Lockdown week 7

I’ve been spending more time in the garden this week, where the sunny weather is definitely encouraging more growth, which in turn requires more weeding (as well as pulling out dead daffodil leaves to dry for cordage!).

Perhaps fortuitously, then, an email arrived from basketmaker Hanna van Aelst with a link to her video on how to make a Catalan tray from foraged materials.

It’s not that easy to get out and forage at the moment, but I did have a pile of prunings, mostly forsythia but also some bay, hebe, fuschia and an unknown plant invading from next door. So I used these instead.

Inevitably, it wasn’t as easy as Hanna makes it look! Forsythia branches, I have discovered, are mostly hollow, so they break quite easily. And my hoop wasn’t very level. The fuschia leaves have now died, so I will cut them off. But it was fun.

I also combined some of the dandelion cordage I made last week with the rhubarb cordage I made the week before into a tiny bowl – I love the colour combination here. And a week on, with everything dry, the colours remain vibrant.

dandelion and rhubarb bowl dandelion and rhubarb bowl

The rest of my creative time has been spent making yet more samples for my City Lit coiling project, which is going on indefinitely as we have still heard nothing about when or if the course will resume.

I will write a more detailed post, probably next week, about the process I’ve been going through, just in case anyone is interested! But for now I will tell you that the theme is animal markings. Here are a couple of the samples – I wonder if you can guess the animal that inspired them? Answer next week!

This week’s garment from the V&A kimono exhibition is an early example of recycling. In the second half of the 19th century, as Japan opened up to the West, Japanese items became very fashionable, including kimono. For some, it represented luxury and non-conformity, free of restrictive corsets.

However, this is an example of a conventional dress cut and retailored from a kimono imported from Japan. It was made around 1876 by the London dressmakers Misses Turner. The satin silk features hand painting in ink, stencil imitation shibori, and embroidery in silk and gold-wrapped threads.

As the V&A puts it, “the dress thus had a familiar structure but an excitingly foreign appearance”.

Stay well!


Lockdown week 6

Week 6 of lockdown and my creative mojo has gone walkabout. When I look back on the past five weeks I can see I’ve tried a lot of new ideas and materials. By comparison, this week has mostly been about collecting materials and honing familiar techniques.

The weather hasn’t helped. April in the UK has been the sunniest month on record, and the lockdown finally goaded me into getting my bike fixed (bike shops remain open). So I’ve been getting more of my daily exercise on two wheels, discovering the delight of relatively quiet roads in the city.

I’ve also been out gathering materials. The one new thing I did try this week was making cordage from dandelion stalks. Much to ESP’s horror, I failed to remove all the dandelion heads before hanging the stalks up to dry in the garden. So I may not have to go too far to gather dandelions next year! 🙂

dandelions drying

Once the stalks were dry, I sprayed them with water to rehydrate before twisting into cordage.

dandelion cordage

I’m fascinated by the dried dandelion heads left over – they remind me of miniature jellyfish.

dandelion headsdandelion heads

I’ve also been gathering dying daffodil leaves for more cordage and coiling. It made me reflect on how things have changed. Four years ago I was obsessed with collecting the dead flowers to dye with; now I’m more interested in the foliage!

I still do some dyeing, mostly with indigo, so I’ve been shibori stitching some recycled items ready to go into the next vat.

shibori stitching

I’m currently working on a fiddly coiling project for my City Lit course, which involves lots of sampling. I’m not ready to talk about that yet, but for relaxation I made another coiled bowl from sash cord and wool. Unlike the coiling for City Lit, it’s something I’m able to do while watching TV (another activity I’m doing rather a lot of!).

coiled bowl

Talking of shibori, this week’s kimono from the V&A exhibition is a modern garment made in 2019 by Yamaguchi Genbei, decorated with a dramatic depiction of Mount Fuji.

kimono by yamaguchi genbei

Made from machine-spun hemp, this summer kimono was part of the Majotae project, which aimed to produce hemp on a commercially viable scale for clothing, as it is particularly suited to the Japanese climate.

Stay well!

Lockdown week 5

My experiments with coiling continue, some based on previous work, like this coiled bowl made using a core of sash cord wrapped with knitting yarn.

I’ve also coiled a couple more pear trays.

For the borders I just used the thickest thread I had in my stash – together they remind me of those hot Indian colours.

I also had another go at making rhubarb cordage. This time I left the peelings to dry out, then sprayed them lightly before twisting them. It was much more successful, and smelled nice to boot! The colour was stronger too.

Another satisfactory olfactory experience was working with pine needles. There is a long history of making pine needle baskets in North America, where some pines have incredibly long needles. The longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, for example, has needles that can be up to 18 inches long!

I collected the needles I used from the ground beneath a tree in Kew Gardens a couple of months ago when such things were still possible. They were only around 5 inches long, but this was fine for making a small rustic basket. 🙂

As I mentioned previously, the straw vessels I’ve been making were for a Prism exhibition called “In Search of (Im)possibilities”, which was due to open in London in May but has been postponed, probably till next year. However, the group has decided to organise a virtual exhibition instead, starting on 13 May. This means that those of you who are not in the UK will also be able to see it – a silver lining!

This week’s garment from Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the V&A is an ensemble created by John Galliano for Christian Dior in 2007. According to the label, “The sweeping lines of the outer garment reference both uchikake (outer kimono) and the swing coat pioneered by Dior in the 1950s.”

The layers of colour at the neckline also evoke kasane, colour combinations found in the garments of aristocrats during the Heian period. The hat is by Stephen Jones.

The photo below shows some of the lavish embroidery with silk threads and hand painted lace appliqué.

Stay well!

Lockdown week 4

Cabin fever must be getting to me – I’ve started coiling household objects! I had a moulded cardboard tray used for holding pears, which I cut up into individual sections. This is the result of coiling the first one.

coiled cardboard coiled cardboard

I did consider stitching into the cardboard itself, but decided to go for the minimalist look, especially as the bottom is quite textured (it looks like an avocado).

Over on Instagram, I was inspired by Suzie Grieve’s amazing rhubarb baskets to try making some rhubarb cordage. I used fresh rhubarb peelings, which was a mistake. They were very wet and slippery to work with, and they shrank a lot when they dried.

rhubarb cordage wet
Wet rhubarb cordage
rhubarb cordage dry
Dry rhubarb cordage

I rather like the open helical structure of the dried cordage, but in this case it wasn’t what I was after. Another lesson learned!

The series of straw vessels for Prism continues. This one is a combination of cobbling and coiling (coibbling?). Cobbling, as I understand it, is bunching soft material together with random stitching.

cobbled straw vessel

Only a week after planting, my Japanese indigo seeds have germinated and are doing well.

japanese indigo april 2020

This week’s kimono from the V&A exhibition is a bit unusual. It’s a kimono for a young boy commemorating the first flight from Japan to the UK in 1937. Made from printed wool, it’s decorated with images of Mount Fuji, Tower Bridge and the route taken by the plane.

kimono commemorating first flight from tokyo to london

I’m not sure what the other flag is next to the union flag. It looks like the international maritime signal flag representing the letter T (tango), which usually means “keep clear”. Or maybe the T stands for Tokyo?

Stay well!

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.