Category Archives: Japanese fabrics

The Ikeda Collection

It’s been a long time since my last post. Life has streamed by in a blur of cherry blossoms, rainy days and mad sewing sessions as I prepared for my annual trip to the American Embroidery Conference in Marietta, Georgia. And then of course, the return from my travels was followed by the inevitable battle with jet lag, but when I saw the announcement that the Kyoto Museum would be hosting a kimono exhibition from the Ikeda collection, my little soul just perked right up.

Shigeko Ikeda has spent a lifetime collecting the most beautiful antique kimono and now portions of her collection are occasionally exhibited in museums throughout Japan. One of my goals is to visit her gallery in Tokyo someday, but until then I savor any opportunity to see any portion of the collection that finds its way down to Kyoto for an exhibit.
women's kimono
One of the things that sets an Ikeda exhibition apart from others is that the kimono are displayed not flattened out like beautiful wall hangings in isolation from their context, but on mannequins fully accessorized in every glorious detail as they would have been worn by the very stylish people who originally owned these garments.

women's kimono
Not only is it possible to observe the choice of color combinations and coordination of motifs, but also the exquisite attention to detailed craftsmanship that makes each component of the ensemble a work of art in itself.

little girl's kimono with inset showing close-up of her little bird purse
This child must have looked just darling on some special occasion when she was all dressed up in her little kimono, complete with a bird-shaped purse that complements the bird motif on her clothing. A close up of the purse is shown in the inset so that you can see it a bit more clearly.

Purses, in fact, were a special focus of this particular exhibit. With many many glass cabinets filled with numerous elegant examples on which to feast my eyes.
kimono purse

kimono purse
The two clutch purses shown above could so easily be evening bags with any western outfit. I especially love the butterfly embroidered across the front flap of the purse in the lower panel.

But my embroiderer’s heart was really stolen by the antique wallets shown below. If you look back at the pictures of the woman’s kimono above, you can see how she wears one of these wallets tucked into the front overlap of her kimono just above the obi. In other examples, smaller wallets were tucked downward into the obi itself.

kimono purse
Notice on each of these how the embroidery on the band closure matches the imagery on the flap. This particular bag also has metallic butterfly embellishments.

kimono purseAnd here on this orange wallet, there is even a tiny detail trailing off the left corner of the flap onto the body of the purse.

kimono purse
But this one, I thought, was the pièce de résistance. Though I couldn’t show it here, the tail feathers trail across the top and over to the reverse side. And of course, those multiple tassels in metal and knotted cording are just amazing. I will have to follow up with some friends to find out whether these serve some particular purpose or are purely decorative.

All in all, I dream of trying my hand at replicating some of these little bags. At least, I think it would be so much fun to try.

The Little Indigo Museum

Traveling a bit further up the road from the Cedar Museum in Kitayama, there’s a village called Miyama with a wonderful thatched cottage that houses the Little Indigo Museum. Not simply a museum but also the studio and workroom of master indigo dyer and museum owner Hiroyuki Shindo, this is another gloriousl little treasure trove of experiences that makes this part of northern Kyoto well worth the repeated visits.

A wonderfully gracious host, Shindo-sensei invited us directly into his studio and explained its operation. In the picture shown below, you can see the dyer’s vats with wooden lids sunken into the floor in the foreground to the left, while on the right, white linen has been folded and wound around large spools, then tied tightly in preparation for shibori dyeing.

indigo dyeing studio at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

Indigo dyeing is unique among natural dye processes. Rather than requiring large amounts of fuel to generate heat, the energy for the dye process comes from fermentation. And since the herb needed to produce the dye grows easily, the dye can be produced in quantity. These two facts combined with the rich beautiful blues produced have made indigo dyeing popular throughout history and around the world.

dried indigoIn Japan, indigo dyeing has been traced back at least to the Nara period (~700 AD) and through the centuries, the process has been handed down among dyers’ families as an oral tradition.

The indigo plant itself is first harvested and dried as shown at left. Then the plants are composted for 100 days to produce the rough pebbles shown in the bucket. These pellets are then used to establish an indigo dye pot.

Clustering the pots and submerging them into the floor is another energy conserving technique. Preparation of a dye pot can take 7-10 days as it involves a natural fermentation process and can not be rushed. The dried composted pellets are immersed in water and lye ash is used to make the solution alkaline, then rice bran is added periodically to feed the bacteria. Since the mixture must be kept warm, burning charcoal may placed in the spaces between the pots in order to keep the dyepot warm in winter, though in summer, ambient temperatures are adequate to keep the fermentation going. Gentle stirring is necessary, but exposure to excess air or sunlight can diminish the dye’s effectiveness, so the dyer’s judgement grows with experience. With careful nurturing, a skilled dyer can keep the indigo pot “alive” for 3 months or longer.

indigo dyeing studio at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

When the pot is ready, the dyeing process begins. Since the rich blue color develops not only by immersion in the vat but also during the drying process, repeated cycles of immersion and drying may be required, another area where judgement and skill develop with experience.

Shindo-sensei explaining the shibori indigo dyeing process to Australian textile artist Wendy Carroll

Of course, every dyer develops his or her own working process. Here Shindo-sensei is explaining the shibori indigo dyeing process he uses to Australian textile artist Wendy Carroll. And Shindo-sensei admits that indigo dyers can become quite passionate about the beautiful blues they create. Shown below is a patchwork sampler of some of the beautiful shibori effects that Shindo-sensei has achieved over his 30 years as a dyer.

indigo sampler from the dye studio at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

In addition to a wonderland filled with examples of his own dyework, Shindo-sensei maintains a collection of historical examples of Japanese indigo as well as a number of pieces from Africa, other regions of Asia and even woad-dyeing from Europe. Housed in the second story, the various samples hang from the rafters below the thatched roof.

Shown below is one of several beautiful indigo-dyed tapestries from Shindo-sensei’s collection.

antique banner at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

Kitayama Cedar

Kitayama village Nestled in the mountains north of Kyoto, there is a cedar-logging village called Kitayama. Kitayama cedar is famous throughout Japan as a treasured and elegant building material. Shown here against a backdrop of growing cedars are the traditional thatched roof cottages of forest workers’ families. Sadly there are fewer families who maintain the painstaking forestry management practices required to produce Kitayama cedar. There is however a local Cedar Museum that memorializes the dying craft of Kitayama Cedar production.

cedar tree pruned to create sustainable cedar harvestSections of the mountain side are successively cleared and replanted in a sustainable fashion. It is said that a forestry worker harvests the trees planted by his grandfather and that he in turn must plant trees for his grandson. As the trees grow, those destined to become the greatest logs are pruned of their branches so that the central trunk grows tall straight and sturdy. Trees destined to produce slender logs for lighter and more delicate constructions are pruned of their central trunk, as shown in the picture at right, so that the branches of a single tree can produce numerous small logs.

These of course are just good forestry management practices for sustainable production, but the real magic of Kitayama begins with molding of the living trees prior to logging.

As shown by the manikin displayed at the Cedar Museum, a forestry worker climbs to the very top of the tree and then begins wrapping the tree with straw-like forms made of hard plastic tied tightly against the tree with wire. The wrapping continues for the entire length of the tree from tip to base. And when complete, the the tree is allowed to grow for two years before before it is harvested.

mannikin showing molding of cedar tree to create Kitayama cedar

The cross section below shows the concentric rings of the tree’s initial growth and then the outer layer develops a rippled texture as it grows into the spaces between the plastic molds wedged tightly against it. It is this molding process that creates the elegant forms for which Kitayama cedar is so famous.

cross section of molded Kitayama cedar log

mannikin showing polishing of Kitayama cedar log

Afterlogging, the fresh trunks are stripped of their bark and cured and then polished to a high sheen by rubbing with wet sand. This latter task was frequently performed by women, children and the elderly members of the family. Another manikin display at the Cedar Museum shows a woman in the traditional costume of a forestry worker’s wife, polishing a cedar log using wet sand rubbed into the log with her bare hands.

Although there was no indication on any of the signs, I did wonder how many hours of such polishing were required to transform the raw logs into the beautiful glowing wood that we saw on display throughout the museum.

To produce varying effects, a number of different sizes and styles of molds could be applied. Several typical samples are shown in the picture below. The friends with whom I toured the museum included another textile artist who wondered aloud whether this molding process should be considered a form of “shibori for woodworkers”. The thought did make me laugh, but perhaps there is some validity to the comparison.

pegs for molding cedar tree to create Kitayama cedar
Of many sample logs on display, polished but unstained logs are shown on the left, while those that have been stained after polishing. Such beautiful wood would be used for decorative interior architectural details in a traditionally constructed aristocratic home.

polished Kitayama cedar logs

But as much as I loved learning something about Japanese woodwork, I am a textile maven at heart. So I was immediately drawn to the luscious pale colored silks I saw displayed toward the end of the exhibition. The amazing range of peach, coral, rust, and even blues and silvery greys were all achieved using different mordants with cedar-based natural dyes.

various textiles dyed with natural dyes made from cedar

Kitayama Village is a daytrip north of Kyoto, but visiting this area is well worth the effort.

As autumn begins…

higanbana blooming at Shokokuji temple The beautiful red O-higan-bana are blooming in the gardens of Shokukuji temple near my house. Known as “red spider lilies” in English, O-higan-bana translates literally as “the equinox flower” since it blooms suddenly but briefly, around the time of the Fall Equinox in late September. They spring up almost overnight in clumps and clusters throughout temple gardens and along the narrow paths through rice fields, a last showy gasp of fiery flowering color before the full onset of autumn.

Wendy Carroll helping to measure kimono widths The equinoxes, both of them — spring and summer, are national holidays in Japan. So Tuesday was a day off my normal work schedule and a chance to do a bit of catching up. Which means it was finally time to unbundle those bundles of haori that I bought a few weeks ago and prepare them to be posted on the Vintage Kimono section of my website. That involves quite a bit of work behind the scenes, so I was really grateful for the help of Wendy Carroll, good friend and dear heart, for spending part of her holiday helping me get started with the measuring and cataloging that needs to be done.

bundle of haoriWith a friend to help the task speed along, each colorful piece of this jumbled bundle was tagged and measured by the end of the day. Next comes the photography, trying to show the color, the details and making sure to identify any flaws. But making pictures of garments on a homemade scarecrow appealing must require a special talent, and thus far such talent has eluded me. But I will keep trying and soon, I hope, these lovely little kimono jackets will be listed for sale. blue haori kimono


It’s been so hectic these last few weeks that I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone open my beautiful bundles of haori that have patiently waited for my attention for almost two weeks now. But hectic as its been, I still squeezed in the time to enjoy the Kazari exhibition at Kyoto City Museum before the show closes.

jomon potteryKazari is a Japanese word meaning “adornment” and this exhibition was devoted to the history of the Japanese penchant for adorning object surfaces with beautiful and intricate designs and then arranging those objects to adorn public and private spaces. The world of Japanese design is so often renowned for it’s brilliant minimalism and yet intricate elaborations of surface design also play a strong role as shown by the items selected for inclusion in this exhibition.

The elaborate Jomon pottery shown at left dates back some 10,000 years to the earliest hunter-gathering societies of pre-historic Japan. Although its peaked and coiled form may defy practicality and its uses remain uncertain, this vessel is but one of the hundreds of such archeological finds from that era.

Arita porcelain jarIn contrast, the Arita porcelain jar shown at right was produced several millenia later in the 18th century Edo period, yet it reflects an equal penchant for elaboration. In this case, however, the form has been simplified while intricately painted glazes provide the design interest.

With dozens of examples in each category, there is of course no way to reprise the entire exhibition for you here on my little blog — pottery and porcelain, saddles, swords and armor, lacquered boxes, hair ornaments and altar pieces, each decorated exquisitely with painstaking attention to the finest detail. But of course, my favorite pieces in any show are always the textiles. Below are a few of the exquisite little embroidered pouches. The two sets shown immediately below feature bamboo and chrysanthemum designs, respectively, would have been used by a man to carry his tobacco and pipe in elegance and style. Japanese tobacco pouches

embroidered Japanese purse The purse at right might have been carried to Tea ceremony. Notice the the tiny carved bird that forms the clasp in perfect complement to the embroidered swallow.

And of course, kimono. With so many many many gorgeous examples it was hard to choose a favorite. This one from the early 20th century features birds among bamboo in the snow, dyed and accented with embroidery.

embroidered kimono But the intent of this exhibition was more than simply a display of beautiful relics. Rather, the emphasis lay on the transformative nature of Kazari. In the preface to the catalog, the curator writes, “We are delighted to be able to present to you the timeless world of kazari, where functionality, beauty, the sacred and the secular collide to form an unexpected unity. The act of kazaru (adorning) momentarily lifts one’s spirits from the everyday realm. Efforts to adorn (kazaru) have at times revealed a surprising disregard for practicality but have proven to be a profound motivating force in Japanese culture.”

And even though I had an insufficient amount of time to spend surrounded by such beauty, I went away uplifted.

Sunday was a wonderful day

furoshiki wrapped bundles of newly purchased kimono Sunday was a wonderful day spent in my favorite way — pawing through colorful silks, inspecting and selecting vintage kimono at my dealer’s warehouse. At right you see my bundles of purchases, wrapped in the traditional way in extra large squares of fabric called furoshiki. (So much more charming than a shopping bag!) You can see one of my purchases in bright turquoise silk peaking out of the top of one of the bundles.

Sunday’s shopping spree focused on a particular part of a kimono ensemble,haori. These are kimono jackets or coats. Haori can be made of silk, silk cotton blend, or wool and feature patterns that are just as lovely as those on kimono themselves. But since haori are jackets, they are much shorter — ranging from hip to knee length — and they look great with western clothes. Awhile back, I gave a lovely haori to a girlfriend in San Francisco and heard that she paired it with black silk trousers to make an absolutely glorious outfit that she wears to the opera.

Sadly though, this is Monday morning and I must trot off to work. My bundles must remain bundled till later in the week when I can begin cataloging and photographing them to post on my vintage kimono site. As I start to post my new acquisitions for sale, I’ll e-mail notices to those who have requested it. If you’d like to be on that mailing list, click on the “Buy Vintage Kimono” link on the menu bar above, then click the link on the kimono page to sign up for e-mail notices. You’ll be among the first to know when these treasures go up for sale.

Noh Robes

Noh kimonoWith temperatures regularly reaching 35°~39°C/95°~100°F and humidity between 60 and 80%, summer in Kyoto can be rough, which makes the archeological textile rooms at local museums a particularly favorable summertime outing. Not only are the rooms temperature and humidity controlled to preserve the ancient fibers, but also the dimmed lighting that protects the ancient dye offers a welcome relief from the summer glare. So of course, when I saw a flyer advertising an exhibition of Noh kimono at Sen-Oku Hakuko Kan, I jumped at the chance to see it. Admittedly, I’m an avid kimono fan who would have jumped at the chance in midwinter as well, but my little museum excursion did make a particularly nice respite from the afternoon’s heat.Noh kimono

Noh is one of several theatrical traditions in Japan and dates back to the Muromachi period (c.1400-1500 AD). It’s thought that Noh evolved from a complex performance of acrobatics, dancing, music and singing that blended both the public performances presented to commoners and the solemn music, dance, and ceremonial performances at the imperial court and aristocrats’ residences. Due to its immense popularity, Noh plays drew large audiences and thus the costumes tended to feature bold graphic designs that helped to distinguish the role being played by reflecting some attribute of the character being represented.

Many of the kimono on exhibit dated from the Momoyama period and as such represent prototypes from which the tradition evolved.Noh kimono Noh robes also tend to be quite voluminous with relatively small sleeves. To some extent that reflects the prevailing structure of garments in the Momoyama period, but presumably this loose fit also facilitates quick costume changes for performers playing multiple roles. And although many of the designs appear to be embroidered, quite often they are the product of an intricate weave that manipulates dozens of shuttles to float variously colored weft threads across the patterned area. Although some of the oldest garments show a loss of pattern on certain sections as these threads have worn away, it’s truly remarkable how carefully these treasures have been preserved in a climate as humid and changeable as Japan.Noh kimono

Another unique feature of Noh robes is the use of color blocking as part of the design. It was the friend I saw the show with that drew my attention to that. Neither of us could recall seeing other types of kimono with such bold blocks of color that seemed to form a large checkerboard underlying the pattern. Though the example shown at left features an overall cherry blossom pattern in the foreground, many of the robes used those color blocks to bridge the seasons by placing a spring/summer pattern on one color block and a fall/winter pattern on the other, allowing greater versatility in the costume’s use throughout the year.Noh kimono

As suggested by all of what I’ve written so far, Noh costumes are among the most elaborate kimono still made. Noh is a living tradition that continues to be well loved by the Japanese people. The fabrics for modern Noh kimono are still woven here in my neighborhood of Nishijin and a new Noh theatre was recently constructed a few blocks down the street near my home. Performers wear not only these elaborate costumes but also intricately carved wooden masks. Painted with pigment and burnished to a pearl-like sheen, it is said that there are 60 basic types of masks, representing specific character types: men and women of various ages, demons, elders, warriors, ghosts and sprits etc.Noh performer

Despite the elaborate costume and mask, very few stage props are used in telling the story. Thus, the full weight of characterization relies on the actor and costume. Colors and graphic patterns in the kimono and the type of mask worn, signal the nature of the character. From there, the story unfolds in the imagination of each audience member through movement and gesture, acting and singing. Each of the performer’s gestures and movements involves an elaborately ritualized choreography and it is said that the audience’s experience of the performance is dramatically affected by the position of their seating — not just closeness to the stage itself, but also whether the seat is positioned on stage left or stage right. As with so much else in life, each position offers a uniquely individual experience.

obi by the dozen

In response to a request for pictures from my shopping spree the other day, may I present a dozen obi.
3 obi
3 obi
3 obi
3 obi
Of course, this is only a part of the collection….

What can one do with a dozen obi? There are a myriad possibilities. To jumpstart one’s imagination, I can certainly recommend Diane Wiltshire’s fabulous book, Design with Japanese Obi for home decor ideas.

And when it comes to handbags, accessories and wearables, oh my lord!, the sky’s the limit. They look fabulous patchworked with dupioni silk and they REALLY dress up denim…

  • By the way, a blog reader wrote to ask if I would be willing to sell any of these and as you can see, we struck a deal. So if anyone else is interested, please feel free to use the contact button in the menu bar at the top of the page and we’ll talk.
  • visiting a kimono warehouse

    Today was a glorious day in Kyoto. One of those gorgeous days when you feel spring turning into summer. We’ve had lots of rain this spring, which has turned everything lush and vibrant green, but today was warm and the sky was blue, making you feel summer on its way. And on a beautiful day like today, I had the chance to visit the warehouse of a vingage kimono dealer. I confess I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I did feel it would be a privileged peek into an inner sanctum of fabulous fabrics.
    stacks of vintage obi
    So it was kind of surprising to find the barren walls, metal rung shelving brimming with vintage obi and burgeoning plastic bags, sometimes spilling their colorful contents across the floor. And just stacks and stacks of fabrics everywhere.
    racks of vintage kimono
    Unlike the flea markets, where vendors try to catch the eye of passing shoppers, this was purely warehousing with only narrow passages between the piles and bundles. If there was an order to this chaos, it was known only to the owner, as he confidently moved through his storehouse, pulling out a variety of items for me to swoon over. He seemed so amused as I oo-oohed and awed with each new offering. Although the years I have spent in Kyoto has allowed me to become a somewhat jaded veteran flea-market shopper, the sheer quantity of beauty packed into such a small space overwhelmed even me.

    Pictured below is an embroidered wedding kimono.

    kimono embroidery Click on the image for a closer look at the embroidered details.

    I confess that within 30 or 40 minutes, I had spent every last dime in my pocket and on the ride home, my poor bike wobbled under the heavy load of my purchases. It was a glorious day.

    Embroidery traditions in Kyoto

    embroidered kimono Kyoto abounds with wonderful textile traditions that have been skillfully blended to create treasures like the 19th century kimono shown above, where the subtle use of dyes have created a wispy cloud-like texture as the background for this fabulous embroidered garden. In its day, such a kimono was probably worn by a lady-in-waiting of the imperial court, but is now the property of Kyoto National Museum.

    embroidery museum, KyotoSmaller exhibitions of embroidery shown at Shishu-Yakata, The Embroidery Museum and School of Kyoto include both modern and historical pieces. A 40-minute course in Japanese-style hand embroidery is offered at a nominal fee. The museum school also offer classes in making a Japanese pastry called Yatsuhachi-an, a fresh rice flour dough filled with sweetened bean paste.

    Japanese embroideryThe classical Japanese embroidery used to decorate kimono worn by members of the imperial court was adapted from techniques that spread from China and Korea some 12 to 13 hundred years ago and requires the mastery of approximately 46 different stitches or stitch combinations. These elegant embroideries are generally stitched with a fine silk filament on silk or a fine linen-like ramie and featuring birds, flowers or scenes from poetry or classical literature.

    Of course, there are also many other wonderful Japanese embroidery traditions such as sashiko and kogen that were used by farmers and fisherman to repair, reinforce or pad their clothing. These clothes were often made of coarse indigo-dyed hemp fabrics and stitched with a sturdy white thread, creating a special rustic beauty all their own. But I’ll save a discussion of that for another post.