Teenagers rarely go to museums by choice, but Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum in Shinjuku is a special case. On a recent lunchtime visit groups of lively students came into the galleries and fell into quiet, appreciative murmurs over the needlework of Indian villagers and Japanese grandmothers.
That is because the museum is on the impressive campus of a leading fashion school. Famous graduates of Bunka Fashion College include Kenzo Takada and Yohji Yamamoto. For many years the institute has been building up a valuable design resource in its costume museum. Its collection of 30,000 items includes an early Western-style court gown worn by the Meiji Empress, rare silks from the 8th-century Shoso-in and gorgeous 18th-century French brocades.
The current winter exhibition, however, features something a little more homely: needlework created by mothers’ hands.
Exhibits range from camel covers to baby’s bibs, and the common thread that binds them, so to speak, is cotton. The variety of results achieved with the simplest of running stitches is marvelous: delicate flowerlike quilt- ing from Turkey; vivid animal designs from Bangladesh; and geometric patterns from the steppes of Mongolia. The exhibition begins with a touching remnant of Japanese history: the faded garments of poverty.
“People have so much these days,” the museum’s Michiko Arai comments, “but most people used to be poor, and fabric was precious.” Two padded blue kimono are quilted with sashiko (running stitch). The endless darning and patching shows how people struggled to keep warm on winter nights. More cheerful are two dazzling examples of 19th-century needlecraft from northern Aomori Prefecture. The dark-blue hemp kimono have superb white patterns on the chest area.
“Cotton does not grow in a cold climate,” chief curator Mihoko Domyo explains, “so this white thread was expensive for working people in the north.” Nevertheless, this fine decoration was for everyday attire, and each area of the snow country had its distinctive patterns.
In contrast, the Chinese baby clothes in white silk are plainly quilted in nubi running stitch. These special clothes were worn to celebrate a baby’s first 100 days, and the long lines of stitching symbolize wishes for a long and sturdy life.
Almost every exhibit in this well-thought-out show reveals colorful glimpses of different cultures and mythologies. For example, in the second gallery there are quaint arrow-shaped irons, silver thimbles from Syria and Nepal and ornamental needle cases that can be worn as bracelets or pendants. In these countries, it is believed that a girl who wears her needles will become a good seamstress.
Many of the motifs on children’s clothes are more than ornamental: They are there to protect the child from evil spirits. The boys’ skullcaps from Islamic countries are decorated with tiny mirrors, because it is believed that mirrors deflect the evil eye. Similarly the frayed hem and triangle shapes on the Turkmene dresses protect the children from harm. Frogs, snakes and tigers are vivid symbols on Chinese baby clothes. (Children must look like pictures of innocence sleeping on their tiger-shaped pillows.)
We have probably all bought an amulet from a shrine and wondered where to put it, but did you realize that until quite recently children had special amulet bags sewn onto their clothes? Also, look closely at the back of the kimono on display and you will see a line of stitches running up the back seam, dipping to the right for girls, to the left for boys. The magical combination of numbers, just like poetry, is five and seven. In many cultures the back is considered to be vulnerable because we cannot see the devil creeping up from behind.
As always, the Japanese attention to detail is impressive. Mothers did not simply sew the front ties onto their children’s kimono; they used a mystical pattern of stitches. A pattern book on display dated 1881 shows various designs. Remember that next time you are sewing on a name tag!
The upper galleries bring us up to date with work from contemporary Asian needlewomen, including jewel-like colors on black from Indian Takudera Begum, noble nubi-quilted gowns from Korean Kim Heija and a large, delightful patchwork by Junko Maeda of Japan. Maeda was inspired to make this when her mother passed away, and she found all sorts of nostalgic fabrics in an old chest of drawers. The mixture of cotton hand towels, cement sacks and so on is a humorous, tender tribute to one family’s life.
In the center of the room is more nostalgia: a group of sturdy aprons, furoshiki and so on collected by Osaka needlewoman Namiko Mori. Mori is famous for leading the revival of interest in old, everyday fabrics when she started to “reform” old kimono about 40 years ago. Blue-and-white fans will love the aizome (indigo-dyed) items in this display, but don’t overlook the white sashes decorated with small orange stitches. These are relics of the war, when anxious mothers would ask 1,000 friends and neighbors to put in one stitch each. It was hoped that these senninbari would protect a boy going to war, and since these examples have survived, perhaps the wearers did too.
Finally, there is a pleasant study room displaying needlework featured in the college’s crafts journal Ginka (Silver Flower). These include some very fine patchworks by Teru Tanimoto, a 95-year-old mother of 10 who came all the way from Kyushu to see the show.
Now, where’s that embroidery I started in 1996?