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From grubs to kimono

Canadian makes silk in the traditional way

by Eriko Arita

Bryan Whitehead redefines what it means to “make something from scratch.”

Starting with some silkworm eggs and easily available natural resources, he eventually ends up with rolls of fine and heavy kimono silk.

The textiles created by this Vancouver native are not only beautiful, but it’s as if they also embody some essence of nature he’s refined from around Sagamihara in Kanagawa Prefecture where he lives.

Through the silk threads he reeled from cocoons and dyed in delicate and mysterious hues of yellow, green, blue and purple, it is as if Whitehead captures the vibrant essence of the bamboo forests outside his kitchen window. As he explains, though, he creates the sublime mix of colors in a hand-woven obi he unrolls by coloring the silk threads using different natural dyes.

“I try to look around my surroundings very closely, and I attempt to recreate sort of an emotional landscape of the colors, lighting and textures in the silk I produce myself,” the artist and craftsman said.

In fact Whitehead has been making indigo dye since 1994, and has been producing silk using traditional methods since 1996 at his home in the Mount Takao area west of Tokyo. From the silk, he fashions kimono and obi, and also mats and wall hangings for use in the tea ceremony.

“In early spring, I plant indigo seeds in the field outside my house, and I harvest the leaves two or three times each summer and dry them. In winter I wrap them in mushiro (heavy straw matting) to ferment them slowly for three months before I make aidama (raw indigo pigment shaped into balls).”

Finally, to conclude a process that runs year-round, Whitehead ferments those indigo balls into a kind of ink for use as dye.

But when he’s not busy making his dye, another major task for this industrious 46-year-old is making the actual silk to be dyed and woven.

“I breed the silkworm moths in late summer and put the eggs in a refrigerator in winter. Then in spring I take the eggs out and babies hatch,” he said. “In a month they grow from 1 mm long to 12 cm, and they start to make cocoons. From those cocoons I make different threads.”

However, silkworms are so gluttonous that he has to feed them several times a day — and they eat only mulberry leaves.

“I usually raise 5,000 worms at a time, and they need a small truck full of mulberry leaves each day, so I have to work the whole day,” he said, explaining that he has 300 mulberry trees in a field a 15-minute drive from his house.

Each crop of baby silkworms, he explains, takes 27 days of rapid growth before they have shed their skins four times and spun cocoons around themselves from which — if left alone — they would, in due course, emerge as moths. It’s then, though, that silk producers such as he move in and harvest the coccons — a process he managed to repeat six times last year.

“At each step, you have to be very careful how to feed them and keep them clean,” Whitehead said. Indeed, as he was feeding his worms that day in June, he found one worm that had failed to completely shed its skin — so he gently peeled it off himself with an affectionate look on his face.

Like all livestock farmers, though, Whitehead has to both care for his charges and kill them. That’s because, to make silk, you have to kill the grubs in the chrysalises inside the cocoons — by boiling or drying or salting them — before they hatch into moths and start chewing their way out of their silken “wombs” — so destroying the continuous thread.

“I’ll probably be born as a silkworm in my next million lives,” Whitehead wrote in his blog, titled “Japanese Textile Workshops,” estimating that to be the number of silkworms he will raise and kill in this life. “And for eternity I will face one of the several choice fates the silkworms have faced because of me.”

But what is it about traditional Japanese silk production that has fascinated this Canadian for more than a decade?

“For me it’s very interesting to do gardening and make all the tools needed to produce and weave silk — carpentering, fixing up and making my own versions of them. There are so many directions in my work, with both technical and artistic aspects.”

Whitehead said that since childhood he’d always loved drawing and making things from wood, though he never aimed to become artist. At college in Vancouver, in fact, he studied advertising and marketing and set his sights on getting a creative job in an advertising agency.

But then, as he explained, after joining an ad agency — but not in a creative position — he realized, “you have to be very aggressive and competitive to work in a creative department. Back then, at the age of 24, I thought that was crazy. I suddenly realized that advertising is not making the world a better place because it makes people buy things they don’t need and creates materialism and competition among people.”

Whitehead said he also imagined what his life would have in store for him in Canada — the house with a mortgage, BBQs in the yard, and all that.

“I thought that wouldn’t be a bad life, but there would always be something missing. I wanted to live a life doing what I was truly interested in doing.”

So it was that Whitehead sold his house in Vancouver and went traveling in Asia, arriving in Japan in 1989. At first he learned sumi-e (ink painting), then he started to weave fabrics using a small loom. But as much as he enjoyed that, he said he “thought of becoming a potter or taking up some other traditional Japanese craft. Then indigo dyeing and other Japanese textile techniques pulled me the hardest.”

In 1993, Whitehead moved to the rural town formerly called Fujino in Sagamihara, in which the main industry had long been silk production before cheap imports from other Asian countries swept the market in the 1980s.

It was there, around 1996, that he met Minako Kato, who was then 65 and one of the area’s few remaining silk farmers and craftspeople.

“I knew it was the last chance for me to be able to learn the technique from her. She is a treasure,” Whitehead said.

Although Kato had stopped raising silkworms 20 years before, she and her husband were happy to share their lifetime of experience with Whitehead, he said — adding that he also learned from other old people in the same village.

“I was lucky to submerse myself in a village of old folks who had lived self-sufficiently and knew the techniques of silk production and weaving, and who also embodied the lifestyle that was the source of the aesthetics I found so intriguing.”

Now, in fact — apart from one old silk-farming couple in their 80s who are retiring after this year — Whitehead is the only person in the town still making silk, he said. It’s a distinction he feels is important, not just personally, but as a means of maintaining the traditional culture in this industrialized country.

Whitehead occasionally holds exhibitions of his work in both Japan and European countries, and since 2005 he has also taught weaving and other traditional textile-making techniques at the 120-year-old farmhouse in Fujino he shares with his faithful hound, Snoopy.

He now has more than 20 students from Japan and overseas, some of whom travel three hours by train to attend his classes.

“I want students to think why old preindustrial objects are more beautiful than those made after industrialization. I also want them to understand the materials very well by seeing the silkworms and the different cocoons that make different threads,” he said, adding that they only use natural dyes in his classes so they can get the idea of colors from nature.

But it’s not for the money that Whitehead holds his classes, and he is adamant he far prefers sharing his silk-production and dyeing know-how with others to selling his creations.

“You can see the students say, ‘Ah’ (in joy). That’s my reward,” he said.

Anyone interested in studying traditional Japanese textiles can contact Bryan Whitehead via konyaleafytails@gmail.com