We’ve been lucky to call Kyoto home for almost a year now. Looking around our little wooden house, large in comparison to anything we could afford in Sydney and filled with scattered cosy mess, it feels like we’ve properly settled in. Whilst the first half of this year was spent relaying between immigration bureaus and real estate offices, the whole moving process was somewhat extended for us as we’ve been trying to thrift or make most of our belongings instead of buying new. We got the essentials out of the way (enough to cook, heat and cool adequately) and the non-essentials we left up to chance finds at recycle stores with delightfully egalitarian names like ‘Hand to Hand’ and ‘Perfect World’.
With the physical time-consumption of moving behind us, I began dipping my toes into Kyoto’s thriving textile culture. One of the main reasons for coming back to Japan for a while was access to wonderful textiles and to age-old methods of construction and decoration, bashing away at my language study as a means to fulfil this. As this probably won’t be a permanent stay for us, one of the requisites of the move was to not acquire a bunch of household items that you’re left staring at hopelessly after your visa kicks the dust, willing them to somehow vanish into the homes of keen recipients without expense or effort. Aside from seasonal requirements – fans, blankets, then some ‘I’m seriously bloody cold’ blankets – and futons for guests, it’s been easy to live minimally here. The beauty of traditional Japanese houses is that they don’t feel empty without many possessions. The hand-rendered mud walls and raftered ceilings create warmth and texture, and the panelled windows and doors give our rooms plenty of light and decorative interest. We don’t don’t feel overly compelled to slap things up on the walls. We’ve been in a process of reverse setting-up, of settling in by allowing the space to stay empty.
Attitudes towards usable goods recycling in Kyoto are really positive. I’m leaving waste recycling alone here as that is worthy of its own more anguished blog post (just try and spend any amount of time in Japan without receiving a small mountain of plastic packaging), however clothing and homewares are treated quite differently. Recycle or ‘used’ shops are a staple in any neighbourhood, and items are treated with care and the sense that they will passed on in good condition. Likewise, often decades-old textiles remain in good enough condition to be repurposed into new products.
The term mottainai celebrates this resourcefulness and is a pervasive concept across many areas of society in Japan, but mostly amongst older generations. You’ll often hear someone exclaim ‘mottainai yo!’ (‘wasteful!’) to a child or a close friend if they’re about to throw something perfectly usable in the bin, and likewise the more regret-soaked ‘mottainai desu ne~’ which is closest in English to ‘such a waste…’ is a common coulda-been, shoulda-been reflection – not just on material objects but also towards opportunities and self-worth. The phrase is a compound word built from the terms もったい (勿体) meaning ‘importance’ or ‘worth’, and ない, (無い) meaning ‘nonexistent’ or just ‘not’. The concept even has its place in Shinto spiritualism, where objects that are used for over 100 years are bestowed with deification, transcending their material form into tsukumogami (付喪神) or ‘tool god’ status. How many of the objects we own do you think could last that test of time, when we replace our iPhones after only a few years?
Kimono and yukata from the flea market, ready to be turned into something new.
Detail of a cotton yukata in mid-deconstruction; you can see how carefully the excess fabric has been drawn into the smooth, curved corner.
With the spirit of mottainai encouraging us, one of my first basic sewing tasks was constructing a few soft furnishings. If you live on tatami you’re essentially living on the floor, so that means you tend to pay more attention to things like zabuton or floor cushions, and the low zaisu seats they sit on. Deconstructing a pile of old kimono from the flea market meant that the panels could easily be pieced together to recover some secondhand zabuton we’d picked up at the recycle shop. Traditional materials always seem to work together in Japan; measurements are highly standardised, so for every kimono you pull apart the panels can generally be put together in a different arrangement for a different outcome. There are no curves or oddly shaped pieces in a kimono or yukata, with the only cut being at the shoulder line so the neck band can curve around properly. Once you somewhat guiltily unpick the metres of hand stitching, you’re left with perfectly rectangular and structurally perfect remnant pieces. It’s quite satisfying.
Our zabuton with covers made of old kimono and yukata panels, and thrifted Japan-made wool blankets.
Some window covering and ‘fill-in-the-gaps’ textiles were also on the list. Since we have storm shutters to plunge the bedroom into a sleepy darkness whenever required, all that was needed for the curtains were some gauzy lengths of cloth for privacy and warmth. I used organic single and double gauze cotton of varying densities, mixing the different weaves up with French seamed panels and leaving the edges raw. What I really love about these panels is how the cloth takes on the characteristics of seasonal light, making the bedroom become the inside of a steely-grey winter cloud heaving with snow or the humid, cicada-orchestrated sunrise of mid-summer. The interplay between textiles and light can be quite affecting.
Finding a stack of old, slightly stained yukata at flea markets and recycle shops gave me all the material bulk I needed to make a plaited rag rug, serving as a portable comfort zone that can travel between our rooms depending on the season. Every time I start a plaited piece I forget how long it takes, but through sheer determination and a couple of surprise sick days at home I managed a decent-sized floor covering before we started shivering in our wooly jumpers.
I love this method as it’s such an easy way to use up narrow or odd lengths of fabric. Weave, knit, ugly, stained or ripped – if you plait the strips up, they give each other the strength and stability to become something useful. I normally plait a huge amount of strips, made easier by the similarity in length as they’re coming from yukata, then wind and stitch them together with a sturdy carpeting needle and hefty cotton thread. In the past I’ve zigzagged the plaited cord together, which is normally ok for softer knits but cotton and linen can really beat up a domestic machine that isn’t made to handle denim weights – plus, I really like the slower pace of the hand stitching and the useful callouses it builds up.
Considering these small upcycling projects and following up on my previous moan about fashion wastefulness and the inability of the average, self-sustaining consumer to put limits on their spending, I wanted to condense errant thoughts into something more tangible. This is how I settled on the phrase ‘reductive textiles’. As a sort of personal axiom and list of rules and measures to set for myself when making or buying textiles, I’m hoping the term will serve as a kind of mottainai for our clothing and textile habits.
Principles of Reductive Textiles:
Asking the hard question that should really be easy – what qualifies as a necessity? Setting myself realistic personal and environmental limitations.
Using repurposed fabrics in textile and garment construction.
Second Life /
New wardrobe additions must be thrifted, or if a new garment or accessory is required, it must be of ethical and sustainable origins.
Climatic Analysis /
Looking at factors such how much washing you realistically need to do through the hottest period of summer, and how many layers are ideal for winter’s most freezing points. I find that buying or making clothes based on temperature and your comfort levels makes for far more efficient dressing. Pleasure must follow purpose.
Natural Tinction /
Using plant pigments over synthetic. Overdyeing to extend the life of a less desirable print or worn out surface on a structurally sound fabric.
Looking for innovative ways to create new textiles from scraps or industry waste, with a view to scaling up to higher-volume production.
Experimenting with handmade textile techniques as a means to decorate, embellish or modify without chemical or energy waste.
Zero Waste /
Challenging myself with a zero waste outcome when patternmaking.
Over time, I’m aiming to extrapolate on each of these points then collate the information into a useful resource for anyone to refer to – a handbook, PDF or one page website. Any input is welcome, if you have something you’d like to contribute or discuss please get in touch with me. For now, I’m going to keep pushing forward with my reductive textile rules and see where they lead me.