Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Woofing in Japan

Quite a few email show up in my inbox from travellers in Japan who want to come out and take a look at the indigo farm etc. Timing is often bad. But occasionally I can use a hand cutting indigo or dyeing thread etc. (Sometimes cleaning the mountainside, washing windows and weeding the garden.)

There is a backlog of thread that needs dyeing and indigo that needs harvesting. Luck sent me plenty of help the past few weeks.

Art students and product engineers and anthropologists ..... you are all so enthusiastic and smiley....contrasted with this grumpy old cynical farmer.

So if you are travelling around in Japan, drop me line and I may be able to put you to work for a day or so. Roof and rice on me.

Whiteboots has taken a liking to the indigo process. Guarding the dried indigo.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Today we held Ogata san's 98th birthday party at the house.

For many years I have held a weaving/indigo/shibori/stencil class at the house for Japanese on Tuesdays. Ogata san was one of the first students. She started studying 12 years ago.  (She was 87.)

We are all old friends now. It moves me to see that all these people have each other in their lives because of my scrappy Tuesday textile classes.

Who starts studying textiles when they are 87 years old?


We all love and treasure her. She has had a few falls and breaks over the years and bounces back. She still gardens. She comes on Tuesdays with something from her garden and cooks for us. She comes to the ten-day workshops in spring and autumn and makes hand made udon noodles for us. 

She has been stitching a yukata shibori piece for months. Today I spent a few hours at the indigo vat with her dyeing it. She can dye it but needs some help squeezing out the 14 meters of cloth. When we started to cut the stitches open we looked like it had been over dyed  in the indigo and we lost all the pattern. She must have spent several hundred hours stitching and pulling and lining the folds up. (For nothing..... we thought for about 30 minutes.) She good naturally laughed it off. But once it was unstitched and opened and ran through the washing machine the excess indigo washed off and the pattern appeared. (The stitching idea was mine so the buck stopped right on me. I heaved a sigh of relief.)

Hiro baked her a cake. Yamaguchi san made candles for the cake that read, "97". She quickly corrected us and we added a single candle beside those to make it 98! 

I dyed jacket material for her with a crane and turtle motif. (Cranes live 1000 years and turtles live 10 000 years.) I worked on a few of them and she watched me out of the corner of her eye over the past few months. I finished dyeing one and the colour contrast was too strong for her skin colour and the motifs were too strong as well. I started over again and the results were ok but not that exciting. Takeshima san sewed the jacket up for her and we gave it to her this morning. She was moved and happy with it but asked me..."Where is that brighter gorgeous one you were working on????"

(I should have known better..she is a LEO!!!!!)

The yukata material turned out beautiful and she will sew the yukata over the winter months and wear it to her 99th birthday party next summer!

Aiko modelled it in a kimono shape. Looks like a masterpiece!

A beautiful water lily bloomed this morning just for Ogata san and she noticed it right as she stepped out of the van.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Julie was a feral cat who showed up outside the house two springs ago.  Slowly we gained her trust and could pet her and she would sit on our laps and eat dried fish.

It was time to get her fixed but it was too late. She was very pregnant. She had four sweet kittens this spring and we kept "Whiteboots".

A month back  the dreaded appointment was made and it was time to catch Julie and take her to the vet before she got pregnant again.

She was lured into catch proximity with a dried fish and picked up by the back of the neck. She never minded this in the past as it usually lead to a tummy rub and a few more dried fish. But when it was time to put her in the pet carry cage she went wild and bit and clawed.  Her teeth went right through the heavy gloves. I dropped her and then lunged to grab her.  She bit some more and scratched some more. She got away a second time and she ran right into the carry cage and the door was closed on her.

There was blood everywhere. 30 deep deep gashes on my hands and forearms. Bone deep bites on my thumb and fingers. As I drove her to the vet a realized I was having severe chest pains. Right over my heart.

Oh is all over.

Heart attack.

The vet saw the agony and I gasped...chest...pain...arghhhh.

"Are you having trouble breathing???"

No..... A few presses and he said..."It looks like you have severely pulled your left chest muscle and may have cracked a rib when you grabbed Julie."

Over three weeks have past and I averaged two hours sleep a night because of the pain.
Today was the first almost pain free day.

 Computer work was fine as long as there was no laughing, coughing or sneezing...

Things did get done. Slowly and with a grimace.

Indigo got harvested and dried in the sun. My old knit machine is running smoothly. A lot of thread got dyed and coned and knitted up in the last few weeks during and between typhoons.

Autumn is not quite here yet. The autumn insects chirp in the evenings.

There is still enough punch in the sun to dye with persimmon tannin.

Silk thread for kumihimo braiding soaking up ultra-violet rays to turn the persimmon tannin golden brown. 

The indigo is starting to flower.

Harvesting indigo below the house. It was the third harvest of the year from the same plants. There is a mountain of dried leaves waiting for January to start the fermentation process.

A lot of cotton thread has been through the indigo vats this year.

Greens and grey from oak leaves as well.

Coning....... it takes time.

Beautiful Indigo Dyed Coned Mercerized Cotton Thread.

My old knitter is from Brooklyn 1959. 


The indigo knits are gorgeous and they will be t-shirts before Christmas. 

Whiteboots may get a little indigo cat sweater for Christmas.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Soulmates in the Oddest Places

We hired a driver for a week. He picked us up in Tbilisi and drove us out to the deep countryside. He was dignified and kind and clear eyed. He is Georgian and had graduated from a veterinary school in Moscow. He oversaw the chicken and cow veterinarians working at 150 farms in Georgia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 he was out of work.The last animals were eaten and the farm buildings and machinery were sold to Turkey for money for food.

When Putin said that the second greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union I snickered. "Good riddance to it." I thought. I couldn't imagine all the human suffering the collapse unleashed.  I was just thinking of all the suffering it was ending.

He (the driver, not Putin) had see how excited we were at the State Silk Museum. A few days later he took me in the van for a drive. I could see he was looking for somewhere specific. We turned right and had the Azerbaijan border right in front of us.

Wrong road.

We turned back and drove along the center of this valley.

(Please click photo to see the whole picture.)

He stopped in front of a house and went and knocked on the door. I got out and took a photo of this place across the street and dreamed a little "fix-it-up" dream for me.

He came over and invited me to go into the house. He had met the woman who lives there 25 years before and remembered that she was using natural dyes and weaving carpets.

He had searched her out to introduce us to each other.

We didn't share a common language. The conversation in English went to Russian and then on to Georgian. You have to keep a lot of eye contact so if the words are lost, the emotions and intentions are at least somewhat apparent. I hope that they could read the gratitude on my face.

Lilli lives in this wonderful traditional Georgian wooden house. She was a silk farmer for her whole life. 500 kilograms of cocoons a year.  She quit when the Soviet Union collapsed. No place to sell the silk.

She gets sheep wool from her neighbour and cards and spins it. She proudly/humbly proclaimed she gets 50 colours from local natural berries, roots and barks.

The blue (obviously indigo pigment) she gets from a TREE BARK!!! I thought I knew just about everything about indigo and I get tsunamied with that information.

Indigo from bark????? I had to go back and forth through the translation chain three times in disbelief.


I had only an iPhone with less than 10% battery left. I tried to show her some pictures of my silk farm and the vegetable dyes I use and some things I weave. Just enough to let her know that I am her brother.

I tried to follow my "Visiting artist's studio rules". Look
 and shop and leave. But it was hard. I had severe separation anxiety.

Perhaps she sensed this or it was that famous Georgian hospitality but we soon found ourselves at a lavish lunch that materialized out of nowhere in her cellar room. All the wines and liquors she had made herself. The wool suppling neighbour also made sheep cheese. It was wrapped tightly in a sheepskin and fermented for one year. ( It was so delicious I thought I had died and gone to a Greek island.)

We toasted in the Georgian style. (The goal seems to be to move the others to tears with honesty and gratitude and all those other tear jerking emotions. )When it was my turn to give a toast I think I did a good got my tear ducks (sic) swimming. For the last toast we toast the angel above each door that will guard us as we travel to the next door.

There was my most memorable textile day on that five week vacation. Not even planned. Someone gave it to me.

Like Japan there are these master craftspeople living quiet almost unrecognized lives of dedication to their craft. I purchased those socks and leggings on our laps in the picture. Unfortunately,  I only had a stack of roubles and yen in my wallet. Just 50 Georgian laris. There were some carpets and bed covers that would have looked so good in this old Japanese house.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Silk Road from Japan to Georgia.

The doubtful rickety barn I live and work in was a silk farming house until the mid-1960s like every other house in the village.

No one moves anywhere.

 The same ten families for the past 600 years it seems. Scratching out a living in this nondescript crease in the mountains. The winters were spent making charcoal to sell and to give the illusion of heat in a brazier under a table. In the spring and summer and autumn they raised silkworms. There was no electricity. Typhoons like the two we have had over the past few days drench the place. A dreary mess to mop up with drearier rags and scrappy bamboo brooms.....

When I moved in this place 22 years ago, the second and third floor was littered with abandoned funereal silk farming equipment. Bamboo trays and linen nets, fuzz removing boxes and wooden pulleys for getting the mulberry up to the top of the house. There was more equipment for reeling the silk and skeining it. There was still more weaving equipment. Looms and warping wheels and reeds.

Food, clothing and shelter self-sufficiency.

The old guy who was born in this house is in the hospital now. I take his wife there a few times a week for a short visit.  His sister was there today and we briefly sat with him. He is so small grey and fragile.

It was just yesterday we were climbing the mountain and collecting bamboo and falling trees.

My head spun a little at the human/time dynamics at the table. I dump fix up money into their old house. (A place full of harsh memories of poverty and mosquitoes and cold for them. ) An antique carpet here and some other unnecessary sarty-afrtsy-something-or-other object there. Ornamental grasses and a dozen kinds of lilies from the local home centre to improve the view out the bathroom window.

I put in flush toilets a few years back. A few of the neighbouring houses still have outhouses and paper walls and doors instead of glass ones. I think my neighbours thought I was needling them on purpose by flushing the toilet to trot out it actually flushed. They came over to look at it (them actually, I put in three at once...)  enviously... in 2012.

I took me a few years but eventually I knew what all the silk and charcoal tools were used for. In neighbouring villages that were wealthier than this one you could find the same tools only of higher quality and cleverer design. Deeper in the mountains there were more meager houses where the equipment was shabbier.

Working in Laos I saw similar old silk industry tools and could discern their purpose at a glance. The branches off the silk road. I figured at first that the tools were developed to fulfil a function and that is why they looked similar. The Japanese tools were slightly different as there is no chair culture and tools were made to use while sitting on the floor. The eye-level is decided in traditional Japanese houses. Windows and furniture and even dishes are based on this single eye level.

After Russia I flew to Tbilisi, Georgia for a week. Georgia was formerly called, The Georgian Soviet Republic. After the Soviet Union collapsed it declared independence and became an independent country in 1991. It sits on the Black Sea.

I flew down there with Anna for a few reasons. To eat/drink the famously delicious food and wine, experience the Georgians legendary hospitality and see the notoriously beautiful people. (Three checks and five stars to all three of the above.) Anna's brother Vanya came along with his finance and we had a small wedding in a remote romantic town.

I didn't expect any textile related experiences except looking for some carpets to drag home to the farmhouse....Iran and Azerbaijan are close by. They were hard to resist.

I had two great unexpected textile experiences in Georgia. We had an excellent guide who cracked our brains with her extensive knowledge of her country. Linguistics. Ancient history. Legends. Religious oddities. Wine. Food. Soviet Era economics.  My god.....

She asked what I do in Japan and then spoke to the taxi driver and he took us to the State Silk Museum. It seemed slightly LSD 35 years after the facts...
A silk museum in the middle of Georgia.

Ahh..Georgia was on one of the silk roads...

Inside it was a little Tara-after-the-civil-war-scene. 

The capitals and keystone decorations were gilded silk moths and silkworms on mulberry leaves.

You gotta smile a Soviet smile for those silk moth antennas.

I growled a bit on thinking of the dumb-ass silk museum in Yokohama in the typical Japanese imagination-free idiotic fuck-you-school-of-civic-architecture.

It was a party. We loved it.

 The director was surprised to see our crew so enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. If only we had a bottle of vodka in there! We could have proposed a full bottle worth of toasts in Georgian emotional style to the ingenuity of humans in thousands of years of silk production.

The similarity of the silk producing machines left me road...
(As a silk farmer in Japan, I more or less cringe when I see or hear the words silk road....)

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia:

In Japan:

In Georgia: 

and so on and so forth...

During the Soviet Era almost every home in some areas raised silkworms. Half of the production went to Russia and the other half was sold or used locally in Georgia. 

When the Soviet Union fell apart so did the silk industry. Factories and tools were uprooted and taken to the Turkish border and sold. There are rumblings of an effort to start the silk industry again. I was  generously offered some land and some government assistance to lend a hand in its revival. The temptation was there. If I was ten years younger I would have jumped on it. 

There are mulberry trees left. There are stories left. Just like Japan. A deceased silk industry and it's lonely remnants.

I spotted this old Soviet Silk farm by the side of the road and stopped to take pictures.

After looking for a place to hold the wedding we decided to do it at home. (Our rented house.) The local band played (and cooked our food on a grill outside) and the locals had a feast waiting for us when we got home.  We ate and drank and danced and smiled and wished Vanya and Olya the best for their future lives together.

(Looks like I am marrying one of them.) (The justice of the peace didn't laugh when we asked her to perform the first gay wedding in Russian Orthodox Georgia.)

And the band was  more than handsome. They sat at the table next to us. Small beautiful wedding on that old silk road.