Itchiku Tsujigahana

kimono as artWhen I was studying at Morley College, I came across a book in the library called Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota. Turning its pages transported me to a world of extraordinary coloured and textured landscapes, all achieved through stitching, dyeing, ink drawing and embroidery.

I was hooked: I lugged the book home and just kept renewing it for the rest of the academic year. I spent hours poring over the close-up photos, trying to work out how Kubota achieved such sumptuous surfaces, stunned by their complexity and detail.

So when the Japan Foundation announced a talk by Dr Jacqueline M Atkins about Kubota and his work, I jumped at the chance. The talk, last week, was held in the hall of the Art Workers Guild in Bloomsbury, an organisation whose members have included William Morris, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Walter Crane and CFA Voysey.

tsujigahana talk

Itchiku Kubota (1917-2003) is famous for reviving and developing a long-lost 16th-century decorative technique known as tsujigahana (“flowers at the crossroads”). The son of an antique dealer in Tokyo, Kubota was apprenticed to a yuzen dyer in 1931, where he learnt how to combine stencilling, paste resist and hand painting. He must have shown prodigious natural talent, as he set up his own shop at the tender age of 19.

On a visit to a museum, he came across a fragment of tsujigahana fabric. This technique, which combines several intricate processes such as shibori, ink drawing,hand shading and painting, and sometimes embroidery or gold or silver leaf, reached its height in the 16th century but then largely disappeared. Complete garments from that period are extremely rare, but fragments of fabric remain in recycled priests’ garments, altar hangings and screens.

After seeing the fragment, Kubota vowed to recreate the technique, but this had to wait, as he was conscripted into the army and then spent three years as a prisoner of war in Siberia. On release, he spent years experimenting – with different fabrics (the type of silk used in the 16th century was no longer made), and with different dyes – he decided that natural dyes were too unpredictable and fugitive to work with, so used synthetic dyes.

This kimono, called San, was inspired by the Siberian sunsets Image: The Kubota Collection
This kimono, called San, was inspired by the Siberian sunsets
Image: The Kubota Collection

The result he called Itchiku Tsujigahana – he was not reproducing the original techniques, but building on them using modern fabrics and dyes. The combination of the time-consuming experiments and his perfectionist nature meant that his first exhibition of Itchiku Tsujigahana kimonos was not until 1977, when he was 60 years old! The exhibition made a huge impression, and Kubota became acclaimed in Europe and the US.

Nevertheless, he had his critics. Purists derided him for not using authentic fabrics (despite the fact that the type of silk used in the 16th century was no longer made!), for using fabrics with gold or silver threads and for using gold thread embroidery.

Not that Kubota cared. He continued working on an ambitious installation piece, using kimono as a panoramic canvas to depict the different seasons. “Symphony of Light: The Seasons” was originally intended to include 80 kimono, though he completed only 36 before his death. Of these, 29 represent autumn and winter, while the other seven show the universe.

You can get a flavour of the panorama effect on The Kubota Collection website (click on the full screen version of the image and then scroll from left to right), but I can only imagine the effect of seeing the actual garments.

Part of the Symphony of Light
Part of the Symphony of Light
Image: The Kubota Collection

Some close-up images also give a hint of the colours and textures.

Image: The Kubota Collection
Image: The Kubota Collection

What is jaw dropping is the labour intensiveness of the technique. Several dye colours were often used, so the shibori stitching and binding had to be capped or redone in between the different dyes. After steaming to fix the dyes, embroidery and hand painting were added. To achieve texture, the piece was often restitched or bound, on exactly the same lines, and steamed again. No wonder each piece could take as long as three years to make!

But it wasn’t only in the area of production techniques that Kubota defied convention. As well as using kimono as canvases, he also wanted to change the way they were worn. At a fashion show in the 1980s he sent out models wearing kimono with high heels, modern hairstyles or jewellery, or daringly draped to show their legs – not very traditional! The kimono were much admired, but the styling didn’t catch on.

I get the impression that Kubota was not in favour of change for change’s sake. Certainly his work as a tsujigahana artist was based on meticulous mastery of technique and research, but he was willing to incorporate and experiment with materials and methods that had been developed in the 400 years since its heyday, which I find admirable.

The Itchiku Kubota Museum, at the foot of Mount Fuji, is on my bucket list. In the meantime, some of his kimono are currently on display as part of temporary exhibitions at the Museum Guimet in Paris and the Sieboldhuis in Leiden.

Dulwich Artists’ Open House this weekend

Just as all the election flyers finally stop clogging up my letterbox, I decide to go out and do some leafleting of my own. So after voting, it’s off to Herne Hill to publicise our event at Dulwich Artists’ Open House this weekend.

dulwich open house 2015

As well as my latest batch of upcycled indigo shibori scarves, I’ll have a few felt pieces, including a couple of experimental works: some felt boxes and an iPad case with felt “tiles”.

felt box felt iPad cover

The “tiles” are made of Jacob fleece, which I got at Wonderwool Wales, and which I’ve never used before for felting. The coarser texture makes a nice contrast with the blue merino base, but as fellow felter Carol has already pointed out, the tiles are likely to catch on things when you put it in your bag. So maybe I need to think about how to use this in another way! :-)

Carol has also generously given me 1.5 Shetland fleeces to experiment with.

shetland fleece

Some of this is now soaking in the sink. Luckily, since acquiring a freestanding top-loading spin dryer, I no longer need to use the salad spinner to remove excess water from the washed fleece, much to ESP’s relief! :-)

Recent acquisitions and upcoming events

I’m just back from a few days in Wales, where we had the most glorious sunny weather (previous visits have usually coincided with rain, rain and more rain!). It was even warm enough to have breakfast in the garden on one day. :-)

The main reason for the visit was to stock up on fibre goodies at Wonderwool Wales, and I think it’s fair to say I succeeded in this!

wonderwool haul

The range of fleece, batts and tops from different types of sheep was far wider than at the Knitting and Stitching Shows, and there were far fewer irrelevant stalls selling tacky knick knacks. It was also good to meet up again with Ruth Packham, who I met at the Andrea Graham workshop in Amsterdam last year, and discuss how we are using Andrea’s techniques in our work.

The large steamer in the photo above didn’t come from Wonderwool, in case you were wondering! I picked it up in a charity shop – it’s large enough to steam a small turkey! I’m hoping it will come in useful for steaming larger bundles when I’m eco dyeing.

Now I’m getting ready for three major events in May. This Sunday 3 May I’m taking part in the Intrigue Emporium Spring Fair at Shoreditch Town Hall. It’s nice to see my felt kaleidocycle featured on the flyer, though mostly I’ll be selling indigo shibori scarves.


Then the following weekend, 9 and 10 May, it’s Dulwich Artists’ Open House weekend – I’m teaming up with seven other artists and designer-makers in a lovely house in West Dulwich, including Gabriela Szulman, who will also be at the Intrigue Emporium show. There’s a private view on Friday evening – everyone welcome!

dulwich open house 2015

At the end of the month, on Saturday 30 May, Carol and I are running a Women of the Cloth felting workshop at the South London Botanical Institute as part of the Chelsea Fringe. Carol will be teaching people how to make a needle felted bird; I will be showing how to make a wet felted bird pod.

So we were thrilled when Gardens Illustrated magazine included our workshop and a photo of Carol’s needle felted bluetit in its feature on the Chelsea Fringe. :-)

Hanging and private views

I was slightly worried about hanging the fungus, because I didn’t know the gallery or space. I was even more worried when I arrived at the gallery, as it’s very small and intimate, and there were to be more than 30 South London Women Artists exhibiting.


Gabriel Fine Art is housed in a former Buddhist centre – a three-room cottage close to the site of the London Necropolis railway station from where dead bodies were transported from overcrowded London to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. The history is fascinating – William Blake frequented the area, and now it’s a creative hub for artists, photographers, film makers and entrepreneurs.

With the ceilings being quite low, suspending the supporting branch wasn’t as difficult as I feared, thanks to help from my friend Magdalen and one of the gallery managers Patrick O’Neill. And in the smaller space, the piece made more of an impact, so I was pleased with the result in the end.

hang 5 hang6hang plus Kim hang with kim 1

The private view last night was packed. It was lovely to see fellow felter Abigail Thomas of Felt Meets Cloth, who I met at the felt workshop in France last year.

Abigail is preparing for her own private view, as she’s having a solo exhibition called Tenter, at House Mill, Bromley-by-Bow, London E3 3DU, from 6 to 10 May. She’s also running some feltmaking workshops there.

A6 template

See here for more details about Abigail’s exhibition and her fundraising campaign.

Death and Transition, SLWA exhibition

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been working on a new piece for another South London Women Artists exhibition titled Death and Transition. It’s taken an age to finish, but I’m nearly there, so here is the big reveal. ;-)

D&T Poster

Rather than trying to make a great spiritual or metaphysical statement, I’ve taken a more down to earth approach. In nature, death is essentially a recycling opportunity. Along with bacteria, fungi are the main decomposers, degrading dead and rotting organic matter to inorganic molecules, which are then taken up by other organisms. Without fungi we would effectively be lost under piles of dead plant remains.

So…my piece is entitled Fungi, and consists of a felt column of felt fungi. I felted each mushroom/toadstool individually (around an hour each!), inspired by a technique I picked up at Liz Clay’s workshop. Then I attached them to a felt column about 1 metre high and felted the entire piece together.

Fungus close up

I did include lengths of covered wire in the stalks of the fungi so that I could bend them into different positions, but in the end this was not really necessary. A few stitches proved to be far more effective! ;-)

At the moment the piece is still drying out – here’s a shot taken from a rather odd angle, as it’s lying over the bath to catch the drips.

fungi bath

And here is a better pic of the whole piece hanging on the washing line.

fungi clothesline

I have to deliver it to the gallery on Tuesday, so I’m hoping for good weather to continue the drying out process!

Death and Transition is at Gabriel Fine Art Gallery, Cottage 2, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, London SE1 7LG, from 17 April to 1 May 2015. The private view is on Friday 17 April, 6.30-9.30pm – everyone welcome!