The Woven Path

Mari Yamaguchi's textiles

When Mari Yamaguchi moved with her husband and daughter to the north coast of California in 2007, she didn't expect to find a path leading back to her native country. Not long after moving, however, she found herself learning to weave and spin and dye, surrounded by weavers who extolled the virtues of Japan's textile culture. Soon she was bound for Okinawa to discover a part of her native culture that she had never known.

Her main destination was the tiny island of Ishigaki, one of the last islands in the Okinawa chain and a mere 80 miles from Taiwan. Mari's college friend, who studied traditional weaving there during the late 1980s, introduced her to the weaving community. Ishigaki has woven textiles from the fiber of the native ramie plant for many centuries, mainly for the production of kimonos for local use. In the seventeenth century, the mainland island of Kyushu took over rule of greater Okinawa and the local textiles were often used as tax payments or gifts for high-level officials. This led to a refinement of the craft and elevated its status.

Only the stalks of the ramie plant are converted to fiber. The freshly-harvested stalks, about three feet long, are first split and then scraped with the shell of a clam. The long fibers are then hung out to dry before being tied together and warped on the loom. There is very little division of labor in these processes, with women performing most of the work.

On Okinawa, the largest island in the archipelago, Mari set out to learn how to process banana fiber (basho) using the methods that the islanders have used for hundreds of years. Upon arrival she was greeted by locals who introduced her to the extensive and close knit community of hand weavers, almost all of whom are women. The warmth of this welcome helped to balance out long hours in the field extracting fibers from the banana plant.

Weavers begin by cutting the banana tree stalks, which are about five inches in diameter, and peeling away the various layers and sorting them into three different grades: the outermost layer is waste, the middle is generally for the making of obi (kimono belts),and the innermost pith, the softest portion, reserved for fabric. These four-foot-long strips are then boiled in water mixed with wood ash, which softens the fiber. The strips of fiber are then scraped with a bamboo tool shaped like a tong that pinches the fiber removes the glutenous plant debris. Torn lengthwise, the fibers are reduced to a few strands which are tied together at the ends and twisted. The fibers are then ready for dying. This work is all performed by the weavers themselves before they warp the loom and begin weaving. There has traditionally been no separation of labor; the weavers themselves do all the processing of the banana plants.

In Shizuoka prefecture, nearer her Tokyo home, Mari participated in a workshop on the processing of kudzu fiber for weaving. Residents of the southern United States may be painfully aware of the kudzu vine; it is a fast growing plant, originally imported from Japan and intended to help reinforce steep earthen banks. The vine has taken over vast tracts of land.

Fabric made from kudzu, while extremely supple and shiny, is not very durable. For this reason it's use in Japan was mainly limited to the ceremonial costumes of samurai and a few religious garments. Occasionally it could be found in room dividers. In the mid-twentieth century kudzu fabric even found its way into commercial wallpaper. Extracting fiber from the vine is tremendously labor-intensive, labor that is performed only in the intense heat of summer; this may account for its lack of popularity. After harvesting the vines they are bundled and then boiled for about an hour in large vats. After cooling, the bundles are placed on the ground and covered for two days of fermentation. When a white paste forms on the vines, they are ready to be rinsed in the river. Lastly, the vines are split into strands, and the vine cores discarded; only the exterior of the vines is used to make threads. The strands are now ready for drying,
dying and weaving.

It goes without saying that practitioners of the traditional, labor-intensive crafts of Japan are struggling to survive. The market for high-quality kimono fabric is all but gone, a decline that has accelerated in the past decade as guilds weaken and government supports, though heroic, disappear. It is ironic that even in rich Japan, many weavers' best hope at subsistence is the western hobbyist. Mari Yamaguchi hopes to build bridges between the vibrant weaving communities of North America and Europe and the increasingly isolated cultures of Japan. Very few opportunities exist for westerners to participate in extended workshops in Japan to learn traditional techniques; logistics and language just do not permit the easy exchange of ideas and people. Hopefully soon it will be as easy for a Kansas weaver to learn banana fiber weaving in Japan as it is to take a course at Penland or Haystack.

Brian Newell is a writer and woodworker. He lives in Northern California.

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