Monday, November 19, 2007

The Traditional Crafts of Japan: Weaving

Starting a study of pongee.

Oitama Pongee

Yamagata Prefecture

Cooperative Union
Oitama Tsumugi Traditional Textile Association
1-1-5 Monto-machi,
Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture
tel 0238-23-3525

While dating back to the 8th century, the weaving of this cloth did not become firmly established in this area of Yamagata Prefecture until the beginning of the 17th century. This was when Uesugi Keisho, the lord of the fief, encouraged its weaving. There are a number of individual cloths being produced. There is the traditionally woven shirataka itajime kogasuri, an unassuming ikat cloth and another small motif ikat called yoneryu itajime kogasuri; and a weft ikat and another with ikat threads in both the warp and weft. Safflower is just one of the natural dyes used for a pongee cloth using these dyestuffs. Inevitably, it is the handmade look of these cloths which is now attracting much attention among consumers.

Oitama pongee is actually a generic name for six individual cloths, namely

yoneryu itajime kogasuri,
shirataka itajime kogasuri,
kusakizome tsumugi,
and benibana tsumugi.

All are yarn dyed and plain woven. In all, there are now 25 government recognized Master Craftsmen and 409 people engaged in the weaving of these interesting cloths, which are offered by 32 firms.

See Production at the site for Quicktime videos of dyeing with safflower and dyeing warp for ikat.

The term "Oitama Pongee" is a collective term for various textiles produced in the Oitama area in Yamagata prefecture. These textiles are commonly used as fabrics for kimono, hakama skirts, obi belts, bags, etc. There are three major areas where the fabrics are produced, and there are six individually recognized styles: Yonezawa Sōmoku, Nagai Pongee Heiyougasuri, Yokosogasuri, Yoneryu Itajime Kogasuri, Safflower Tsumugi, and Shirataka Itajime Kogasuri. There is some variation in the production process depending on the location, but all these fabrics have in common the fact that the threads are dyed before they are woven. Oitama pongee got its start in the 8th century, but truly began to take off in the Edo period when Uesugi Keisho, feudal lord of this area of present day Yamagata, began to promote its production. A later successor by the name of Uesugi Takayama is also said to have brought professional weavers in from other areas to teach his daughters their skills, and further helped to promote the weaving of silk, famous in this area, among farmers that he controlled in his fief. Thanks to these efforts, these textiles began to take root in the Oitama area, and eventually helped with financial recovery of the area. He also helped to reduce famine in the area by promoting the plantation of trees such as walnuts, chestnuts, plums, and pomegranates, which also play a part in the dyeing process.

Yonezawa Sōmoku uses elements of nature such as safflower, nuts, or tree bark. Nagai Pongee is a kind of crossed style that uses a splash dye pattern on only the cross threads in the loom. Shirataka style weaves intricate patterns directly into the fabric.

Production (Yonezawa Sōmoku)
The first step in the production of this fabric is to pick the safflower plants. Thorns on this plant stick out more during the daytime, so it is best to pick them in the early morning. Gently rubbing these plants while holding them under water turns the yellow color into a darker orange. After this, they are allowed to ferment, where they acquire nearly ten times their normal pigmentation. They can also be poked at this stage, which produces even more pigmentation. The plants are then rolled into lumps, and dried. These lumps are easier to transport and the amount needed can be more easily adjusted. Dissolving these lumps in a basic solution like lye yields the pigment, which is used to dye the thread. An acidic solution is later added to neutralize the lye, and a deep color emerges.

Production (Shirataka Itajime Kogasuri)
The production of this fabric first involves boiling silkworm cocoons, and slowly spinning the thread. Painstaking work during this stage will eventually produce a natural texture. The threads are then tightly tied to the flat stencil for the pattern, and these are then stacked and tied together. Dye is poured into the spaces between the stencil blocks, producing a pattern of areas that are dyed and areas that aren't. The usage and positioning of the dye here is what makes or breaks the pattern, and is a main factor in determining the quality of the final product. The threads are then taken off the stencil blocks and woven together, creating a vibrant pattern called "kasuri".

No comments: