Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Japan's Early Quilts - Futonji

I have not blogged in so long I am feeling guilty! But it is for a good reason, which I will announce soon, but suffice it to say I have a editorial deadline to meet.

A friend just sent me a link to the Nine-Patch News AOL newsletter of May 4, 2002 about quilts in Japan. I used to write a semi-monthly article for them about quilt history. They were one of the first online newsletters for quilters, but sadly, due to AOL's restrictions, ended a few years back. Some of my contributions were pretty good and this one seems to be filled with little known info, so I am passing it along in lieu of writing a new blog entry.

Enjoy! And stay in touch by posting comments on my blog. All of you who have, keep me going. And I'm still standing when I piece by machine, your posts were insightful!! More to come on that subject.

by Quilt Historian Kim Wulfert, Ph.D.

Antique Japan? Most of us think of silk instead of cotton when we think of old or antique Japanese textiles, and Kimonos (thing-ki = to wear=mono), not quilts. Silk was not used by the common classes. The rural or common men and women used cotton, hemp, banana leaves, stalks, and other plant fibers to make their clothing and textiles. In fact, they were prohibited by law to wear silk during the Edo era (1600-1868). Country folk continued to use these other fibers through the early modern era (Meiji period) ending in early 20th century. Ai or indigo was a native plant in Japan, and therefore not prized, resulting in the country folk to dye their clothes and bedcovers with it.

Women made most textiles, from fiber to the end product, in the winter months when the fields were not in use. Bast or plant fibers, other than cotton, were not very comfortable against the skin. Cotton was not indigenous to Japan since the plant needs a semitropical climate. The earliest dated cotton textile found in Japan dates to the seventh century, but not until the Edo era was there the ability to grow cotton in Japan.

In 1872 a group of Japanese textile designers and producers (men I assume) made their way to Lyon, France to learn about their methods. Upon return they made their version of the Jacquard loom. Their adoption of other advanced technologies, revolutionized textile production in Japan in the decade to come. So what about the Japanese using cotton, called "momen" and making bedcovers from it? Japanese folk art, called Mingei, is where cotton artifacts in the museum textile world are catalogued. Silk textiles are considered fine art or royal textiles. One has to look outside of many museums to find antique cotton textiles.

In Japan they have museums dedicated to Japanese Folk Art. The closest thing to a quilt was their futon (stuffed mattress) cover, called a futonji. This bedcovering was laid on top of a "kake-buton", like our blanket, and dates back to the early seventeenth century or Edo Era. Just as in early America, they were part of a bride's trousseau. Unlike American's however, the couple used this futonji on their wedding night after which it would only be brought out for use by special guests. Another futonji was made for daily use.

A common technique of dye printing the futonji, "tsutsugaki", would be started in a local dye shop. This method was saved for special occasion textiles such as these covers, ceremonial kimonos and wrapping cloths. The tool used to mark the fabric is similar to a cake decorators frosting tube. First rice-paste resist is placed in a paper tube, with a metal tip end that makes it possible to draw the resist design onto the cloth. After this is dry, the fabric is dyed in one or two colors, with indigo as the background color. The motifs were symbols meaningful to the Japanese spiritually or convey luck and good wishes to the newlyweds. The futonji would be completed at home by the sewing together of various panel widths, usually about 12 to 13 inches, depending on the loom used. The finished size would be around 62" wide by 75" long when dating from the Meiji-Taisho periods, which is just post Civil War to early 20th century (approximately 1868-1912).

Baby wraps were another textile that come under what we think of as quilts. They are rare now and usually originate from the Sannin area of Japan. They were used to wrap the baby in at birth. It is unknown whether or not it was used after that. Two textile panels and tsutsugaki were used, and auspicious symbols, such as a red sun, signifying good health, decorated this ceremonial wrap.

The quilt stitch and quilting is called "sashiko" in Japan. Two layers are held together using a thicker thread, like pearl cotton. Small to medium repetitive geometric or curvilinear designs are the norm. When the item is to be used in cold weather, padding is added. The Tohoku region in northern Japan is known for its sashiko cloth, although this is Japan's quilting method. Today, quilts similarly quilted to those made in America are being made with great artistic creativity and technically masterful skill by Japanese women. They are pieced and appliqu├ęd, use cottons, silks and textured fabrics, and often combine all of these. The ones I have seen are hand quilted, not machine quilted, piecing may be. The amount of quilting is immense and the stitches are tiny, which bring back thoughts of quilts made in the early 19th century.

2002 - 2014 Copyright Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. All rights reserved.
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If you visit their archived newsletter you will also find an article on Sashiko and a review of Kitty Pippen's "Quilting with Japanese Fabrics" which is one of my favorite books on the subject.

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