Pause for a moment and watch the American textile artist Ana Lisa Hedstrom turn airy slips of cloth into paradaisical wreaths of art. That's her job: she is one of the world's leading shibori designers. She does this by wrapping, folding, and tightly compressing a textile (silk, usually) around a large piece of PVC pipe, then dyeing it. The parts that are not compressed take the color. The compressed parts "resist" the dye. Then the piece is unfolded, washed, and once again compressed and dyed again, at a slightly different angle and with a different color. Keep at it, as Ana Lisa does, and one ends up with a piece of cloth that looks like a window into paradise.
Ana Lisa, along with nearly 100 other textile artists featured in Memory on Cloth, all work within this sharply delineated subset of Japan's marvelous craftwork of cloth. Shibori is the Japanese word for resist-dyeing. There are three shibori techniques: tie-dye (those Sixties acid-emulating tee-shirts); clamp-resist (being pressed between two boards, or tied tightly around an object as Ana Lisa does with PVC pipe), and wax-resist (batik). It is an extremely old technique, perhaps the first to impose upon cloth a pattern that wasn't woven there. Fragments of shibori-like textiles date from as far back as 700 BCE.
Japan never made a distinction between craft and art. Indeed, even in the West that demarcation arose only over the last few hundred years as a manifestation of the post-Renaissance preoccupation with specialness. In Japan the absence of distinction was not because the Japanese shunned egocentrism, but because of their tendency to focus on process more than product. The Japanese Zen gardens of raked stones, for example, are Exhibit A in contemplative surrender to process. Shibori is an elegant record of the maker's sense of higher purpose, in a medium that serves as a permanent record of the journey into creativity. If that isn't a useful definition of art, what is?
Like so many arts that globalization salvaged at the edge of extinction, shibori inspired a modern revival laden with legend. The history of Japanese textiles is stuttery, stepping back one moment, leaping forward the next, the artists either appropriating or inventing as chance comes their way. The result is a continually evolving collaboration between past and future. Today's mingling of synthetic and natural fibers, organics and metals, hand and machine, are in keeping with the try-anything heritage of the country's garments.
Purely Japanese textiles date from as far as the Yayoi period (200 BCE250 ACE). Yayoi people wove garments on portable looms. The making of cloth depended not so much on the mass of the wearer's body as on how the movement of the wearer's body will determine what the loom must do. In Yayoi times, weavers used portable looms that could be easily set up by tying one set of warp ends around the waist and the other to a tree. The weaver's body width fixed the width of the fabric. That most Yayoi textiles were about twelve inches wide says much about the size of the Yayois.
Japan did not embrace clothing as an expression of social delineation until the Asuka period (552645). This was an era when Chinese crafts and customs were eagerly imported. Over the centuries, surface designs became steadily more complex as clothing silhouettes became steadily more simple. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the import of Europe design, colors, and fabrics stimulated surface design even more. But with the xenophobic policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate, all things Western were abruptly ejected and shunned. The Japanese turned inward to their own tastes and aesthetics. By the Edo period (16001868), complex layerings of color, patterns, and resist dyes all contributed to a great culmination of textile design.
Into the canons of design came surface complexity ranging from colors so saturated they dazzle the eye to so subtle they are almost indistinguishable. The big picture of Japanese textile art embraces a dozen or more dyeing techniques, embroidery and appliqué, painted pictures, hammered gold and silver patterns, and calligraphy. Out of these chirped an aviary of decor -- plum blossoms, pine boughs, flowers on trellises, rice sheaves, snowflakes, paired shells, swallowtail butterflies, quince flowers, waves, interlocked squares, medallions of chrysanthemum and wisteria and gentian, cranes, lightning, hemp leaves, scrolls of peony, woven circles, basket work, fish scales, mountains, clouds, flowing water, waves, checkerboards, circles.
In the wrong hands such a tumultuous vocabulary would end in chaos. But from the great costumes of the Noh to the hundreds of treatises on kimono design to be found in Japanese bookstores and libraries today, there always exists in Japanese textile style a more fundamental quality: drama. It is no surprise to find that the garment's greatest period of elaboration came after it was adopted as the principle costume by groups of itinerant entertainers who were slowly creating what became one of the most enduring of Japanese theatrical styles, the Noh.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese and Europeans realized the value of Edo garments and began to collect them. In turn, Japanese costume influenced Europe, even turning up in Van Gogh and Gaugin paintings. European fashion designers, though, were less enthused with Japanese garments. Paco Rabanne and Ted Lapidus in Paris used shibori in some of their collections, but Japan's great treasury of surface design has hardly been touched.
The Memory on Cloth story begins after World War II. Before the War, textiles and garments were major engines of Japan's economy -- the equivalent of transistor products and autos today. The quaint, consuming, painstaking art of shibori was nearly extinct by the 1960s. Modernity-craving Japanese put their old kimonos into the tansu for good and bought Missoni and Prada and The Gap. Shibori's spiritual home, in Arimatsu and Narumi on Honshu island, was ignored even by the railways, which built no sidings there for the very few fabric dyers left to load their goods.
Despite this, by 1972, one of Japan's oldest and most influential industries had sunk to only two living practitioners. Yet, like so many arts that were bootstrapped up from extinction by globalization (there is, after all, a good side to it) shibori was turned around. Today it is an internationally recognized art form.
Nowadays shibori is used mainly to create surface patterns on cloth and to stiffen fabric so it moves with a kind of flexible slink. As defined by Memory on Cloth, shibori is a process that leaves a "memory" on cloth -- a permanent record in pattern or texture of the particular method of resist used. Venturing well beyond traditional methods, the book delves into high-tech processes like heat-set on polyester (made famous by Issey Miyake's spectacular pleated clothing); melt-off on metallic fabric; techniques of fulling and felting that transform limp natural fabrics into three-dimensional shapes; weaving resist (in which a warp thread is pulled tightly to clench part the cloth and so resist dye); and devorée ("devoured"), in which one component of a mixed-fiber fabric is dissolved with chemicals. Of the latter, the book spends a good amount of space describing the ideas and techniques of Jun'ichi Arai, Japan's foremost, and most innovative, textile designer.
The range of vibrant modern art covered in Memory on Cloth is remarkable. There is work by artists from Africa, South America, Europe, India, Japan, China, Korea, the USA, and Australia. It encompasses fabric design, wearable art and fashion, and textile art or various sculptural forms. Both depicted and described are works by more than seventy innovative designers including Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Jurgen Lehl, Jun'ichi Arai, Helene Soubeyran, Genevieve Dion, Asha Sarabhai, Junco Sato Pollack, Ana Lisa Hedstrom, Marian Clayden, and Carter Smith. Each artist shares details on the processes that they themselves have created, making this an invaluable reference for artists in fields outside of textile design. Non-dyeing shibori techniques such as knitting, weaving, or quilting are also included. These suggest new ways to combine innovation with more traditional forms.
Memory on Cloth fixes some boundary lines in this landscape laden with legend. Section I, "The history of shibori," describes the technique's origins in several different parts of the world, and its amazing diffusion (shibori turns up in such incongruous milieux as pre-Incan cultures and the costumes of the stage production of "The Lion King").
Section II, "Tactile memory: fabric art" describes the history of modern techno-shibori, in which patterning and coloration are done by high-tech, nontraditional means. The chapter also introduces fifteen modern shiborists from around the world, as remote as Mali and as unexpected as Norway.
Section III, "Art for the body: wearable art and fashion" introduces shibori as garment art. Someone wearing a beautiful piece of cloth gathers into one visual experience the surface attraction of pictorial art, the alluring movements of dance, and the drama of theater. The author starts at the discovery of shibori techniques by the wearable art movement -- the so-called "Pratt Pack," because many were classmates at the Pratt Institute -- which was in turn inspired by the protest and revolt of the 1960s. This section documents the biographies and descriptions of the techniques of 29 leading shibori makers.
Section IV, "Inner journey: fabric and beyond" focuses on shibori as a vehicle of contemporary fine art. Illustrations include some superb pieces of shibori mixed-media and installation art, plus some unbelievably striking furniture that resembles no furniture you ever saw before. A century from now Sections III and IV will likely be the most important chapters in the book.
Section V: "Modern techniques" is a detailed, excellently illustrated how-to guide for those who have been sufficiently inspired to convert to shibori by the photos in the book. Here are extremely detailed instructions -- dye recipes, on various high-tech processes and the particular methods -- that individual artists use to achieve certain effects This chapter will greatly interest practical types since it describes the origins, making, and uses of 49 different kinds of shibori, complete with photos and superb drawings. Here readers get the lowdown on shape-changing treatments such as heat on polyester, or the etching processes used on metallized fabrics. A three-page section on dyes closes the chapter.
Finally come the obligatory references, supplier addresses, organizations and educational institutions, and magazines; plus the bibliography, glossary, and index. These are so thorough they render this book indispensable for any shibori practitioner and every textiles library.
The title of the book, Memory on Cloth, refers to a Japanese belief best summarized by Yun'ichi Arai:
"Cloth, before and after it becomes clothing, can be understood as a system of signs by which we often assess the wearer's social status, customs, heritage, and aspirations. The way fiber touches our bodies, whether through ritual, art, high fashion, or plain garments, holds meaning for ourselves as wearers and for others as observers. We sense fiber primarily through touch, although how it looks certainly affects our aesthetic sensibilities. Most of us enjoy tactile experiences with fabric, i.e., whether it is expensive or inexpensive, handmade or highly processed. In addition to the symbolic and visual gesture of dressing, how material strokes our skin or brushes across our body imparts information to us about how we feel about our own bodies and how we like to cover or expose them. Today¹s shibori, from the soft silks to the glistening heat-transfer fabrics, allow us to imagine our bodies wrapped and decorated in ways which trade not only on our own memories of feelings‹warmth and nurturing, glamour and high-style‹but also on fiber's memory."
Thus, fiber's "memory" is what makes it possible for it to retain its original essence after being reshaped or manipulated.
Yoshiko Wada is an endearingly good writer: lucid, logical, tight, to the point. Shibori has been her mainstay interest for the last three decades. She teaches shibori aesthetics and techniques in her home of Berkeley, California, and around the world. Thanks to her, shibori was transported to Africa and inspired a vibrant local industry in Mali and other Sahel countries. As far back as 1983 she co-authored, with Mary Kellogg Rice and Jane Barton, the definitive book in English, Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped-Resist Dyeing. As Jack Lenor Larsen puts it in his Foreword, "Through her first book, Shibori, and through her exhibits, lectures, and personal persuasion in every communication medium, Wada has single-handedly changed our field and its language." Because of her commitment to keeping shibori traditions alive, the word Œshibori' has now become internationally known.
As there are only a handful of books on traditional shibori in English (many by her), if you go looking for one, make it this one. Memory on Cloth portrays the entire global phenomenon of shibori-making -- its history, artists, and techniques -- and she does it expertly and with beautiful photos. Her book is helpful to beginners yet guides the advanced to more proficiency and precision. This book surely will be on the shelves ten, twenty, fifty years from now as a definitive handbook of one of the 20th century's most fruitful and beautiful art forms.
© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book