Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Silk and Straw

Of all the books on Japanese textiles and social history that I've collected over the years I have a handful of favourites that I keep going back to. One of them is Memories of Silk and Straw, A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan. * This is an oral history of life in the pre-war years  by Dr Junichi Saga  a local doctor in Tsuchiura, north of Tokyo, who collected his elderly patients' reminiscences and published them in 1987.  I love this book! It lets us view ordinary Japanese life at a time not that long ago but that is for the most part unrecognisable to visitors to Japan today.  But of course in doing so also gives insight into Japanese society today. This is one of those books that I wish I'd read before I first went to Japan.

Here are a few extracts that relate to clothing and textiles (the photos are from my collection - not from the book):

The first is from  Mr Sano 'The Dyer' and should help us appreciate the work that has gone into the old  indigo cottons that I sell in the shop. Anyone interested in dying would find the whole chapter fascinating:

Nowadays there are plenty of chemical dyes on the market  that are simple enough even for non-professionals to handle; the color's also easy to control. But before these became available the stuff had to be made by boiling down the leaves of indigo plants. The way this was done depended on how dark a dye you wanted, but even a trained hand couldn't tell just by looking at the liquid what shade it would turn out to be. It was a tricky business...
... it was the weather that gave us the most trouble....the winter wasn't much fun...When the cloth was left to soak overnight by morning the tub would be covered with ice. You'd have to lift the ice out before you could wring the stuff out, and your hands  would get so numb you'd hardly be able to move them. When I couldn't even feel them anymore I used to go and knock them against the edge of the well to get the blood circulating again. And they'd soon  get all cracked and rough doing this . Then, when you had to put your hands into the (diluted) sulphuric acid during the cleaning stage it'd sting so much the pain would actually bring tears to your eyes. But they used to say that if you ever cried out from the pain you'd never become a proper dyer, so you just had to grin and bear it.

Mrs Ono from 'The Secondhand Shop' spoke of the poverty in those days:
I often think poor people today are as well dressed as the richest classes were when I was young. The poor, fifty years ago had to wear the same clothes 365 days a year both in bed and at work. Workmen wore hanten and short close-fitting trousers both summer and winter and the only extra bit of clothing they had to keep out the cold was a thin stomachband. In period dramas you seeterrace people wearing bright red kimono with their hair done up neatly - it's absolute nonsense. The women of the terraces in fact just wound their hair round in a rough bun, they used string instead of sashes and their kimono were made of coarse blue cotton. Some country women, even, could only afford a piece of straw rope for a sash.

Mrs Katayanagi 'The Midwife' similarly described the clothing of the poor:  The clothes of the women I attended were often little better than rags and their mattresses were usually filthy dirty and covered in mold, lice and fleas....They sometimes wouldn't have anything in the house to use as diapers for the new baby  so I'd have to fold and stitch up an old towel and that would be the poor little devil's first pair of diapers...

The towel she referred to would probably have been a thin cotton 'tenugui' cloth, not a western towel. Diapers/nappies were usually made from a thin cotton at the best of times. The picture below is an old one in my collection that has been patched together from cheap cotton.  (Even when I had my babies in Japan in the 1990's I found the cloth nappies too thin to be very useful.)

Of course not everyone lived in abject poverty. Mrs Oshima  recounted her experiences of 'Learning to Sew' at a residential sewing school:
`...I remember very clearly...the frustration I felt when I was given, for example, a kimono of habutae silk to sew up  and worked on it for a solid week but still couldn't get it right. The biggest problem was making the neck. Habutae kimono were made of two pieces of material laid on top of each other and when you came to the neckline even if you tried bending the end of the needle it was impossible to get the pieces properly aligned.... I couldn't bear to admit in front of the other girls that I couldn't manage it. So when everyone else was sound asleep I'd get up, sneak downstairs and sew and sew for all I was worth by the light of an oil lamp. If it was winter my hands would go numb and my nose would start to run. I'd work almost in a trance for hours on end until I finally lost all feeling in my legs. Then in the morning thinking I'd got it more or less right I'd take it along to Mrs Kimiyama. And if she said 'Yes, I think this will do'  - well you can imagine how relieved I was.  But if you showed her your work and she didn't find it good enough she'd just put her scissors into the seam and pull out all the stitches however long it had taken to sew....

Reading stories like this gives me enormous respect for the huge amount of time and work that has gone into every handstitched kimono and haori  that passes through the shop. And, yes, I often wonder about the woman who might have made a particular garment as I sit unpicking  her work for it to be recycled, all the way over here in Tasmania! I know some people are horrified to see me taking  kimonos apart  but it doesn't happen to all of them, and I would much prefer for them to be given the chance of a new life in a quilt, an artwork or whatever than to think of them left to the moths and silverfish as so often happens.

* Dr Junichi Saga, Memories of Silk and Straw, A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan, ( Kodansha International, 1987).  I don't imagine it is in print any more but if you're interested it would be worth watching out for a second-hand copy or at least checking your local library.

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