Japan: String and yarn

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Japan with my beloved, who had a fortnight long work commitment in Kyoto.  I took annual leave and went for the ride.

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If I’d had the chance to choose where to go, I might have chosen Kyoto. It is a historical wonder even in Japan.  It was not bombed and has retained ancient sites of global significance.  It is one of the textile centres of Japan from historical times into the present.  And it is beautiful.  I had less opportunity to prepare than I would have liked because of my own work commitments.  But I did what I could and since I have not been much of a traveler, I expected to wander about with my mouth open in awe.  Only my attempts to be polite prevented this, and I’m hoping to write a series of posts about this experience, in which some topics will be bigger and some will be smaller, because I was fascinated by small things no less than big ones.

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On our last day in Japan, we went the shrine sale at To-Ji Temple, which is a famous flea market and antiques market. There is a lot to say about this amazing event! But I’m going to begin with the string seller.  There is a link at the end of the post to the very interesting www site for Aoni Textiles given to me by the man in this picture.

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Just quietly, Kyoto was sweltering through record heat the entire time we were there.  Australians know what 39C feels like, and it was at least 39C every day we were there. We had the sad experience of sharing the hottest day Kyoto has ever had.  I hope their media is not like ours and that it was saying CLIMATE CHANGE.  Being in Kyoto did make me think that the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Kyoto surely at least in part because in Kyoto there is much to be lost and therefore much to be gained by concerted international climate action.  Anyway–the man in this picture is hot! And he is selling “string”.

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By the time we found this stall, I’d been to the Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts with our friend (who shared one of the weeks we were there), in which string is an entirely different category to thread that would be used, for example, for weaving garments.  It seemed to encompass things I would think of as rope (for industrial use) as well as things I would think of as strapping or narrow weaving.  But of a quality unknown in most contexts where any of these things are used where I live.  This was (mostly) not string in any sense I have known it. Some of what was on sale here was extremely fine and came with example knitted lace garments. Some was robust and quite thick. Some was plied, quite a bit was singles (not plied). While I don’t doubt the complexity of translation is part of it, and so is my ignorance, I think string is treated with more respect in Japan. I have not seen such quantities of rope made from natural fibres since I was a child, and perhaps not then.

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Some of the fibres on sale seemed to me to be one of the lesser known silks. The cocoons (if indeed I have understood what I was looking at) in the bowl at bottom left in the image above were huge by comparison with those for regular old silkworms, and the yarns made from them were relatively thick and coarse.

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This might be hemp or ramie fibre (and just look at the way it comes wound, with a waist on the “ball”–something I’ve never seen before). After some time with the three of us muddling our way through conversation and speculation, the stall owner put down his fan and pulled out a guide to the fibres he was selling that confirmed some were ramie, some hemp, some banana fibre (but not as I have previously known it), some pineapple leaf fibre–and there was more I was unable to understand, and the pressure of time and heat and the enormity of the flea market. The bunches of strappy materials visible hanging from the canopy in the first image were mostly hemp which I assume was being sold for other people to spin or use for basketry and other crafts/purposes.  But perhaps this is all my imagination!

Should you wish to see more, the www site can be found here. As I write it is in Japanese, and Google translate helps a little but in a poetic rather than an entirely informative way. It is richly illustrated and there are some amazing videos.  There is also an inactive button/link that makes me think they intend to translate into English but haven’t quite got there yet.  So if, like me, you speak English but not Japanese–maybe more will be revealed in the future!

 

17 Comments

Filed under Fibre preparation

17 responses to “Japan: String and yarn

  1. OH WOW! I’ve been to Kyoto twice but have never looked at their textile tradition much, though the second time we did go to the Textile museum, and were with friends who are thoroughly inside textiles with shops for beautiful fabrics and clothes (Mina Perhonen) I was more on the trail of ceramics and it was only a weekend trip … looking forward very much to more …..

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    • I am not sure which textile museum you went to, but they are all really different. And ceramics! What a place to be looking at that tradition–my friend went to the Raku museum on a day when I just couldn’t take any more heat and didn’t go with her–and it sounded utterly amazing.

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  2. Fantastic! Would you believe I bought string from this seller on my first trip to Kyoto in 2006. So pleased to see that he is still selling. I know that time he had silk thread from wild silkworms, some of which came from elsewhere in Asia. Looking forward to hearing more of your travels. BTW the only reason Kyoto wasn’t bombed was that the weather wasn’t favourable – that bombed Nagasaki instead.

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    • Isn’t it hard to believe we both saw the same seller? Hilarious! But good to know he is able to sustain the business (or the person running it can, if it is not him). I heard several different versions of why Kyoto was not bombed and they all turned on caprice: the power of someone who can bomb you, to decide what they will do with that power on any grounds they choose. I’m with Edwin Starr on that one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpWmlRNfLck

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  3. Japanese people show a lot of respect for crafts I think. They do amazing things with kimono scraps for ex

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    • Hello Mchan, thanks of stopping by. I completely agree. I saw many examples of the creative use of kimono scraps as well as resale of all kinds of second hand fabrics from fine silks to boro and sake sacks.

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  4. oooh, how fabulous! I watch NHK television (in English) and they bring all kinds of culture and crafts shows but I’ve never seen anything like this…I am always amazed and envious of the crafts tradition that is still held in such high esteem and nurtured. There are many younger people trying to keep traditions alive by introducing new ideas into the old ways so they retain relevance and don’t die out. It’s sad when you hear that some tradition is down to a few octogenarians or something.
    Looking forward to more of your report!

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    • NHK Television–I will have to investigate if I can find it here. I have had no joy finding knitting on Netflix 🙂 Everywhere we were looking for or looking at traditional crafts, people were talking about concern for their future, in Japan too. But the reverence for materials and skills in Japan was just so evident. More to come!

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      • ok, now I feel I should add a disclaimer: the shows are sometimes rather “doofy.” (dopey/goofy). I think it’s maybe a translation thing….They do have online content. But considering the level of TV around here, I’ll watch a doofy culture show.

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      • Oh don’t worry about it! I do that too–recommend something and then feel like I have to explain all the reasons someone else might not like it. I am feeling very tired of watching people killing people shows!

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  5. This is a great post, thanks for sharing!
    Those “strings” look so beautiful and well made, they’re a work of beauty ❤
    I look forward to the next posts of your adventures in Japan!

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  6. Rebecca Marsh

    oh my…how completely fascinating!! you have me reconsidering string as a fibre category, you are right we do not value string in Australia. So interesting. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Just the most fascinating post! I went to Kyoto as a child with my grandmother (in the 1960s), and sadly checking out the string makers did not feature on her list of sites to visit … I still remember it as a truly very special place to go to and am looking forward to reading more of your Kyoto posts.

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  8. thank you. Kyoto is high on my bucket list. especially now that I know there is a string seller

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