The latest Japan Foundation programme has just hit my inbox, and I’m thrilled to see that they’re having a talk on Itchiku Kubota and his tsujigahana kimonos. I’ve been interested in these wonderful kimonos for a long time, so much so that a few years back I visited the Itchiku Kubota Museum in Japan to see the display of kimonos there for myself.
Itchiku Kubota was a twentieth century textile artist, a rather special one, who became famous for rediscovering and reinventing the lost fifteenth century textile-dyeing and decorating technique called tsujigahana.
Itchiku Kubota’s first encounter with tsujigahana dyeing took place when he was twenty and working on hand-painted Yuzen textiles. He noticed a fragment of ancient tsujigahana cloth in the Tokyo National Museum collection. Kubota was entranced and vowed that one day he would recreate that dyeing method. But after years of work he decided that rather than recreate the ancient technique he would develop a similar technique of his own, which has come to be known as Itchiku Tsujigahana.
Tsujigahana uses tie dyeing combined with black or vermilion outlining, shading, imprinting with gold or silver leaf, embroidering, etc. The process is complex. A background pattern is drawn on a plain silk kimono in blue ink and then vinyl thread is used to protect part of the kimono from dye. This thread is pulled tight and sections of the fabric bulge into little lumps, around which the thread is looped and knotted. The little bumps are then carefully coloured with a flat brush, covered with vinyl and bound with a thread. The entire silk fabric is then steeped in the dye and steamed for forty to ninety minutes to fix the dye and rinsed at least fifteen times in running water. Finally the vinyl thread is removed and an embroidery, gilding or hand-painting added.
Kubota’s lifetime work, the Symphony of Light series, consists of eighty kimonos representing the four seasons and the universe. It was unfinished at his death in 2003 and is being completed by his family. He is also famous for his series of five kimonos representing Mount Fuji, his costumes for the kabuki and for his 1976 kimono known as Gen/Floral Illusion.
The museum, on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi below Mount Fuji, is a wonderful place to visit. I went in the autumn which is probably the best time to see it. It’s completely idiosyncratic.
If you want to see more tsujigahana kimonos, there’s a book, Kimono as Art, The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota, by Dale Carolyn Gluckman which has wonderful colour plates of Kubota’s most famous works, but which I was shocked to see is currently priced at £107 on Amazon.
The Japan Foundation talk takes place this Friday, 15th May. I’m afraid it’s already fully booked, but you can join the waiting list.