration work. It's over. July 31st.

 It took an entire extra month......Hallelujah.

All the homework boxes have been mailed and the workshop members are all ready to start their trips to Japan in late September. (Even a non-yogi can hear them stitching away at the prep homework across planet.)

The house is ready months in advance. Instead of going to the airport and getting out of Japan for a few weeks I will be spending the time at quiet quiet home and working on my own projects........heaven.

Many of you know I keep the doors open and the coffee ready. I've been replying with, 'I'm busy.' to good friends and foes alike the past few months. The lotus are blooming at the front door today. Pickled plums are drying in the sun.  The tadpoles in the pond have sprouted legs and are almost ready to head to the forest.  Heaven.





Working on endless carpentry projects on this huge house and teaching hasn't given me the time to work on textiles like I used to.  It used to be possible to work on different projects at one time. 

Cutting stencils and stitching shibori, growing the indigo etc. are time consuming projects. But compared to the silk farming to woven textile they are like fast food.  

I had to face the facts....when you move your focus from one thing to another something suffers. And like playing guitar, you can't just pick it up where you left off a few months earlier.. 


There are boxes of beautifully reeled and naturally dyed silk upstairs that I've produced over many years.  I set up a luxurious kimono warp late last winter. It was beautiful and ready to weave. Throwing a few shuttle passes it all was set for a smooth 14 meter weave. Sitting at the loom looking at it with a twisted frown.... the warp and weft were extremely fine. It would take hundreds of hours to weave it up. It would end up looking like it was machine made. Everything was perfect.

The investment of time and concentration wasn't worth it.

I took a pair of shears and ziiiiiip.....had all the threads off the loom in less than five minutes. Considering the time it had taken me to set up the loom and weed the mulberry field, feed the silkworms and reel the silk and dye it all...it was a pretty crazy thing to do.

Having been so busy the past few years something was lost.

That slow progression of related project one after another.

If you start a project with the criteria: "I should use up that thread" and "I haven't woven a kimono in years." There are too many wrong turns just waiting.

That whole project was off on the wrong foot. Rather than stumble through it, it was better to swallow some pride and take the loses with a deep breath.

The episode was a good bucket of cold water reality. Don't start an extremely time consuming project unless you feel right about it. All the colours and textures of the project and your own mind better be chosen carefully and harmoniously.



Hand spun silk... back strap looms.  The thread-making process and the weaving itself take much much much longer than using reeled thread on a regular loom.

There are some precious cocoons left upstairs from last summer and the recent cocoons from two months ago.

So day after day the cocoons are being boiled and de-bugged and a pile of silk floss and hand-spun thread is appearing. Some of this years silk is already being woven.


The cocoons are put in a gentle-wash laundry bag. A large pot of boiling water is readied. In a mild alkaline solution (Can use freshly burned straw ash or purchased de-gumming agents.)  the cocoons are kept just below boiling for a few hours. An inverted stainless vegetable strainer with rocks on top keep the cocoons from floating.



The chrysalis are picked out of the floss one by one. Manly work...not for the squeamish.


To lower the pH of the floss, it is gently rinsed to avoid matting. 

The floss is squeezed and the process repeated at a lower alkalinity and temperature to ensure all the natural glue in the cocoons is removed and the silk is smooth and soft and ready to spin.


Once dry I fluff them up individually and then start to spin them.


I hand spun the floss and dyed it several shades of indigo with some light yellow gardenia dye for some ever so slight green tinges.


And it weaving up like this:



This whole process takes forever but worth it. Audiobooks are keeping the weaving company as it inches forward.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

White Shadow / Shirokage Shibori

Muriel drops by Japan a few times a year to do research on Japanese textiles. She drops by and stays a few days now and then to use the indigo, drop off some Swiss cheese and chocolate.  I get to see her meticulous shibori work and progress.

White shadow shibori is one of the difficult shape resist techniques. It is tough to get the balance of the shapes and sizes right so the indigo does not bleed in from behind and ruin the perfect white background. She got it perfect on her last masterpiece.

First the pattern was drawn on the cotton and then painstakingly stitched and stitched. (Muriel has done some haute couture embroidery in France and knows what slow progress is all about.)



She used a q-tip to push through all the white parts to the backside. It is then tightly bound to a pipe/pole to resist the back and let only the raised ridges dye.


It is easy to see how long the oxidation of the indigo takes on the first dip as the green is so visible. By the tenth dip you can't see the green turn to blue and have to estimate how long it takes. 


Taken off the pipe the back was white! 



The moment when it comes to open it up.


Washed and dried. Perfect results.


Here are a few more pieces from Muriel this year.



She is searching out indigo in remote corners of Japan and ran across this indigo hottie. He was surprised to see her beautiful work. (Hurray Gaijin!)