Monday, 20 March 2017

Japanese Indigo Dyed Fireman Jackets.

There is a museum in Tokyo dedicated to Japanese fire fighting.

There is a collection of old fire brigade uniforms on display so I went for a few hours to take a look.

The museum was quite lively. There were plenty of mothers there with their young ones who seemed to aspire to be fire fighters. There is a fire station in the building so there were plenty of brave, duty loving, serious looking Japanese in the building along with a few non-Japanese hunky fire fighter looking tourists who would be very interested in the long history fire fighting in Tokyo.

There were millions of people living in this city for five hundred years plus. The city was crowded and made of wood. One of the fire brigades main jobs was to tear down buildings quickly to create a fire break. (Interesting aside...There was a small city upstream where large boats owned by the wealthy held all the materials to rebuild buildings after fires or buildings being torn down as a fire break. )

As with all Japanese museums there was a magnificent miniature recreation model. This time of a section a Tokyo with a fire watch tower and fire fighters tearing the clay tiles off a roof before collapsing the building to make the fire break. (I love Japan on museum days.)

But my interest this day was the indigo dyed work jackets. What was the spirit they were wore in?

I have nine guests at the farmhouse from April 1st here to design and indigo dye these jackets for themselves. It is time to get out of the cave of winter hibernation and get in the work mode again.

Japan is beautiful in May. I had a few cancellations in a regular indigo workshop. If you are up to a ten-day workshop here at the farmhouse with a lot of indigo dyeing, good food and cultural activities we will spoil you & take care of you well. Drop me a line at

The jackets on display were typically masculine and bold.

Fire fighters were always gorgeously tattooed. He is carrying a mattoi with his brigades insignia design on the top. These are made of white painted leather. They are amazing when every man holds one and they do a choreographed uber tough guy parade dance.

There was a healthy collection of these matoi on display.

Here is a sample design pattern for the hanten jackets. The amount of stripes and their position signifies rank.

The Museum is the Tokyo Fire Museum.

A few more related pictures of old time fire fighters..

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Smoked Dye Patterns on Deer Leather in Old Japan

Wistful smile on the train through the mountains in Japan to Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture to hunt out what is possible of an ancient technique of smoking deer leather that has been resisted with string for stripes or rice paste and stencil patterns.

My birthday and the anniversary of immigrating to Japan fall in early Aquarius. 28 full years in my adopted country. It was a anniversary trip.

Wistful hairline....wistful cold wind through my sweater.

Kofu is only a few hours away. It is the peach and grape growing area of Japan. Famous for warlord Samurai, thick wheat noodles, greedy pork barrel politicians  and lacquered leather.

Last spring at Morita textiles, Mrs Morita excitedly showed me a newly acquired pair of deer skin trousers from the late 1800's. The beguiling story of the trousers....they were refashioned from  deerskin samurai jacket from the Edo period. The obvious wear of the jacket collar was now visible on the bum of the trousers. Wow.....


The trousers looked like they had a orange striped lining but in more careful examination it was actually the suede side of the leather that was patterned.


She explained that the pattern had been smoked onto the leather with paper resisting the stripes. She continued on that is an extinct technique.


My imagination ran wild.

The next mystery was how the green colour was created. There are no natural true green dyes in nature. It is always a combination of a yellow and indigo. How can you dye only one side of the skin?

Always playing with the idea of a small indigo museum on the second floor of the clay storehouse next to the house the trousers were procured. (They actually fit.)

They have sat on an open shelf and admired frequently.

I figured out that they had actually come from Kofu a few weeks back and on a clear day a few of us took the train out to Kofu to see what vestiges of the tradition of smoking deer leather we could find.

Turned out to be a gimmicky sort of display in the corner of a gift shop selling lacquered "inden"
leather products. But we all got excited like kids and decided on the spot to rig up a smoker, find a small mountain of rice straw, fix up a barrel to rotate over the smoke, find some deer skin.....and make some smoke patterned leather and paint on indigo on the opposite side.....just for fun.

We are getting all the materials together and as soon as it warms up a little we do it.

These techniques are regional secrets....we asked as many questions as the shop keeper was willing to answer.

And some stealth photographs of the tools hanging around were shared later over a beer as we plotted to overthrow the local industrialists of the neighbouring fife.

The smoker oven with a roof tile door.

Tied and smoked and tied again and smoked some ingenious.

The small museum was just so satisfying. What is the word for the uplifting feeling when you see beautiful old masterfully crafted textiles?

The small museum had indigo dyed deer leather items. Katazome dyed indigo deer leather. Laquer stencilled leather and smoke dyed leather goods.

Jackets. Gloves for archery. Purses. Tobacco pouches. Leather armour scraps. Shoes. Drum bags. Hats. Horse saddles.

So beautiful... all this pre-industrial  Japanese hand work.

These are deer leather stencilled patches from samurai armour.

Fine stitching on archery gloves.

Regular Ise katagami stencils are used for the resist process.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Backstrap Rag Weave Luxury.

Japanese back strap looms, Izaribata or Jibata are seductive in their simplicity and shape.

There are a few sitting around the house. It is time to get them functioning and create a room for them. There is a large room with a low beamed ceiling on the second floor at the back of the house. If the  old clay walls are pushed out and floor to ceiling windows put in it will be a comfortable place to weave on these looms. The side of the steep mountain is just out of reach. It is quiet and isolated place in the middle of the farmhouse.

The first step is to get the looms working. The second step is to build a few more looms and then start the house construction devil again. Then the next step is to have the looms operating and have people come and use them. There are plenty of locals who would love the chance to sit quietly in that hidden corner and weave. And a few who will get on an air plane to come and keep the looms company.

Backstop looms are especially suited for rag weave. (saki-ori.) You can bang the beater back with force creating a tight weave.

It is minus 5 Celsius outside and this backstop loom moved into the warm room. Renita & Suzi & I went to an antique store in the next town and bought old kimono from the 1930's and washed and ripped them to shreds and wove up the strips. The loom itself is simple. It is part of your body while you weave. Ripping up old precious silk textiles to create a new textile. The gentleness and strength needed to weave on one of these is musical. Melody and rhythm and bass lines. Choosing the colour silk strips add dimension. Some of the silk is shiny while others subtly lustrous. The blue skies in the day and the painfully cold clear stars and planets at night in the silent mountains are the weather parameters we weave in.

That dark blue silk warp wove up quickly. We set up another wrap of madder/persimmon dyed silk. I weave a few hours each evening listening to audio books with a few glasses of hot sake to keep motivated.

The ripped silk warp is a mixture of old ripped silk kimono and madder dyed silk. This will be sewn into zabuton tatami pillows.

There is an old loom museum not far away. No one ever goes there. I pop in once every few years to check out the construction of the old Japanese looms when one needs fixing at home. (My house is an orphanage for old dilapidated  looms.) The elders sitting around drinking tea amongst the antique loom carnage look up sleepily from their time slip stupor. 

The local variation of the back strap looms for the 18th century forward is just.....amazing.

A few years back.

Some old Meiji and Edo period rag weave indigo jackets I've had for years and never tire of examining and a recent purchase of a saki ori obi from early Showa period.

I should have a back strap loom course up and running in a few years time.  Around the third year of the Trump presidency. If the world hasn't slipped into Fascist chaos drop me a line and come to Japan and weave something.

A call out to Jean Betts. 

Jean, I love you.

Thank you.