The idea for this Provenance column has been in my mind for a couple of years, yet I’ve never quite had the wherewithal to make it happen in the substantive way in which I imagined it. For this reason, I am thrilled beyond words to have someone here now who is perfectly suited to pen this column because of her unique background as a design historian and also because of our shared appreciation for a global sense of style that often times comes from the use of age old techniques. Please welcome CLOTH & KIND’s newest guest editor, Jacqueline Wein of the wonderful blog Tokyo Jinja.
Jacqueline is an antiques dealer, design historian and “trailing spouse” living in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Tokyo Jinja (jinja means shrine in Japanese) tells the story of her travels throughout Asia and elsewhere looking at decorative and fine arts as well as chronicling her interior design projects. Always able to spot the proverbial needle in a haystack and sort the valuable from the junk, she combs Tokyo flea markets, better known as shrine sales, for treasures each week for clients around the world. Porcelains, textiles, woodblock prints, baskets, vintage fishing floats, and katagami stencils are just some of the finds that come her way. And there is nothing she likes better than imagining and researching an object’s past and finding a modern day use for it. She cut her teeth at the 26th Street flea markets in New York and Les Puces in Paris, and honed her Asian expertise along Hollywood Road in Hong Kong. Jacqueline’s incomparable background makes her the most natural guest editor to author this column, which offers a scholarly nod to the history of iconic styles in textile & design.
prov-e-nance \ˈpräv-nən(t)s, ˈprä-və-ˌnän(t)s\
noun. the place of origin or earliest known history of something.
Guest edited by Jacqueline Wein.
These days, ikat has become a household word, extending well beyond those in the textile world. Kasuri, on the other hand, is not, although it is the Japanese form of ikat, in which the weft and/or the warp threads are tie and resist dyed before being woven. That simply means that very tight binding threads are wrapped around all the places that are not meant to take the colored dye. Traditionally, kasuri was made from hand spun durable cotton using natural indigo and patterns were white against the blue, created by those areas left uncolored by the binding threads. Like many other indigo cottons, these were everyday fabrics worn by the common people. Aptly so, as indigo is credited with having the ability to strengthen fabric, making it more durable, as well as being able to repel bugs and insects which makes it ideal for the clothes of those working in the fields. Even as late as the early 1970s, most rural workers in Japan were wearing kasuri garments and Amy Katoh, author and owner of the iconic Blue & White store in Tokyo remembers the gardeners around the Imperial Palace wearing it through the 1960s.
Over time, additional pigments and modern designs were added to the mix. Occasionally, I stumble across an unusual two-tone piece that is not blue, like this madder colored one, although these tend to be more recent examples. But most kasuri still has an indigo base, even the modern machine-produced ones.
The complexity of the kasuri technique lies in having to plan where the pattern will go, not just before weaving, but as the thread itself is dyed. The charm of the technique lies in the slight blurring at the edges of the patterns and images, giving the fabric a soft sense of movement. Most ikat is designed with patterns laid out on the warp – the stationary threads on the loom – which is much easier to produce. Kasuri tends to be weft ikat, which allows the weaver more control in varying the piece as they go, but is also harder to plan and create. The paler wispy white areas in these examples are woven that way. Solid white areas in kasuri are actually double ikat, meaning they have patterns placed across both the warp and the weft, which is very technically demanding. Interestingly, while there is a tradition of ikat in almost all world cultures, only three countries – Japan, India and Indonesia – produce double ikat. Kurume kasuri, as shown below, is a regional geometric form that highlights this double ikat very well.
The areas of single and double kasuri are also easily distinguished from each other in the traditional length of fabric sourced by designer Maja Lithander Smith and I in Kyoto, which she had made into this beautiful bolster pillow. And I love the textile play with the more common Uzbek-style ikat on the pillow behind and the Japanese classic asa-no-ho (hemp pattern) on the vintage geisha pillow on the side table shelf.
Much kasuri is comprised of small repetitive geometric shapes, but it is also possible to create images and scenes with the technique. Pictorial kasuri is referred to as e-gasuri and the variety of patterns is endless – from literal patterns like this butterfly, to allegorical ones like this thunderstorm dragon pattern. Debate rages about where from and when ikat techniques were introduced to Japan, and some even believe it was invented independently at the end of the 18th century, but either way, this distinctive e-gasuri is Japan’s own.
Kasuri is width limited by the narrow loom size prevalent here, being approximately 12-14 inches wide. Weaving was and is devoted to making kimono and other garments, which are constructed of vertical strips of cloth sewn together. A single tan, or bolt of cloth measures approximately 9-11 meters long as that is what is needed to construct a kimono. While it’s not unusual to visit antique markets and shrine sales in Japan with their racks of vintage kimono, it’s less common to come across great varieties of old kasuri ones, although I occasionally do. It’s eminently possible to take a kimono apart and re-use the fabric for other projects. Small vintage pieces perfect for modern day uses as pillows, table runners and accent fabrics are often found this way.
Larger items such as futon covers and furoshiki (wrapping cloths) were made by sewing strips of kasuri together. This early futon cover is made from hand-spun cotton and features both a realistic camelia and a stylized floral diamond called a hana bishi. It has aged and faded over time, adding to its charm and now displays beautifully as a throw over the back of a sofa.
Modern developments in weaving after WWII meant that yarn was no longer necessarily handspun and much of the dyeing process changed. Different kasuri stencil techniques emerged wherein the fabric was loosely woven first, stenciled with color and pattern, only to be tightly rewoven again. This sped up production and allowed for additional complexity in designs. Foreign influences and more varied coloration became common. Today, the word kasuri is often thrown around incorrectly referring to other kinds of Japanese textiles that use an ikat-like technique such as Meisen, Omeshi and Tsumugi silks, which were extremely popular from the art deco era through the post-war period. Their designs were the height of modernity at the time, and still feel extremely fresh today.
Unlike the craze for colored ikat, kasuri hasn’t been commonly copied out in the mainstream textile market. For larger upholstery projects Donghia makes a few kasuri inspired fabrics, including Yumihama, with its box well pattern and Kurume, a finely pebbled traditional pattern.
I am always hunting for vintage kasuri in good condition. If you are seeking Japanese textiles, including kasuri, shibori, katazome, tsutsugaki, silks, patchwork boro or anything else interesting please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at jacquelinewein(at)yahoo(dot)com. And if you have any examples of kasuri in your home, please do share with us at info(at)clothandkind(dot)com.