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  • Shona McCarthy

The Tsuzure-Ori Lord of Kamishichiken


(Translated and captured on https://www.soushitsuzureen.com/ , 15/12/2019.)


In the Nishijin area of Kyoto, it was once commonplace to see many weavers who worked in the tsuzure technique. This was a form of weaving so fine and complex that standard weaving combs were too large; weavers typically had to file fine grooves into their fingernails in order to comb the threads. It resulted in a distinct form of fabric resembling jacquard, but absent of the number cards that made jacquard possible, since all the design was woven directly into the fabric. This may be one of the most sophisticated forms of weaving in the world, where end products can be like wearable paintings of thread and fibre. Sadly, this style of weaving is extant, since training is protracted, labour time consuming and buyers few.

I decided to take a small class in the Tsutsure-En workshop in Kamishichiken in order to learn how this wonderful craft was achieved. Can you imagine my excitement when I learned that the man who would teach me would be none other than the head of the Tsutsure Preservation Society? When I first met him, he seemed like an ordinary man to me. He introduced himself at the doorway as Kikuo Hirano. I was absolutely astonished to learn that not only was he the head of the Textile Technology Preservation Society of Kyoto but also a true old artisan himself. In fact, he had been weaving for around 60 years, and was 80 years old. For me, meeting an old artisan like that is a tremendously edifying moment. Like meeting a famed celebrity, only I feel more as though someone like Hirano Sensei has worked for their notoriety and is still somehow underrated.

Through a booking website called "Activity Japan" , which is not unlike Klook, I was able to book a class before I even left Australia. So, I had shown up with a print-out of my booking to show the teacher. But it's also possible to book classes and experiences through the official Soushitsuzure-En website. The prices for all these things are fairly reasonable and affordable for what you're getting, and there are a range of options to fit all skill levels and budgets.

When I arrived, I had an attack of nerves and found I needed to go to the bathroom. So I went in as usual, but in my absent-minded nervousness, I overused the toilet paper and clogged the bowl. I tried a few unsuccessful flushes before I gave up. I remained in the stall for a significant time, praying to God that my time at the studio wouldn't have to start this way. To my great horror, had to confess to a man who I greatly admired that he would need to call a plumber and I would pay for the expenses of repair.

The man got a very serious look on his face and I felt quite sad. He sat me down at a table with a sophisticated cup of green tea and told me to carefully watch an educational video he put on for me. It showed the finer details of the tsuzure technique. These were details I had already read about in anthropological texts to some degree. But seeing it with my own eyes when I had only read about it as something in the distant past was special. I cringed a little when I saw Hirano Sensei walking back and forth through the studio holding a plastic bag with various tools inside it as I tried to focus on the screen before me. My heart sank a little more when I heard him calling out to a neighbor. But after a time, and after the portion of the video was finished, he sat down and, using Google Translate to tell me that everything was going to be fine, and that the toilet had cleared; that I wouldn't have to worry anymore. This caused me to erupt with laughter and to say that I had been so worried and afraid. Then Kikuo Sensei, and the girls who were his apprentices, began to laugh with me, detecting my intense relief. I was horrified at the time, but in retrospect, I wonder if this happened so that I would see that we are all human and forgivable, even by those we greatly respect. Some spools of thread were placed before me and I was encouraged to select three colours I would like.


(The colours of thread I chose for my work, along with a sample I was shown. 2019.)


(Hirano Sensei showing me how the loom works. 2019.) I felt somewhat intimidated by the sheer size and antiquity of the looms. But Hirano Sensei was an excellent teacher; patient and understanding. He made sure I understood when to comb, when to move my feet, when to shift my hands. He actually seemed to greatly approve of my work, and even encouraged me to do a little more weaving than I was meant to. He soon figured out that I was someone who often did work with my hands.


(Me weaving at the loom, taken by Hirano Sensei himself. 2019)


I found myself at times a little confused about the order. But Hirano Sensei simply reminded me of what to do. I'm still blown away by how friendly and kind he was to me that day.

(A photo of Hirano Sensei taking my work off of the loom very carefully. 2019.)


With careful glue and tape, the little skein of fabric I had made was taken away and made into a cute little keychain while Hirano Sensei toured me around his workshop. I got to see some other weavers at work.


(Hirano Sensei seems to be training a team of girls so that his stills don't pass away. Seeing these people at work in real time, when I had previously believed their processes had gone extinct was wonderful. 2019.)


(Me holding a wonderful image this weaver, Minamo Nakayama, wove of Mount Fuji. She gave me a postcard copy as a gift that I now keep stuck to my bedroom door. 2019.) Meeting the other weavers around the studio and seeing their work meant that I could see the fingers of history winding their way into the present. But also, Hirano Sensei has an impressive collection of old artbooks he refers to. He lead me over to a loom where he was creating a master work. It was a reproduction of a woodblock by Hiroshige of a beautiful courtesan in a pale blue kimono, similar to the one I was wearing. He showed it to me, and so I naturally paid many compliments. He then suddenly said, "She is you!" I was so embarrassed to get such a strong compliment from someone I looked up to so much. I shrank away a little and got a little awkward. The keyring I now keep in it's box on my bookshelf. I won't use it because it's too precious to me. A real Kyoto artisan worked on it with me. Even if you don't have the time for a proper tour or class, you can buy wonderful merchandise, even from their Facebook page. It's remarkable to see the new applications that Kikuo Hirano has encouraged for Nishijin style weaving. In so much of what he does, it's possible to see his commitment to helping Tsuzure-ori survive into the future. I couldn't help but admire him.

(Here is some examples of the wonderful products being sold by the Soushitsuzure-En. facebook.com/pg/soushitsuzureen/shop/.)

I find it hard to exaggerate how enriching this experience really was for me. I got the sense that Hirano Sensei somehow read me a knew that I needed a lot of encouragement. He showered me with praise throughout the day. He also invited me to an exhibition related to his work. I really recommend going to this place. Not just so you can experience the height of history and culture for yourself. But also so that you can meet the lovely and interesting people who work in this studio.



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