14 January 2014

Hidden splendor - Beni Itajime silk textiles

Floral design created with safflower dye; pink accents added after primary dyebath.

When we think about extinction, we tend to focus on organisms in the plant and animal kingdoms - passenger pigeons and the Carolina parakeet, long gone from American skies, for example - but extinction occurs in textile history too.  There is now no living practitioner of the surface design tradition known as beni itajime, a resist dyeing technique involving folding and clamping silk fabric between carved boards.  The brilliant orange color is imparted by safflower dye, or beni.  Yes, safflower, not saffron, and one of the most precious dyestuffs in the pre-modern dyer's palette.  Beginning in 1875 synthetic dyes displaced the expensive natural safflower dye.

Saffron colorant, with small cosmetics bowls stained orange by the dye.

Our 2012 tour leader, artist and researcher Yoshiko Wada, and her international associates, are doing their best to record, preserve and even recreate bygone fiber arts. This quest led us to the home of Mrs. Yoshimura, of Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture, who generously shared her family's collection of fabrics and artifacts from the Yoshimura Dye-Works archive. In addition, researcher and textile engineer Masanao Arai gave us a presentation on the research and dyeing experiments he and Yoshiko presented to the Textile Society of American in 2010.

We drove up hours late due to our packed schedule, but Mrs. Yoshimura could not have been more gracious, in her beautiful kimono and iris-patterned obi sash. The Yoshimura Dye-Works, owned by Mrs. Yoshimura's family and the last of its species, so to speak, made beni-itajime from 1889 until the concern closed in 1932. With two helpers, our hostess, on the left in the image below, demonstrated the use of this special fabric in juban, a under-kimono worn as a layer beneath the outermost garment.

Lifting up outer kimono to show flash of under-kimono.

I won't even pretend to understand the intricacies of historical Japanese costume, but suffice to say that there are a lot of layers involved in kimono-wearing and that beni-itajime fabric was used in the construction of the layer beneath the outermost kimono. When the wearer moved, however modest and sedate the design of her outer kimono,  a flash of the bright orange would be revealed. It's as if the wearer is stating "Yes, I'm a perfectly demure lady on the outside, but there's more to me than meets the eye."  How sexy is that? Once you know to look for the fabric, you'll often find a glimpse of tell-tale reddish-orange in many 19th-century wood block prints of stylish women.

Under-kimono featuring beni-itajime in crane design on display.

So, how was this wonderful fabric made? Most of the tradition was handed down orally, so written contemporary accounts of the process are minimal. Mr. Arai proved to be a Sherlock Holmes of silk, however, and after many attempts, was able to recreate the fabric.

The process goes something like this:

First, carve six pairs of wooden boards with an identical, but mirror-image design, so that here are "left-hand" and "right-hand" boards.  The registration of the designs must be perfect. The length of each board equals the width of the thin silk fabric used for beni-itajime.

Mr. Arai with left-hand and right-hand carved boards of crane design.

Next, lacquer the boards, except for the edges and a spot in the middle. The lacquer  keeps the grain of the wood from swelling, ensuring a nice crisp design, and prevents the boards from absorbing the dye. Next, soak the boards in water for two weeks; this makes the boards more pliable, for easier clamping. 

Left, carved board with dye-stained, unlacquered spot; right, carving in progress.

Next, take a length - several yards - of fine, thin silk fabric.  Accordion-fold it into four layers.  The width of the layers is the same as the width of the boards.  Place four layers of folded fabric on a board, carved side up. Then put the mirror-image board on top of the layers, carved side down.   Continue with the remainder of the length - folding and placing the fabric between board pairs -  until the length of fabric is folded and inter-leaved with six pairs of matching boards (twelve boards total.)

Mrs. Yoshimura folds fabric and places it between mirror-image boards.

Finally, once the sandwich of folded fabric and board pairs is complete, the whole assembly is clamped and moistened thoroughly. Then dye is poured between the edges of the boards. Where the matching boards clamp the fabric, the dye cannot penetrate, and those areas stay white.

In the olden days, the layers would have been tightly wedged into a wooden frame with shims.  To make the "new" beni itajime fabric, Mr. Arai used a modern jig set-up.

Mrs. Yoshimura and helpers with antique carved boards.

Stack of board pairs and folded fabric.

Poster of process.

In lieu of an actual dyeing demonstration - not possible in Mrs Yoshimura's home -  Mr. Arai displayed a very informative poster of the process, showing dye being ladled over the clamped fabric-and-board assembly.

Close-up of hot dye being poured over clamped assembly of fabric and boards.

The historic process. Source: www.trocadero.com/haruko/

Fabric and the board used for the fabric's design.

Beni itajime fabrics.

In some of the fabrics, it's fairly easy to distinguish the "repeat" or the area of fabric that was folded between one  pair of boards. In other designs, however, the design appears almost seamless, so cleverly does the pattern mask the fact that the fabric was folded into segments.

The boards themselves are beautiful artifacts and feature designs full of meaning and symbolism, such as cranes for longevity, the hemp plant for health and well-being, and the sakura, or cherry blossom, emblematic of the fleeting beauty of life.  While the layers are largely hidden from the view of the outside observer, the woman wearing the safflower-dyed juban has carefully chosen and arranged her ensemble, enveloping herself in tiers of meaning and beauty.

Carved boards with iris, hemp and peony designs.

Antique garment made using beni itajime.

As shown in the image above, pink could be added to enliven the basic orange and white. I'm not sure if this involved additional folding and clamping or if some other method was used.

Hats off to Wada-san and Arai-san for their investigative and artistic skills and their tenacity - it took over twenty attempts to create a new piece of beni itajime as they re-discovered the historic process.

The bottom fabric imitates the shibori technique.

In our sock feet, we admire the yardage.

I love anything flavored by green tea.

Mrs. Yoshimura and her assistants prepared a delightful snack for us.  She also showed us her own artwork; below are Mrs. Yoshimura's hand-dyed fabrics. A truly lovely lady.

Mrs. Yoshimura shares her beautiful creations.

Although beni itajime is not as well known as some other Japanes textile traditions, there is a study group, Takasaki-Beni-no-Kai, and we did see a collection in the town of Kiryu, another town with a history of silk production in Gunma Prefecture  There has been one major recent exhibit of these fabrics and garments, at the National Museum of Japanese History, in 2010, and the museum has more images of juban on its website.

Private collection of beni itajime garments, Kiryu.