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Japan gleanings - textiles and poetry

During the course of most of October, I was traveling around Japan. It was my first trip to that country, after dreaming about going most of my life, and it was everything I had been led to believe. I went there as part of a research project (even though I am a retired scientist, I still get invitations from time to time), but took advantage of being there to explore several aspects of Japanese culture and geography that attracted me.

In particular, I have been nosing around an organization that offers to host artists-in-residence in Japan, including writers. The site looked interesting, but I thought, I'm going to be there, why not just go and see. It was in the Mount Fuji region, so I organized a bus trip from Tokyo, a place to stay for a few nights, and then I rented an e-bike to get from my hotel to the site itself. When I got there, I was treated with a certain amount of suspicion. I suppose I understand, a complete stranger poking around the property (I did knock but there was no answer, and there was a road up the back so I was headed up that when I finally saw someone). However, once I explained who I was and why I was there, I was invited inside to view the house and see the arrangements. The house is stunning, the view extraordinary and the arrangements in terms of studio spaces and so forth are awesome.

After I left, I started to think through more what I might do there. I showed the caretaker my work on the augmented reality belts in relation to my science fiction novel Plenum. I spoke about doing something similar. What I am thinking about is a weaving project combined with the work I have been doing developing poetry "from the future". The latter project is that as part of my 15-book science fiction saga, I am excerpting texts from poets not yet born who will be writing at various epochs between today and the time at which events take place in my books, roughly 2000 years of future history. So far, I have "invented" twelve poets, each with a distinct style of writing and subject matter, I have come up with titles for the works cited, and have written a sizeable number of texts. I intend to continue to extend this work, and use textiles woven in silk in traditional Japanese ways to create images used to anchor augmented reality representations of the texts.

One of the projects the traditional weaver was working on. The loom is called a jibata, it is a kind of backstrap loom which uses the body of the weaver to ensure an extremely tight weave.

One of the other activities I undertook in Japan was to visit the site of the traditional silk weaving technique called yuki-tsumagi in a town called Oyama (and in Yuki City, its neighbouring town). Oyama is a stop on the shinkansen train run from Tokyo to Sendai, about a third of the way, and so it is easy to get there. Furthermore, there is a small museum just outside the train station showcasing the yuki-tsumagi weaving process. I spent the morning in the museum, which although small, contains a wealth of information. They unearthed some CDs with English explanations for me, which I really appreciated. Furthermore, I discovered that one of the traditional weavers was present on the premises. She was working on a couple of weaving projects as a kind of living demonstration of the process. Although she didn't speak much English, using the translation apps we were able to exchange a fair amount of information. I showed them photos of my work, the silk scarf I had woven, my dresses and corsets; they were overall quite impressed and came to understand how seriously interested I was in their work.

This served me well at the end of the morning when I discovered a number of the looms set up to act as participative demos of the technique. I rather gauchely asked whether I could do a demo, and it took some time for queries to go out and permissions to come back. Later I discovered that these demo activities must usually be booked weeks in advance and furthermore are not provided individually, which they did in my case. They set me up within the loom, as shown in the photo, which had been prepared in advance to allow one to make a silk coaster using the yuki-tsumagi technique. You can see the correspondingly narrow width of the weft in the image. Furthermore, the weft threads consist of a group of maybe a dozen threads wound together. In the traditional weaving, threads are placed one at a time. Grouping the threads allows one to create the coaster within about an hour. If one were to separate the threads, the same work would require more than a dozen hours, to produce one 10 cm by 10 cm coaster.

I am sitting inside the jibata loom with the belt harness tied around my back, and the work in front of me. My right foot is also held inside a cloth sling underneath (hidden in the photo) and this is used to raise and lower the shed each time to weave advances. There are two beaters in the process used to tamp down the weave and create a dense structure, the wooden beater one can see in the middle, and the shuttle itself (shown on the next table at the back) which is flat and is also used to tamp down the weave.

Furthermore, the weaver, whose name was Imaizumi Akiko, a relatively young woman, stood beside me the whole time I was working to help me remember the different steps, along with another woman from the museum. So I was coached through the entire process. The hour just shot by. I choose when to change colours and how many rows of each colour to weave, so the final coaster is, indeed, my own creation. Note that Imaizumi was very private, which I totally respected and I was careful to take no photos of her.

Now, I need to explain that although I have been saying that this was the yuki-tsumagi technique, in fact the name refers to a much lengthier and more complex process of which the weaving itself is but one of the final stages. The process as a whole involves sorting the silk cocoon to remove rougher threads, particular techniques for spinning (the thread is not twisted as is usually done in spinning), marking and dyeing. The sorting is worth highlighting, since it is what leads to the wonderfully soft feel of the textiles woven in this way. The thread is "marked" by tying threads to it in particular patterns, then dipping the thread in the dyes, and finally removing the ties so that the points where the ties were located now have a different colour. This is how the intricate patterns are generated in the finished weave - the location of the ties are determined before the thread is mounted on the loom using mathematical calculations or practical methods that do the same job (for those in the know, this is similar to Ikat weaving). The comb that is used to manage the threads is also unusually dense. At home on my table loom, I work with combs that are 12 teeth to the inch. The combs used here are 70 teeth to the inch. Indeed, the 10 cm width of the coast still consisted of 200 warp threads, which in my loom would correspond to a width of half a meter! Imagine the time needed just to set up the threads in a full width weave! So the whole thing involves a painstakingly long procedure. The training required to learn and master these diverse practices is therefore itself lengthy in duration - several years, typically. So the young woman weaver who assisted me was in fact someone who had years of training to be able to do this, and the weaving I did was a kind of a cheat, in that it was the penultimate stage of the process. Still, I felt that I had gained some significant insight into the yuki-tsumugi weaving technique. And I adored the experience completely.

The coaster I made using the yuki-tsumugi weaving process on a jibata loom

In order to pursue my artist-in-residence project I have been investigating the possibilities of buying at least a back-strap loom, which is not so expensive, and doing some of that type of weaving so that I can better understand the process. The jibata loom is another issue, although I may know a place were I could borrow or rent one in Japan. So the project is taking shape.

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