Ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world"), is a genre of woodblock prints and paintings that flourished in Japan. It was aimed at the prosperous merchant class in the urbanizing Edo period (1603–1867). Amongst the popular themes were depictions of beautiful women; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica.
Even Japanese poets found inspiration from kaya. An old poem attributed to the famous poetess Chiyo from the Edo Period. Having been challenged to make a poem of seventeen syllables referring to a square, a triangle, and a circle, she is said to have immediately responded,
"Detaching one corner of the mosquito-net, lo! I behold the moon!"
Kaya no te wo
The poetess envisioned the top of the mosquito-net, suspended by cords at each of its four corners, represents the square;--letting down the net at one corner converts the square into a triangle;--and the moon represents the circle.
The colors of hemp kaya varied from beige, green, indigo, brown and some had small stripes running the length of the fabric panel. All hemp fabric colors fade over time into charming variegated muted tones. Mosquito net hemp fibers came in both thick and thin diameters. The kaya with large hemp fibers were bulky, heavy, and somewhat difficult to hang but once positioned remained in place for the season. The thinner fiber kaya were lighter, simple to set up and easily relocated from place to place, and were especially popular with people who traveled. As mentioned, kaya was used to protect people from mosquitos. However, Japanese poet and Zen Buddhist
monk Ryokan (1758 - 1831) slept under mosquito netting in the summer, not to prevent being bitten by an insect, but to avoid squashing one inadvertently while he slept, or so the legend goes. Buddhist tenets prohibit monks from killing any creatures, even insects, and the kaya served well those devoted monks who solemnly adhered to that principle. Numerous contemporary Japanese artists and clothing designers work kaya into their creations. like the vest garment pictured here. The designer incorporated several different colors of mosquito netting and some cotton indigo to fashion this one-of-a-kind boro folk art vest.
Cotton Sakabukuro Sake Bags
Sakaburkuo sake bags possess a captivating appearance and evoke properties of strength and character. These characteristics are suggestive of the dedication and tradition that Japanese sake brewers have for their craft. During the 1800s and early 1900s, Japanese sake brewers filled sakabukuros with nigori-sake (unrefined sake) which was then hung, so that the pure seishu (refined sake) could drip out into collection vats. This process filtered out the remaining sediment in the fermented rice sake brew.
Shizuku is the Japanese term for the drip method of pressing unrefined sake through a sakabukuro. Thrifty sake brewers would make sure that any bag which was damaged regained a longer, useful life by sewing meticulously stitched mukatenui (hand sewn) patches on the bags, using thick cotton threads. Once repaired the bag was again ready to use to press the sake. Every summer, skilled sakabukuro specialists repeatedly applied persimmon juice (kakishibu) onto the sturdy sakabukuro to infuse the bags with its natural strengthening agents and antibacterial properties. Repeating this process many times over the years caused the sakabukuro cotton fabric to gradually transform in appearance and texture into something that resembled variegated brown leather.
Komebukuro Rice Bags
Komebukuro were traditionally used in Japan society to carry rice offerings to the temple during important religious ceremonies, and at other times to hold a gift destined for a dear friend or relative connected to a significant personal event. Like many other Japanese historical traditions, this age-old custom is no longer practiced and currently komebukuro bags are only rarely made.
Komebukuro bags were hand sewn in patchwork style and individually designed with a variety of fabrics at hand. The typical komebukuro employs cotton drawstring cords to close it securely.
The Japanese discovered that cotton was a difficult fabric to dye except with indigo. Consequently, organic indigo dye was widely used throughout Japan as a coloring and designing agent for cotton textiles. Indigo dye became especially popular in the Edo period (1603 - 1867). The indigo fabric dyeing process lasted a week or more and required individual cotton pieces to be immersed and removed from the indigo dye vat more than twenty times. This process assured the dark blue color was firmly fixed in the material. Over time, use and washing, the dark blue appearance gradually faded, producing a visually striking variegated indigo coloring, a unique feature of indigo favored among collectors. In addition Japanese peasants preferred indigo blue shades for their textiles because they felt the color mirrored the hue of the oceans surrounding the Japanese islands, a symbol that was both culturally and economically important. The Japanese made indigo dye through a natural organic process by fermenting the native indigo weed which transformed the plant material into liquid indigo dye. This pre-industrial method of making indigo dye required that the indigo plants remain in a vat where a culture soup of heat loving bacteria disintegrated the plant material, while drawing out the dark indigo dye. Interestingly, Japanese believe that indigo dyes contains properties that naturally repel insects and snakes. This belief is the primary reason why Japanese farm women prefer wearing indigo clothing when working in the fields.
Kakishibu is a natural reddish-brown organic liquid prepared from the fermented juice of unripened green persimmons. Japanese have utilized kakishibu, not only as a dye for textiles, but also as a preservative and weather-proofing agent for wood and washi (a type of paper traditionally made by hand) since the Heian Period (782 – 1182 AD).
The Japanese technique of combining reddish-brown kakishibu color with indigo produced exceptionally interesting color pattern variations as seen in some cotton katazome fabrics. Making a textile with multiple dyed colors required more skill than dyeing solely with a single color; as a result, these fabrics became more desirable and subsequently more expensive. Both indigo and kakishibu are colors that are derived from the natural pigments of plants and botanical products. The Japanese did not use chemicals to manufacture these dyes, but rather applied a variety of organic occurring fermenting processes. Other organic dye colors were extracted from plants, animals, and minerals found in the local regions. These colors had limited applications while indigo and kakishibu were the most popular dyes for cotton folk textiles.
Cotton Textile Design Techniques:
Shibori is a Japanese term for dyeing cloth with a unique design by binding, stitching, folding, twisting, or compressing the fabric. Shibori in the West is associated with what is commonly called tie-dyeing. Shibori includes binding methods of dyeing, known as bound resist. For the Japanese, shibori is a highly refined and precise dyeing method.
Kasuri fabric is woven with fibers dyed indigo specifically to create patterns (splash) and images (e-gasuri) in the fabric. It is an ikat technique, meaning that during the dyeing process, threads are bundled together in a predetermined way so that when loomed, a geometric pattern or picture design is revealed in the weaving. The Japanese are credited with originating the picture design technique. Kasuri designs appear slightly fuzzy, an idiosyncratic feature of this weaving technique.
Katazome is a Japanese originated method of dyeing textiles with a resistant rice paste applied through a paper stencil (katagami). A sticky paste mixture made from rice flour and rice bran is forced through a katagami paper stencil onto a piece of fabric; the stencil is then removed and the paste on the fabric is allowed to dry. Next, the fabric is coated by brushing on a sizing solution of soybean liquid. When the fabric is completely dry, the dyeing color is applied by brush. Next, the sticky paste is washed away and what remains is the stencil pattern in the fabric's original color; the surrounding area has absorbed the dye color. Japan is credited with developing this dyeing technique to a level of unparalleled sophistication.
Katagami is the Japanese word for a handmade katazome paper stencil. The word is comprised of 2 words. The first word “kata” means “pattern or template” and the second “gami” represents paper. Therefore the Japanese word denotes paper template or in English, stencil. The katagami was made of “washi”, handmade traditional Japanese paper. The paper was infused with kakishibu (dye) which enhanced its strength and stiffness. A skilled pattern craftsman hand cuts a design into the sheet of katagami paper. Because of the delicate paper patterns, a fine silk thread lattice is overlaid on the katagami so that the stencil is held in place on the fabric while the fabric goes through the dyeing process.
Tsutsugaki is a Japanese term for the practice of drawing designs with rice paste on cloth, dyeing the cloth, and then washing the paste off. The paste is applied through a tube (the tsutsu, similar to the tubes which are used by bakers to decorate cakes). The rice paste is composed of glutinous rice powder, rice bran, and lime. This mixture is then steamed., It is then very sticky and adheres easily to fabric because of its high starch content. White cotton is normally the fabric of choice with indigo dye applied, resulting in a white on blue design. Often designs are patterned after a family crest, or a name in kanji, flowers and trees, or creatures from Japanese mythology, such as the tortoise or the crane.
Japanese Sarasa had its origins in the 16th century and the term is derived from the Portuguese word for calico. During the Edo Period, Portuguese traders introduced cotton calicos from India into Japan where these beautiful, exotic fabrics quickly became enormously popular among wealthy samurai and merchant classes. These calicos, with vivid colors and striking abstract geometrics, were very distinctive to the Japanese eye when compared with traditional cotton and hemp indigo fabrics. Indian calicos were expensive and therefore small pieces were used to make valuable and colorful items like bags for tea ceremonies, tobacco cases and pouches. Already skillful at making distinctive textiles, the Japanese easily replicated the hitherto expensive Indian calicos into their own style and production techniques. While maintaining the eye-catching floral and scallop Indian fabric patterns, Japanese textile makers applied their indigenous katazome (rice paste resist dyeing and stencils) textile printing skills to making domestic sarasa, characterized by shades of kakishibu (madder, reds and browns) with distinctive Japanese floral designs and geometric shapes. As domestic sarasa became widely produced, less expensive, and more common than the imported calico, sarasa became a standard for wider use among the Japanese population. Sarasa was used in ordinary domestic applications like futon covers and wrapping cloths.
Traditional Symbols in Japanese Textiles
Both the turtle and crane are symbols of long life and good luck in traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies because of the auspicious traditional meaning associated with these animals. The origami crane is a well known worldwide symbol of peace. According to Japanese tradition, if one folds 1,000 origami cranes, their wish for good health will be granted. Both the turtle and crane motifs are frequently seen in Japanese katazome and kasuri cotton textile patterns. Another less frequently seen image in these textiles is the sea bream fish (tai) which symbolizes happiness. Sometimes other symbols like monkeys or castles appear on fabric. Arabesque or scrollwork filigree of Indian origin was another popular symbol found on cotton textiles, usually katazome. The chrysanthemum flower, introduced into Japan in the 8th century, became another common design for Japanese textiles. The chrysanthemum crest is a general term for the flower's blossom design; there are more than 150 different patterns. A version of the chrysanthemum pattern was adopted by the emperor in the 14th century for the family's exclusive use as the imperial crest. It has been in contiual use over the centuries, still displayed today by the Japanese Imperial family.
Additional Sources of Study
NYT Article: A Culture Invested in Indigo, From Plant to Kimono
Wikipedia Indigo Dye
More About Japanese Kaya Mosquito Netting
Mingeikan, Japanese Folk Crafts Museum
Jeff Krauss' Fabulous Kasuri Collection
Collection of Meiji Period Photographs
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