Making Journey Yarns

words and photos by Joanne Nakonechny

To sharpen my memory of any longish trip I make, I begin making a travel journal as soon as I start travelling. I gather any small items I can – sketches, photos, stamps, postcards – and write about each day. When I get home, I physically make a book and fill it with all that I have gathered. The ideas, impressions, and other items found while travelling (Japanese beer labels are fascinating!) vividly remind me of the smells, textures, and lived experience of each journey.

As a spinner, I’ve often thought about spinning a trip yarn to add to my journal but couldn’t quite work out the type of representation I wanted. However, as I sat on a train in southern Honshu (Japan), my imagination began to work, and I thought about constructing a yarn that would represent several major themes of my Japanese trips around the main idea of textiles. I jotted down the indigo dyeing and silk weaving workshops I took and the numerous textile museums and workshops I visited and let this idea “compost” during the rest of the trip. After returning home, I continued working on the idea and selected three significant Japanese textile elements: indigo, cotton, and silk as the strands for my 3-ply yarn. These themes are linked by their textile emphasis, and two of them (cotton and silk) demonstrate how foreign products can be transferred into another culture and then transformed into general cultural use and representation.

Indigo

I chose indigo because it is/was traditionally used throughout Japan. Mention indigo to anyone and images of the Silk Road often emerge in their minds. Indigo has a long history around the world and in China, documentation on its use originates as far back as 2,697 BCE. Its societal impact ranges from symbols to myths, stories, planting, harvesting, and dyeing traditions. The predominant natural indigo currently in use/used in Japan, persicaria tinctoria (formerly classified as polygonum tinctoria), was introduced from China around the 4th century CE. The composting method used to prepare the indigo leaves for dyeing was probably adapted from the Ainu of northern Hokkaido who used it for woad. As elsewhere, the current status of using natural indigo in Japan is precarious but hopeful as greater interest in its subtle colour shadings, ecological benefits and various uses becomes more known to artists, artisans, chefs, and industry.

Cotton

I chose cotton as it became a commonly used textile in Japan. Indigo and cotton are great friends in the dye pot as indigo is a substantive dye that does not require any mordants for fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp, ramie, etc. Cotton, however, was not introduced to Japan until Portuguese or Chinese traders brought it in the mid 15th century. It then became a preferred textile by the beginning of the Edo period (1615-1868 CE). At first cotton was reserved for the ruling class and only later during the Edo period did it become a commonly found textile throughout Japan.

Silk

I chose silk as it is a luxury textile in contrast to cotton and has a strong historical and current presence in Japan. Silk came to Japan via China through Korea around 200–400 CE and became a strong economic and cultural component of the society.  At first, as usual, it was only worn by the upper classes, but as it gained more use as a luxury fabric, rural families were permitted to start their own sericulture to help with the silk production. Japanese silk production continues today, and the workshops in Nishijin, Kyoto certainly attest to it.

My project yarn construction

This project took place over a year as I did it when I had time and when it was warm enough to dye outside (I live in Vancouver, Canada).

I spun the white/ecru cotton roving using a variety of spinning implements, ranging from portable (a takhli and Russian support spindles) to less so (an Indian book charkha) and, finally, an Ashford Joy spinning wheel. I spun the cotton Z, plied it S, and maintained a pretty consistent 18 WPI. I finished the cotton yarn by simmering it in a pot of water for about half an hour. I then let it cool, rinsed it, and air dried it.

During the summer, I set up an indigo dye bath using Indian indigo or common indigo (indigo tinctoria) from Maiwa as I couldn’t access the Japanese pesicaria tinctoria (formerly polygonum tinctoria). I made a vat reduction using thiourea dioxide and lye for the dye. I had no problems with the vat and, as usual, the magic of cotton turning from tan to green-grey-blue to true blue was exciting.

The Nishijin area in Kyoto is a place where I can spend days happily getting lost as I try and find my way from one amazing textile museum/store/workshop to another. Just a few of the ones I sampled: Fureaikan – Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Nishijin Textile Center, Orinasu-kan Museum, Kodai uzen-en and Gallery. I took a workshop at the Tsuzure-ori weaving studio. After this varied viewing, participating and some reflection, I decided to include in my yarn some spun silk thread bought at the Nishijin Textile Center to acknowledge the role of industrialization in silk weaving.

My Japanese travel yarn is now complete and I have a spun physical memory to remind me of these different textile themes. In the future, I will make other travel yarns depicting other Japanese travel elements, but I’m happy to have my first one based on textile themes. With some of this yarn, I’m going to make a small woven coaster and place it in my travel journal along with a picture of a cup of tea! What travel yarns could rise from your journeys?

Joanne Nakonechny likes spinning – 10 years of it – and travelling. New ideas of yarn intrigue her: What if I thought about music as colours? What about ideas as different types of spinning material? What if. . .  These are the questions that keep Joanne spinning; oh yes, and her stash!


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