Heritage textiles and shaping a sustainable cloth future.
As a former professor at Kyoto City University of Arts, Nobuko Hiroi’s personal collection of world textiles spans decades of travel and research devoted to handcrafted materials and the tools that made them. It’s wonderful when collections like these are open to the public, as this one was earlier in the year as part of her Travelling Textiles exhibition at KCAU Gallery. When they’re free and allow you to get up close and observe all the intricacies of the goods on display, even better.
Travelling Textiles was presented in two parts; Works being the retirement exhibition and lifetime body of work by Hiroi herself, and Worlds her personal collection of global textiles. Worlds is a great starting point to investigate the relevance of traditional textile methods and how they can inform the current state of the textile industry. As brands, manufacturers and industry figures look to more sustainable methods of production to ease and eventually, hopefully, reverse the damage commercial textile manufacturing has done to the planet, methods of construction from the past give us important insight.
Something that struck me immediately about Hiroi’s collection was the abundance and variation of colour drawn from natural origins. Vibrant madder root reds, indigo blues and greens, cochineal purples and ochre greens and yellows retain their vibrancy even as some pieces clock in at over 200 years old. They are robust objects; knitted, woven, knotted and braided with lasting durability in mind – even the delicate French laces look like they could be converted into fishing nets. This is the beauty of unrefined, untreated natural fibres. With minimal processing, flax, cotton, silk, hemp and wild grasses possess a tensile strength that we rarely see in our medium to mass-produced fashion textiles, which lose these qualities through finishing treatments and blending with other fibres. Containing impurities, tough slubs and discolouration, these fibres could outlive many of the easily-dismantled fabrics available to us today.
They may not, however, live to see the degradation of their synthetic polyethylene and polyamide kin – you know them as polyester, spandex, nylon and elastane to name a few. These fibres take anywhere from 20 – 200 years to break down. We make compromises every time we buy textile goods, substituting biodegradability for mostly perceived necessity. The ease of washing synthetics trumps a natural fibre with built-in antibacterial properties. Chemically coated fabrics for comfort in the heat and cold seem smarter than smart dressing, smart furnishing or just a shift in lifestyle choices. Designers are becoming increasingly aware that we must design more responsibly as a global imperative, that we have to plan not only for our product’s first life cycle, but its second third and fourth, visualising its future as an object with ongoing environmental and social impact.
One exhibition piece I’ve photographed below is a thick bodice designed to be warn over clothes for warmth in winter. It is constructed from Japanese paper or washi (和紙), made with fibres from the gampi tree, kozo and mitsumata shrubs. Known as kamiko (紙衣), this paper clothing utilised the proliferation of washi during the Heian period to create lightweight, versatile and inexpensive clothes. When treated with persimmon or konjac gum it could be made water resistant, and by using hemp and cotton fibres in place of the finer plant material it could be made stronger and more resilient to wear. An incredibly intuitive use of natural fibres, it was favoured by the poorer classes as an alternative to expensive silk and by the samurai and warrior classes as it was both portable and durable. This all makes it sound similar to something you’d get to strip paint from a hardware store but in actual fact, it could be made smooth and soft – perfectly suitable for women’s summer attire. That these low-impact and highly-adaptable paper garments were once mass-produced (in the quaint historical sense of the word) makes for an interesting vision of our material future.
As just one piece in this smorgasbord of textile artefacts both ancient and contemporary, raw and refined, this little paper vest made me at once giddy and slightly despondent at the thought of all the clear potential for industry change lying in these heritage pieces. It seems obvious; thousands of years of work have been done for us already, the experts still here – for the time being – to teach, direct and reaffirm. Time to investigate the past and return to a slower, more informed and sustainable way of thinking about the cloth in our lives.
A view of the expansive collection showing Korean, Indonesian, Laotian, Thai and other South and South-East Asian textiles.
Front of a plain weave cloth with shibori (絞り, Japanese tie-dye) and sewing, Turkey/Bursa, 20th C. Single thread wool warp, synthetic thread, single thread wool weft. Turkish shibori dyeing is rare.
Various 20th C Turkish scarves of cotton cloth with silk thread lace.
1. Japanese machine-stitched bodice made of cotton and washi paper, first half of 20th C。 2. Children’s adanba zouri (アダンバ草履) sandals from Taketomijima, Okinawa, 1993. Braided from ‘adan’ screw pine leaves. 3. Modern interior decoration from Finland, braided from birch bark. Different sides of the bark have been used for colour alteration.
Antiguan woven and embroidered women’s huipil, 20th C.
Decorative cotton patchworked & quilted cloth from Gujarat, India, 20th C, on top of a contemporary Indian cotton rug.
Various textiles from Uzbekistan including contemporary silk ikat and suzani embroidery of plant-dyed silk thread on cotton base.
Embroidered wool cloth from Comalapa, Guatemala, 20th C, used as mens lower body garment. On the right is a Peruvian chullo, a hat knitted from alpaca wool. The style is traditional but this is a contemporary design, the exhibition notes that the small knit bobbles were developed from workshops in San Francisco in the 1980s.
Various Japanese cotton and silk cloths from the 19th and 20th C including stripe and check weaves, and shibori.
A shimacho swatch book surrounded by loom shuttles, kasuri (Japanese ikat), shibori and other cotton cloth from Japan.
Detail of the shimacho swatch book of cotton and silk woven samples, 19th C. The stripe designs are secured in this book by the weaver and used as reference for the next pattern. Also used for taking orders during June of the 15th year of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912).