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Textile scholar advocates sustainable fashion

Yoshiko Wada spreads traditional Japanese dyeing techniques, builds networks with artisans

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Yoshiko Wada, textile artist and scholar, believes the word “sustainable” in foods and fashion shares the same philosophical taste. “Both are a holistic approach, about health, environment, and the community that supports it. We must recapture and rethink how we are going to sustain our Earth and society, our community and our cultural heritage,” she says.

“Without biodiversity, we cannot keep the health of the Earth, and the same thing goes for people. Without cultural diversity, we cannot harmoniously live, unless each person feels pride in who they are. We cannot harmoniously sustain humankind without cultural diversity.”

Wada constructed these beliefs directly from a lifetime dedicated to art and traditional textiles, supported by what she calls her “tripod” of culture — Japan, America and India.

Born in Kobe in the final year of World War II, Wada says she always considered herself an artist. “Because of the support of my paternal grandmother, I was given a special opportunity when I was young to work with artists taking lessons at private studios, and if anyone asked me what I would be when I grew up, I said ‘artist.’ It was the way I was brought up.”

Both of her grandmothers provided strong role models for Wada. On her father’s side, her grandmother exuded atypical strength, opening a Western-style dressmaking school in Japan after learning dressmaking and millinery in Paris in the 1920s. She encouraged the creative talent she recognized in her granddaughter.

On her mother’s side, a family of kimono makers in Tokyo, Wada observed a more traditional type of feminine strength: “My maternal grandmother was also amazing, very gentle and loving, a different strength from my paternal grandmother. She really kept the family together, and I feel both of them were very important in my life.”

Wada grew up thus surrounded by art and kimono, learning to distinguish between weaving, shibori (shaped resist dyeing), yuzen (painted), and other techniques used in kimono designs as well as studying traditional, French-style oil and impressionistic painting.

Continuing her artistic rotation of canvas and fabric, Wada studied textiles as a young adult with her bachelor’s from the Kyoto City Fine Arts University, concentrating on weaving and dyeing. In 1967 she left for the United States to complete an MFA in painting, drawing and conceptual art from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Wada recounts, “In the late ’60s and early ’70s, America was vibrating with new happenings in contemporary art. My strength is that I have training on both sides of art, both traditionally and conceptually. I am a product of the best part of that period, so free and creative.”

After graduation, Wada moved to California in 1971. In this stimulating environment of international artists, Wada began giving lessons in traditional Japanese dyeing and weaving, one of the first Japanese to introduce these techniques in the U.S. She returned to Kyoto briefly in 1972 to gain specific training in ikat dyeing, including kasuri, to meet the demand of her students.

Back in California, Wada recognized the substantial interest in traditional Japanese dyeing techniques, and in 1983 she published, with two of her ex-students, the definitive book on Japanese textiles, “Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing,” which is still considered a classic on Japanese textiles in the U.S.

Her success in the U.S. sparked a desire to further explore the connections between culture and textiles, and she turned to India. “I felt at that point very comfortable with America and Japan, both culturally and thinking-wise, but I thought I needed a third way to think, not one or another, not East nor West, but with a third culture, like a tripod to balance me.” Choosing India, both for its rich cultural history and for its connection to Japan through Buddhism, Wada has visited the country over 30 times since 1983. “Japan has received so much from India through China, and also I studied many textiles from India, spread throughout the world by the Silk Road. My choice to go to India really affected me deeply, strengthened me as a person, a thinker and a maker.”

Traveling extensively to work with traditional artisans, Wada realized the importance of maintaining traditional cultural diversity. “How do we sustain the cultural heritage we have, craft being one of them, artistic activities we carry on from the past? Look at the way we dress; go to any major city today, anywhere in the world except for in India, and you wouldn’t really know where you are based on the clothing.”

In 1992, Wada established the World Shibori Network, hosting international symposiums and exchanging ideas and inspiration for traditional artisan techniques. An active president of WSN, Wada has chaired eight symposiums in seven different countries. The ninth will be held in China in 2014.

Five years ago, Wada also started Slow Fiber Studios, sponsoring tours to support local regional artisans. “It’s like the ‘slow food’ movement; if you don’t know where the food comes from and how it is grown, you don’t have a full appreciation of the difference.”

Wada replicates this process by organizing work-study programs for participants to learn alongside traditional artisans in Japan, Mexico, France and India. “Coming from a shibori and kasuri focus, I’ve realized a much larger global network of those arts, as well as what supports those art forms. It is not just the artists or artisans. You must have a market, a patron, a community, an environment to support them; it is a huge platform to maintain. And this platform has really been broken up, due to so-called progress. The Industrial Revolution has become bankrupt in so many ways, but there is a general trend now to embrace sustainability, even in big companies like Levi-Strauss or Patagonia.”

Among the many hats she wears, Wada acts as a consultant, advising companies on ways to rebuild a platform for traditional artisans.

Wada has also curated various textile exhibitions, from Washington D.C. to Santiago, Chile, and is the recipient of numerous grants and honors, most recently named in 2010 as a “Distinguished Craft Educator” by the James Renwick Alliance of the Smithsonian Institution.

A visiting scholar and former professor at textile and art universities spanning the globe from Okinawa to Hong Kong, Wada’s expertise has been used in design and entertainment, including the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” and for Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian theater extravaganza.

Her most recent passion is the Natural Dye Workshop project. Teaming up with French chemist and botanist Michel Garcia, one of the world’s leading experts on natural dyeing, Wada has produced three films to record traditional techniques. “It was only 150 years ago that humans started using chemical dye. For thousands of years, we have used natural dyes from vegetables and insects. It is important we do not lose this artistry,” she says. “Red chemical dyes in food and cosmetics have been found to be carcinogenic, and the price of carmine, a red, natural insect-based dye, has risen immeasurably.”

In her tireless efforts, Wada, who now lives in Berkeley, California, is optimistic about the future, looking toward a slow revolution in everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear: “The kind of awareness and responsibility we take on is very important, and there is a great trend currently. The world is evolving, moving on from making cheap products for many people, making things faster or bigger just to make more money. I think we are realizing this whole idea has put the entire Earth at stake, and slow things, slow traditions matter more now.”

For more information about the World Shibori Network, see www.shibori.org.