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MY TEXTILE TRIP TO YAMANASHI, JAPAN


I consider myself a Japanophile. In 2018 I visited Japan for the first time after years of anticipation. I had finally found the perfect travel companion in my boyfriend - who is just as positively obsessed with Japan as I am - since I’m not one to travel solo, unless it’s for work purposes. In the first week we arrived we already agreed that after this trip we would come back to Japan as soon as we could. And this year we made it back, in March, right in the middle of the global COVID-19 outbreak. We hesitated for a long time if we should travel at all, but the situation in Japan seemed fairly mild and under control, except for big events and most museums everything was still in operation. At the same time the situation in Europe was getting worse, so we felt it might be even better to escape to Japan than to stay in The Netherlands, where we might go under lockdown, which had just happened in Italy.

So on 12 March we arrived in Japan safe and sound, and we could not wait to start exploring the country again, this time for 4 weeks straight. When I’m abroad I always try to combine business with pleasure, I like to visit museums, exhibitions, craftsmen, factories and creative studios. This time I reached out to the Dutch Embassy in Tokyo, to see if I could connect with likeminded Japanese and exchange knowledge of textiles and biodesign. I met up with Bas Valcks and Carolien van Tilburg (who was now working in Tokyo and had previously arranged a networking dinner in Paris, when I was there to take part in a panel discussion about living materials at Avantex). Bas had invited Kaori Ieyasu, from Edelkoort’s Trend Union to join our little meetup. We talked about how travelling during the corona pandemic might be a great time to discover the country, because there were far less tourists. Little did we know that a week later the EU borders closed and the Dutch government urged us to return home, cutting our trip short to just one week instead of four weeks.

woven silk scarves with a pattern inspired by ancient Japanse Jomon pottery at Gen Maeda

Luckily we still had the best time during that week. We stayed in Tokyo while visiting Kamakura, Enoshima island, the ramen museum in Shin-Yokohama and we travelled to Yamanashi prefecture, home to Mount Fuji and an important textile region with a over 400 year old textile heritage. On the last day of our trip we met with Tetsuya Igarashi, a Senior Researcher from the Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center. Kaori-san had introduced us and Tetsuya was so kind to show us around several textile factories and designers.

KAIKI


At 10:00 AM we met at the Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center where Tetsuya-san took us to the textile archives. The region is especially known for its woven “kaiki” fabrics, which translates into “silk from Yamanashi”, a luxury lining fabric for kimono and haori (formal coats). In the Edo Period, wearing expressive colour was prohibited by law. Still people would express their style and status through colour and decorations hidden inside their clothing. Bold colours and elegant fabrics were used as lining instead. Tetsuya showed us many antique silks full of symbolism, which as part of his work he tries to analyse. Apart from the colours, the motifs show for which season the fabric was designed. For example plum blossom and petals are used for winter collections and sakura for spring.

kaiki silk fabric from the Yamanashi textile archive

textile archives at Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center

E-KAIKI KASURI


The decorations in the fabric are made through the process of ”e-kaiki” (warp-printing), where the warp threads installed on the loom are printed and then woven, at first hand painted by brush and later by using stencils. The fabric is famous for being super light and soft because the silk threads are not twisted to increase density. Weaving these delicate and thin threads into a dense fabric requires incredible skill.

kaiki silk fabric from the Yamanashi textile archive

visual explanation of e-kaiki at Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center

The Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center is a public research institute that supports the design of local textile production and promotes and preserves the regional heritage. The building is equipped with a prototyping lab with several jacquard looms, where new designs and techniques are developed and perfected, for instance developing photorealistic weaving methods and smooth colour gradients.


Tetsuya Igarashi and I at the Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center

weave study in smooth colour gradients at the Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center

HOGUSHI KASURI


Next we visited Funakubo Orimono a manufacturer of umbrellas and neckties. Masaru Funakubo is the self taught factory owner. In modern society the demand for traditional wear like kimono and haori declined. Where it once had been a thriving textile industry with over 6.000 factories in the late 60's, today only about 300 small (family owned) factories remain, most belonging to the regional weavers' union. The diminishing demand for these clothes also led to a lesser demand for lining fabric. In order to preserve this fabric, techniques and its heritage Masaru-san was determined to find new applications for the kaiki fabrics. He started making umbrellas, sunbrellas and neckties from the luminous silks using the “hogushi-ori” (untangling weaving) technique.

Me, helping Masaru Funakubo to untangle the kari-ori, before weaving
partly finished hogushi fabric on the loom

The undyed warp yarn is first woven with a temporary weft to hold the warps loosely in place. This “kari-ori” (prep-weave) is then placed on a screen printing table and then printed with the design. After printing the warp is reinstalled on the loom and the temporary weft is removed one by one (untangled). Then the cloth is woven. The patterns are characterized by a blurred or brushed appearance (kasuri or ikat).

jacquard weaving loom with punch cards at Funakubo Orimono

silk necktie fabric detail

checking the density and yarn count of the fabric

CONTEMPORARY TEXTURES


We continue to Watanabe Textile where designer, architect and photographer Tatsuyasu Watanabe weaves the most beautiful contemporary fabrics. He hacks the loom and its traditional weaving techniques to develop new woven textures by using natural and eco-friendly yarns like cupro and paper yarn. With his fabrics he designs products like throw blankets, cushions, bags and scarves. Tatsuyasu-san is a good example of taking inspiration from traditional crafts and elevating them to a modern aesthetic that does justice to its history.

the studio of Watanabe Textile

woven textiles by Watanabe Textile

Tatsuyasu Watanabe and I in the Watanabe weaving factory

NATURAL DYES


Next we visit Gen Maeda, a fabric supplier of natural and earth-friendly fabrics, founded in 1921. President Ichiro Maeda tells us that next to preserving the tradition of kaiki silk they develop fabrics for the future. Their collection of fabrics consist of beautiful high-quality textured fabrics in organic cotton, silk, ramie, linen, wool and cupro. Many of their fabrics are undyed and some of the coloured fabrics are dyed using natural pigments such as cherry, mugwort and primrose from the foot of Mt. Fuji and its pure spring water. These plant dyes never produce precisely the same colour twice, due to changing seasons, temperature, etc. So they results in one of a kind fabrics.

myself, Ichiro Maeda and Tetsuya Igarashi at Gen Maeda

fabric at Gen Maeda, developed together with the Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center

luminous silk with a pattern inspired by ancient Japanese Jomon pottery at Gen Maeda

Next-door we pay a visit to Fujichigira, where president Makoto Katoh receives us. Fujichigira is a fabric supplier and manufacturer that locally cultivates unused farmland with “akane” (madder), “ai” (indigo) and “shikon” (gromwell), producing red, pink, blue and purple colours. They have also developed a woolen yarn called “VANAWARM” together with the Yamanashi Industrial Technology Center that absorbs and contains the warmth of sunlight on sunny days in winter, to keep you extra warm and comfy.

local dye plants and naturally dyed silk at Fujichigira

We talk about sustainability, developments in the Japanese and European textile market and every company asks me if I have ideas how they can improve and revive the industry. This to me is a typically Japanese custom. The Japanese take pride in what they do and their eye for detail is unparalleled. They take years and generations to master a craft and continuously try to improve, almost to a fault.

weaving exhibition installation at Fujihimuro Gallery

Finally we went to Fujihimuro Gallery, which is located in a former “himuro” (ice storage house). It is a wonderful gallery space designed by Taku Sakaushi Architects / O.F.D.A. that houses a current exhibition and installation about weaving. Some of the walls on the inside of the gallery, made of fiber reinforced plastic strongly remind me of the mycelium MycoTEX by Neffa. Next to the gallery there are a couple of designer shops and ateliers by the accompanying artist-in-residence programme. It’s a really nice place to visit!

Fujihimuro Gallery, photo: Masashige Akeda ©

All in all I really hope to go back to Japan to finish the rest of my trip as soon as we can travel again and to meet with all the other people who were so kind to plan to take me on trips and to exhibitions around Kyoto.

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