Category Archives: kimono

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.

Home in time for cherry blossoms

cherry blossom time Cherry blossom time is such a special season in Japan, I’m glad to have gotten home in time to enjoy it. The trees in the park near my home, and indeed all over the city, seem to suddenly burst with blooms and everywhere there are picnics with happy people enjoying the advent of spring. It is good to be home after my travels.And where, you might ask, have I been? Where else but the American Embroidery Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, of course.

AEC fashion show After a year of anticipation and months of preparation, I spent last week seeing old friends and making new ones at the annual AEC. And what a conference it was, with tons of opportunities to learn from each other and from the marvelous line up of teachers organized by Dianne Pomeroy, the AEC conference coordinator.I studied Embird Studio with Amy Webster, multi-hooping with Jeannie Miller, problem solving with Terri Hanson, embroidered a shawl under the guidance of Santi from Hatched in Africa, and was inspired to achieve greater heights of style by Bobbi Bullard and Sue Lord.

At left, is my own little fashion show entry — a denim kimono. Made with white denim trimmed with a printed polyester, it features multiple repeats of a snowy egret motif that I digitized myself and was gratified that my effort received lots of nice attention from my fellow conference partcipants. Since white on white embroidery can be a bit hard to see from the runway, a closer view of the motif is shown at right below.snowy egret design

And now that the conference is over, it’s already time to start anticipating next year! Since Dianne makes a habit of out-doing herself each year, who knows what amazing classes will be in store for us in 2009. And in the meantime, I’ll take everything I’ve learned and every bit of inspiration I’ve gained from the 2008 conference and see how far I can go during the year to come.

Living on the edge of Nishijin

weaving close-upFor over a thousand years, Kyoto has been the textile capital of Japan and my house in Kyoto is on the edge of Nishijin, the silk weaving district of old Kyoto. Although the number of weaving families has diminished, there are still places where I can still hear the thumping of the heddles and slap, slap of the weaving shuttle sliding back and forth across the loom as I bike around the narrow back streets of my neighborhood. The Nishijin style of weaving uses yarn dyeing, in which yarns of various colors are woven into intricate patterns. This technique is both time-consuming and labor intensive compared to other styles of weaving, but it is indispensable for creating the elaborate designs required for kimono fabric. Despite considerable evolution of kimono styles throughout the ages, Nishijin has remained a major production center for high quality textiles.

Silk cultivation is thought to have spread from China through Korea and finally down to Japan during the Yamato period about 1500 to 1800 years ago. The earliest kimono developed at that time but were generally a plain woven white, since silk dyeing techniques were not developed until the later Nara period. By the Heian era when the Japanese capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto around 1200 years ago, silk weaving had evolved to a highly complex art catering to the tastes of a sophisticated aristocracy. The most intricate of Heian era kimono could have as many as twenty layers of fabric. Although this type of kimono, called a “juni-hito” or twelve-layer, has disappeared from common use, it is still used for the most ultra-formal of ceremonies such as the wedding of Masako-sama to Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993.

As kimono styles simplified, the range of fabrics increased. Major development in textiles came in the 16th century, when Japan saw imports of new patterned silks, damasks (donsu), figured satins, woven silk stripes (kanto), rich, heavy brocades interwoven with gold or silver leaf laminated onto washi then cut into thread-like slivers(kinran and ginran), new patterned silk gauzes (ro and sha) and light silk crepe (chirimen) from China and cotton calico (sarasa) from India. By the end of the 16th century, Japanese weavers began to imitate these styles, producing their own distinct variations. The range of these weaves in combination with a variety of surface design techniques ranging from brush-dyeing to intricate embroideries has made Japanese textiles among the most treasured fabrics in the world.

Coming of age day

girls in kimono The second Monday in January is Seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day). On this day, all 20-year-olds across Japan celebrate the fact that they are officially and legally a part of the adult community. Coming of Age Day is celebrated only once a year so it includes all those who turned 20 since the previous Seijin no hi. On this day, the streets are filled with lovely young girls in beautiful furusode kimono rushing on their way to their first social events as adults. Of course, the boys also celebrate their entry into adulthood, but they are far less noticeable in their standard black suits.

Furusode are a particular style of kimono worn only by single women. Furisode are distinguishable by their long sleeves, which average between 39 and 42 inches in length and reach nearly to the ground. The name furisode literally translates as swinging (furi) sleeves (sode) and the image of such sleeves is associated with youth and beauty. Furisode are also among the most decorative and brightly colored kimono, as befitting a young woman. Often the fans, flowers and other motifs are accented with rich embroidery and the wide obi belt is tied in an elaborately ruffled knot. With so many layers required to complete the look, kimono are quite warm, so even in January only a little fur stole is needed to protect against the winter chill.

girls in kimono In an earlier time, a young woman would be photographed in her new furusode and the picture circulated to arrange a suitable marriage. After marriage, she’ll no longer wear kimono with such long flowing sleeves or such elaborately tied obi. The styles for married women are much simpler.

Coming of Age Day also marks the end of the official New Year’s celebrations. Decorations have come down and most people have settled back into their work routines. Though the pace is winding down, there are a few last shinnenkai gatherings still going on. In fact, I have three more New Year’s parties scheduled for next weekend.

Six degrees of separation – and sometimes even less

Although commercial machine embroidery is well established in Japan, the home version has never really taken off here the way it has in the US and finding supplies localy has sometimes proven to be a challenge. Thread is the stuff of life for an embroiderer and during the past year I’ve tried talking to my local fabric store (but they had no interest in machine embroidery) and ordering from the US (but the shipping nearly doubled the price). Surely Kyoto with its specialized trade stores for every other textile craft imaginable must also have a store for machine embroiderers. The problem was just in finding it.

Judith and the Fuji family So when my friend Judith Clancy commented that she was working with Mr. Fuji to develop contacts with kimono embroidering factories for the 2008 Kyoto Textile and Design Tour, I asked her to find out where the factories bought their thread. “Oh they buy from Mr. Fuji” she responded casually. To my slack-jawed surprise, I realized that the Mr. Fuji she had been referring to is the founder of Fujix Thread, the largest thread company in Japan. Without even the proverbial six degrees of separation, I found that one of my own closest friends in Kyoto turned out to have a long-standing friendship with the Fuji family. Not only that, the company’s international headquarters are only a few blocks from my house.

My trip to Fujix Thread was the highlight of life last week. Most companies have about 300 shades of polyester thread, but Fujix, which caters to the exacting demands of the kimono industry, offers an incredible 600. The subtle progression of shades within each hue is both inspiring and overwhelming. The little picture of the color chart shown below hardly does justice to the selection.
Fuji thread color chart
I can hardly wait to pick up my first thread order next week. And I’m also looking forward to seeing the itinerary Judith puts together for the Textile and Design Tour next year. It ought to be a fabulous adventure!

Making lemonade

So with kimono fabric becoming ever more expensive and scarce, what kind of toys will I be left to play with?

Some of the flea market vendors now cut up the kimono to sell in scraps and pieces, sometimes for more money than I used to pay for a whole kimono. A truly choice scrap measuring just 6 or 10 inches square might be priced at $15 or $20, and sometimes even more.

But all is not lost, since there is another treasure trove of opportunity in the ever expanding range of lovely reproduction fabrics being generated to please quilters, though fabric off the bolt doesn’t quite have that one-of-a-kind thrill you get from finding just the right kimono…..

So my favorite new toy is learning to digitize in Embird Studio, with special thanks to Sadia Andrews for my start-up lessons at the American Embroidery Conference earlier this year.

My first little effort, shown here on my jeans, was based on a carved jade butterfly belonging to one of my friends. I’ve made progress since then and althouth my skills may not yet be sophisticated enough to do full justice to the wealth of inspiration that surrounds me, I keep plugging away at it. Now, the effort is beginning to move beyond just making lemon-ade, and becoming a bit of fun in its own right.

Christmas morning comes every month in Kyoto

…because the 25th of each month is the flea market at Kitano Tenmangu.
True, you need to travel a little further than the Christmas tree in the down stairs living room to find those wondrous surprise that await you. But the trip to Kitano shrine is just a 10-minute bicycle ride from my house, and that’s where the fun begins.

flea market boothsIn the gardens and streets surrounding the shrine, vendors of every exotic treasure imaginable display their wares in a myriad of little stalls packed one right after the other.

So, stroll past the porcelain, ceramicsstop to swoon over the Imari, imarisneak past the sweet shops sweets with their elaborate little treats (you can click on the picture, if you want a bigger peek), spend a few moments browsing the antiques. Then keep going till you come to kimono. Kimono on racks, kimonokimono in stacks kimonoand kimono in piles on the floor.flea market kimono

oo-oo-oh! it’s just like Christmas morning!