Kasuri is a Japanese form of ikat. It is only practiced by a handful of highly skilled weavers who have been granted the status of ‘Living National Treasures’. The kasuri they weave is incredibly expensive and used mainly for luxury kimonos. For Autumn, although we were unable to create our own kasuri cloth, we have worked with skilled weavers to produce a double ikat check inspired by the kasuri pattern of an old kimono. Here, Catherine Legrand tells us a little more about this ancient technique and the crafstmen who practice it…
In Japan kasuri is everywhere. It is the pattern on the kimono supplied by the hotel, on the small floor cushions in the bedroom, on the napkin under the teapot, on the table set at the yakotori restaurant and on the short curtains covering the facades of shops.
It might not be authentic kasuri – that is kasuri hand woven and dyed with true indigo – but these printed or mechanically produced versions still reflect its cultural significance; from the Edo period to today it remains (in the countryside at least) the pattern of choice.
It was invented, or so the legend says, by a young Japanese girl, Den Inoue, at the end of the Edo period. The twelve-year-old Den, who lived in Kurume, on the island of Kyushu, apparently noticed some small white irregularities in her weaving and decided to turn the defect into a decorative device. She went on to perfect the technique, teaching it to a number of apprentice weavers who taught it to others in return. And from there the pattern grew...
Today the Kurume region remains the main centre for kasuri production in Japan and although there are only a few small workshops left they are highly thought of. These weavers, who still adhere to the old traditions, have been granted the status of 'Living National Treasures'.
Shoji Yamamura is one such weaver. Despite the impressive title, he is friendly and obliging – anything but intimidating. He works with his wife Koga, his seventy-year-old mother Fumiko, herself an excellent weaver, and his two apprentices. He is following in the footsteps of his father, a kasuri master craftsmen, although his own daughters have chosen different professions.
In adhering to the old traditions Shoji uses skeins of natural cotton, damp hemp fibres (to tie the cotton) and natural sukumo (indigo) produced on the nearby Shikoku island. The hand weaving is carried out on narrow looms, with the weft never exceeding 40cm and the warp measuring around 12 metres. One kimono needs 12 metres of cloth - this takes Shoji two months on average to weave by hand. It goes without saying that such a time-consuming process comes at a cost!
Shoji’s traditional-style house is situated next to a large, modern work-shop dedicated to weaving and sewing. The dye studio is in an older adjoining building. Between the houses is a plot where courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes and peppers grow, along with a few cotton plants and a bed of Polyonum tinctorium (dyer’s knotweed – the plant that produces the indigo dye). A nearby river provides the water for rinsing the yarn and the cloth.
Shoji is always trotting back and forth between these various workshops, juggling the three activities of tying, dyeing and weaving. Each operation requires great skill and each must flow seamlessly into the next.
The main image is of a jacket made from kasuri. The two inset images show a kimono made from pieces of kasuri, worn by Shoji's mother and dyed threads, ready to be woven. Images courtesy of Catherine Legrand.
Shoji's respect for the craft is clear and yet there has always been a reverence for kasuri. In old Japan each swatch of fabric was cherished and sought after - a worn out kimono would never be thrown away, instead it would be be cut up and re-used to patch other garments and quilts. Even today Japanese women still seek out these increasingly precious pieces of kasuri to create their own patchwork items...
The two ikat pieces from Pre-Collection that were inspired by this age-old patterning process are the Ikat Check Shirt Dress and the Ikat Check Kyoto Top.
Words by Catherine Legrand. Author of Indigo: The Colour That Changed The World, published by Thames and Hudson, www.in-di-go.fr.
This story on Kasuri is the second in a series of stories – under the title The Holy Variety of Everything – that we’ll be telling through this late summer, autumn and winter. These stories will celebrate the varied cultures, traditions and crafts that have blended, in one way or another, into this season’s collection.
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