A long, decorative piece of textile is hanging from a bamboo rail. Stepping closer, you see that the patterns against the blue background are, in fact, blurred and hologram-like. You turn the cotton piece around, only to discover an identical pattern on the opposite side. Suddenly it all makes sense: nothing has been printed or sewn to the surface, rather, the shapes were weaved into the fabric. This is Kurume Kasuri, the renowned Japanese cotton ikat.
With support from the local government and the Kurume Kasuri Cooperative Association, Fukuoka Now launched its second tour of weaving and dyeing workshops in the Chikugo area of Fukuoka Prefecture. The group’s members ranged from experts in textile to tourists of diverse nationalities (Australian, American, Scottish, Finnish, German, Indian, Vietnamese, New Zealand, and Filipino), ready for the lessons of this kasuri-themed study trip.
Our first stop was at Ikeda Kasuri Kobo. This family business has been in operation for three generations and continues to adopt the traditional technique for making kasuri. First developed in the late 19th century, one of the main uses of kasuri was to make kimono. To ease the process, the finished textile is typically 38 cm wide, so that four pieces exactly form the right width for a kimono. However, following the fall of wearing traditional clothing on a daily basis, kimono made of Kurume kasuri has become rare and is sure to catch eyes today.
The basic process of making kasuri begins from decoding the design of a pattern to a binary “formula”. Bundles of cotton threads are then tied at certain lengths according to this formula. When dyeing the tied bundles into indigo, the exposed sections absorb the colour, while the tied sections remain white. Feeding the un-tied, ready thread to the looms, we see patterns emerge as weaving goes on. The full process is much more complicated than that, entailing over 30 steps, which you can read more about here. The technology is intriguing, considering how much of the success of the final piece depends on the thread. It needs to be dyed perfectly and must not break during the weaving process. This is why having a skilled weaver so important.
We had an opportunity to try sit at some manual looms, and I quickly realized how hard it was to control the tightness of the fabric and to maintain a regular rhythm. No wonder it takes five to ten years of training to become a professional weaver.
Besides finding workers skilled to run the looms, maintaining the old machines is also challenging. According to Mr. Ikeda, his looms were manufactured by a Toyota automobile group company back in the sixties. However, following the later decline in the demand for traditional textiles, the supply of mechanical looms also decreased.
At the workshop, we also had an opportunity to dye our a bandanna. Having seen some examples on the bus, each of us wrapped a white piece of linen into a parcel using rubber bands, chopsticks and strings. While at the workshop, we then dipped these parcels into the 1.2 m deep dyeing vats. Initially, the colour is green, but it turns blue when the fabric exposed to oxygen. We dipped the parcel many times and beat it against a stone surface to ensure the color reach all parts of the linen. One of the exciting aspects of dyeing is that you can never fully anticipate the end result, and each turned out as unique as the person who made it. My parcel was wrapped rather tightly around the chopsticks, resulting to a light blue pattern, while others obtained darker shades of blue.
After the workshop, we headed for lunch at Ekubo. We had a traditional kaiseki-style set of appetizers with over 10 different items, beef served on a sizzling hot plate and a pudding topped with peanut powder. It was a colorful meal full of Japanese flavours.
Our next stop was at the sake brewery Hana no Tsuyu, (dew of the flower). The brewery has been in operation for 273 years, and is currently lead by the 13th generation of the family. We were shown many of steps behind sake brewing, beginning with growing koji, the special mould used in the fermentation process. The koji room was pleasantly warm; in the 48 hours when koji is formed, the brewers would come every few hours to check the temperature and add blankets appropriate for the season.
Elsewhere in the brewery, we saw some large structures used for washing rice and tried mixing a giant pot of finished sake with a bamboo pole. We could also sniff the aroma of some fruity sake types fermented under low temperature. To complete the tour, we gathered in the shop to taste some bottled sake and alcohol-free amazake. The timing seemed perfect, just after the lunch break.
Leaving behind the brewery, we proceeded to the town of Hirokawa to visit three more kasuri workshops. Interestingly, the owners of the workshops all share the surname Yamamura, pointing towards the long tradition of kasuri-making in the area. We saw how dyed thread was separated from the bundles, learned about the organic ashes used for dyeing and viewed some semi-automated looms at work. Two of the workshops also had a display of kasuri products, varying from traditional-style clothing to furnishing and modern accessories. In the setting of a traditional Japanese room, the classy textiles seemed to bring us back to the golden days of kasuri.
Overall, the Kurume kasuri tour was a great way to delve deeper into this traditional art form which is struggling to remain viable in an ever changing world. There were many hands-on experiences which those who are into crafts would probably enjoy. The supply chain for kasuri also employs artisans specialized in tying and making final products, which would make another interesting study topic.
Report by Ludi Wang
February 3, 2018
Join our next tour to Chikugo! (Feb. 24, 2018)
In this tour we’ll introduce you to many of Chikugo’s specialty products such as Kurume kasuri, Yame tea, and Buddhist altars. We’ll visit a beautiful temple with a picturesque garden and a factory producing hanten, a traditional Japanese garment. For lunch, we’ll enjoy dishes made with Yame’s seasonal ingredients! Click here.