Fibre art & textiles exhibitions in Kyoto May 2023

kyoto exhibitionA table full of textiles, fashion and craft exhibition leaflets at the Kawashima textile school

While Tokyo’s art museums and galleries regularly hosts major contemporary art and design exhibitions, Kyoto is THE place to visit if you are interested in traditional Japanese crafts and textiles. When I was staying at the Kawashima textile school, my weaving classmates and I would take the opportunity to see the various textiles exhibitions in the city on the weekends.

One of the most mesmorising exhibitions that we saw was ‘Fiber art by Fifteen’, showcasing extraordinary fibre art works by 15 Japanese fibre artists. Although fibre art became an international movement in the 1960s-70s, its ambiguity also became a hindrance and most people don’t know how to define or classify it. Is it textile art? Craft? Sculptural textile? Conceptual art? For decades, the term ‘fibre art’ seems a bit dated, and fibre artists were not considered as real ‘artists’ except for Sheila Hicks. However, in recent years, the perception on fibre art has changed and it is being taken more seriously. At last. This fibre art exhibition introduced us to 15 contemporary Japanese fibre artists, who use textiles and washi to creat unique and beautiful sculptural or 2-dimensional pieces.

fiber art exhibition  chieko maedashigeo kubotaTop right: Chieko Maeda; Bottom: Shigeo Kubota

tetsuo kusamatatsumi ushioai itohiroko ote  hiroko oteTop: Tetsuo Kusama; 2nd row: Tatsumi Ushio; 3rd row: Ai Ito; bottom row: Hiroko Ote

I was particularly impressed by Kazuyo Onoyama (born in 1951 in Tokushima)’s fibre feather as each one looks so delicate and light… her works look stunning both from afar and up close!

Kazuyo OnoyamaKazuyo OnoyamaKazuyo OnoyamaKazuyo Onoyama

On the top of Daimaru department store, there was a rare chance to see ‘The 57th Japan Traditional arts exhibition 2023’ exhibiting splendid traditional kimono that showcase different techniques like kasuri, katazomi and yuzen etc.

kimono  kimonoThe Daimaru award was awarded to the artisan who made this Kurume Kasuri kimono, which is traditional technique that dates back over 200 years, and recognised as an important intangible cultural property of Japan.

kimono  kimono

kimono  kimono

We also visited Musee de Some Seiryu, the world’s first museum dedicated to contemporary dye art works. The exhibition we saw featured abstract dyed textile pieces by textile artist, Motono Toichi (1916- 1996). Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside, but it was interesting to see the modern textile art pieces by a Japanese textile artists who is not less well-known in the West.

motono toichiMotono Toichi exhibition

Another interesting museum nearby is Hosotsuji Ihee Museum, a museum dedicated to tenugui/ a traditional hand (or multipurpose) cloth. The museum is named after the fabric merchant Hosotsuji Ihee, who established one of Japan’s oldest continuously running businesses, Eirakuya, in 1615. Initially dealing in silk fabrics, Eirakuya eventually shifted to selling cotton as it became more and more popular in Japan and still has 9 shops in Kyoto.

In 2018, the Eirakuya company opened the Museum to showcase the diverse art and craftsmanship of tenugui as well as to archive the history of the shop. It exhibits Eirakuya’s past designs and offers a glimpse into its history, as well as into the future of the art. The exhibition we saw was called ‘Modern girls’ and it featured some wonderful art deco style illustrations on the tenugui. There is also a shop on the ground floor that sells many interesting tenugui with contemporary illustrations.

Hosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee Museum  Hosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee MuseumHosotsuji Ihee Museum


Kyoto’s textile heritage: Kawashima textile museum & kasuri in Nishijin

Kawashima textile museumkawashima textile schoolKawashima textile museum

One reason I love Kyoto is that it is full of hidden gems, and there are always pleasant surprises whenever I visit. One of the least touristy museums in Kyoto has to be the Kawashima textile museum partly due to its distance from the centre, but also down to the fact that prebooking necessary for the visit. After our 2 week course, we were granted a guided tour of the Kawashima textile factory followed by a museum tour near the school. It was a real privilege to visit the factory to see how the large-scale tapestries were designed and produced. I was particularly impressed by a room full of vintage and Jacquard looms, even though they are now dormant.

The Kawashima Selkon Textiles company was founded in 1843, and The Kawashima Textile Museum opened in 1889 is the oldest company museum in Japan. One of the missions that Kawashima Selkon Textile company aimed to achieve was to continue to contribute to development of textile culture by preserving and educating the public on the history of textile crafts and techniques. In order to achieve this goal, the company constructed the Ichihara plant in 1964 handled by 4th Jimbei Kawashima, which includes the factory, office, museum and school with dormitory.

kawashima textile schoolKawashima textile museumKawashima textile museum

Opened under the name Museum of Art Specimens, the museum exhibits masterfully-woven textiles produced by the company over the last 170 years, as well as historic textile artifacts and exhibits. There are over 150,000 items in the museum, ranging from dyed and woven textiles, 7th Century textile artworks (jodai-gire), historically notable works (meibutsu-gire), Chinese fabrics, Coptic fabrics, traditional costumes, books and drawings. In recent years, the company has also collaborated with renowned international designers to produce new home furnishings and furniture. During our visit, there was an exhibition on the new collaboration, which were exhibited at the Milan design week.

The following day, we headed to Nishijin, Kyoto’s famed historic textile district to visit Kasai kasuri atelier specialising in kasuri (). Kasuri is a form of double ikat dyeing, which creates splashed patterns characterised by their blurred edges ( ‘kasuri’ means blurring) on the textiles. Originated in ancient India, the history of kasuri dates back to 5th century Kyoto in the Nishijin district where local weavers worked.

Currently, double ikat is practised in only three countries in the world: India, Indonesia and Japan. Unlike single ikat, the warp and weft are both resist-tied according to a specific design and, when woven, intermesh seamlessly to reveal the pattern. Hence, the process of preparing the warp and weft yarns for dyeing demands the same degree of mathematical precision as the process of weaving the textile on the loom. In 2019, I visited Patan in Gujarat, which is famous for Patola, a double ikat woven sari, usually made from silk. At the Patan Patola museum, aside from demonstrations and exhibits on the locally made textiles, there were also double ikat textiles from Indonesia and kasuri textiles on display. This shows that the curators at the museums view kasuri and Indonesian ikat textiles on par with their intricate Patola textiles.

nishijin  nishijinkasai kasuri nishijinThe kasai kasuri atelier is located in the historic Nishijin textile district

Sadly, like many traditional crafts around the globe, the craftsmandship of kasuri is under threatened due to less demands for kimono and obi, aging artisans and fewer young people wanting to learn a craft that is time-consuming and requires meticulous care as well as precision. Now one of the ‘youngest’ (middle-aged) artisan working in Nishijin is Ikuko Kasai, who is determined to preserve and pass on the invaluable craftsmanship that has been passed on for centuries.

We felt very grateful to have spent the afternoon at the atelier learning about the process of kasuri. In Nishijin, each artisan specialises in only one task, hence they all have to collaborate together to create the kimono or obi piece. Usually a custom-made kimono would take around 6 months and 20 artisans to complete, which explains the high price tag. At her atelier, Kasai san is responsible for the marking and wrapping of the yarn to be resist-dyed at a differenet dye studio. After the initial dyeing process, the dyed yarn returns to her studio again for a second wrapping, and this process can be repeated multiple times depending on the colours on the design. After the dyeing process, the dyed threads are spunned around a drum-like machine called Taiko (see below). The next stage is called ‘hamekomi’ when the threads are counted and arranged according to the design. The last stage involves the threads are hung on a machine called ‘hashigo’ (meaning ladder – see below), and passing through metal rods at various height, so that the horizontal lines are shifted vertially to create the unique kasuri patterns. The finished yarn is then ready to be shipped to the weavers to be woven.

kasai kasuri kasai kasuri  kasai kasurikasai kasurikasai kasuri  kasai kasurikasai kasurikasai kasuri  kasai kasuri

One thing really struck me during and after the visit, and it was Kasai san’s immense passion for her craft and her determination to pass on the craftsmanship. She was always smiling while explaing her work and techniques, but I am sure her road has not been easy so far. With dwindling orders for custom-made kimono and obi, the presevation of the heritage and craftsmanship is crucial for the Nishijin craftsmen/ artisans. Undoubtedly, they have a tough road ahead of them, but I think with the resurgence of traditional crafts like shibori, natural dyeing and weaving etc in recent years, there is hope for things to change.


Beginners weaving course at Kawashima Textile school 2023

kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  kawashima textile school

It is early June 2024, exactly a year after I completed the 2-week beginners weaving course at Kawashima Textile school in Kyoto, and I decided to share my experience one year on. One reason why I stopped updating the blog was because it is a very time-consuming task, and due to the pandemic, my life (like everyone else’s) changed drastically. Once I lost the incentive/ momentum/ habit, it is rather difficult to pick it up again. However, lately I have been thinking that it would be a shame not to share my experriences, especially my craft journey in Japan over last spring/summer.

The 3-month trip to Japan was originally planned for spring/summer 2020, but sadly it got postponed due to the pandemic. The Kawashima Textile school is a well-known vocational school in Kyoto that specialises in weaving. Every spring and autumn, it accepts only 5 international students onto their weaving courses out of hundreds of applicants. I was thrilled when I was got accepted, so it was particularly disaappointing when the school decided to stop the all the courses due to the pandemic. I refused to get a refund and opted to wait three years, which seemed to impress the teachers/admin of the school! Before the course, I knew very little about weaving and have only done some Saori/ free style weaving, which is quite different from traditional weaving. Shockingly, despite being the oldest person out of the 5 students, I was also the one with the least experience, which was a hindrance for me.

kawashima textile school  kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  kawashima textile school

Founded in 1973 by Kawashima Textile Manufacturers Ltd to commemorate the 130th anniversary of the company, the school is one of the oldest textile academies in Asia. The internationally-renowned Kawashima Selkon Textiles (the company changed its name in 2006) is a fabric manufacturer founded in Kyoto in 1843, and it is particularly known for its tsuzure-weaving techniques used for large-scale stage curtains. Secludedly located in the suburbs North of Kyoto, the factory, school and museum (appointment only) are largely tourist-free, with only one small supermarket and one konbini near the railway station.

Surrounded by by mountains and beautiful nature, the school and dormitory were designed by renowned Japanese architect Shozo Uchii, and was warded with the Building Contractors Society Prize in 1975. The weaving room up in the main school looks absoultely splendid with row after row of vintage looms and equipment. Most of the tools that we used are original/vintage items and rare to find these days. Hence it was a real privileged to be able to stay and study in this environment and get acquianted with some local textile students.

kawashima textile school  kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school

Over two weeks, we learned to dye woollen yarn using acid dye (not my usual preference, but I guess it is ok for this occasion), set up the large loom (which takes over a day), read the charts and weave some basic patterns. It all sounds pretty simple, but I found out that it is really not as simple as it sounds!

A lot of my friends were curious to know my reason for doing this course. I have never thought of learning to weave until I saw a few natural dyers who could weave too. It made me think that perhaps I could dye and weave by myself in the future (very idealistic). Also I enjoyed some saori weaving previously, so I thought I would make sense to learn the basics.

It turned out that I am completely hopeless at weaving and tying knots! I am a right-brained person, and I reckon that weaving is more suitable for people who are logical and diligent (which I am not). I never knew that setting up the loom would be so time-consuming – it requires a lot of concentration and meticulous care. After making a few mistakes while threading, I had to redo it all over again, which was very frustrating. Even while weaving, my threads constantly got tangled, and the more I tried to untangle, the worse it became, so I ended up spending hours after dinner in the weaving room trying to fix my mistakes.

kawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile schoolkawashima textile school  woven scarf

After struggling for 2 weeks, I finally completely the 2 pieces thanks to Emma sensei’s patience and teachings, and I even received a certificate for it. Thankfully, I did not enroll onto the kasuri (double weaving) course right after, because I was told by my classmates that it was very complicated and even they struggled with it.

Despite it all, I am glad that I took the course and learned the basics of weaving, meanwhile I realised that weaving is not for me as I much prefer freestyle weaving, natural/indigo dyeing, shibori or block printing. However, it was interesting to spend three weeks staying in the suburbs of Kyoto exploring places that I normally would not visit if I was staying in the city centre.

IchiharaichiharaIchiharaichiharaimg_3559-minIchihara  eizan railway img_3559-mineizan railway  eizan railwayeizan railwayeizan railway

Ichihara is a quiet suburban town reachable via bus or the Eizan railway from the centre of Kyoto. The railway line ends in Kurama, a popular day trip destination for visiting the sacred Mount Kurama and its famous temples. The train journey is very scenic, with some special scenic trains and a maple tree tunnel, which I believe would like spectacular in autumn. Interestingly, the seating inside some trains were woven by Kawashima textile company, and I even spotted some small ‘photo-like’ woven tapestries at the Ichihara train station. It is easy to miss them as they look like ordinary sightseeing photos (see above)!

ichihara shrineichihara temple  ichihara templeichihara shrineichihara shrineThe Daijingu-sha Shrine behind the railway station

Ichiharaichiharamaple leavesmaple leavesichiharaichiharaichihara  ichihara

Over the three weeks, my classmates and I would spend the weekends exploring either the city or its surrounding area. On weekdays, I would sometimes go for walks around the town after dinner. Since the town is located in the mountainous region, with Kurama river running through it, it is very tranquil as few Kyotojin would visit this area, let alone tourists.

I think the school has certainly picked the right location for its students as there isn’t much to do in the surrounding area, but nature is plentiful, thus very inspiring for the students. Sadly I learned that local students (especially male) who apply for the weaving courses have been dwindling in recent years as less youngsters are interested in becoming full-time weavers in this day and age. There are exchange programmes with schools overseas, and students can also get apprenticeship/jobs at the factory, but I am not sure if these are ‘appealing’ enough for them. I know that the school also runs short courses on weaving and natural dyeing for the locals, so I hope that these would help promote the school and the craft of weaving. It would be a real shame to lose the school as it is part of Kyoto’s craft heritage, and it needs to be preserved for future generations.

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