One of Tokyo Dome’s most attended annual attractions might come as a surprise to some. Aside from being home to baseball games and big-name concerts, the huge stadium also hosts a number of fairs, including the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival — which is the largest of its kind.
Over the course of seven days in late January, some 250,000 quilters descended upon Tokyo Dome for the festival of textiles and stitching. Co-organized by NHK this year, the fair explored the influence of “Little House on the Prairie,” the 1970s American television series based on the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The TV show’s prominent display of pioneer-era American quilts inspired widespread interest in the craft not only throughout the U.S. but also overseas.
In addition to commissioning some of Japan’s most prominent quilters to create works inspired by the show, the event exhibited antique quilts that were made by Wilder herself, as well as an extensive array of historical American quilts owned by the Poos Collection in Kansas. Yet despite the prominent American theme, the festival was, as it is always, an unparalleled exploration of the craft as it is unique to Japan — providing insight on the ways in which Japanese traditional textile arts have been perpetuated and reinvented through the Western medium of quilting.
Similar to other time-intensive domestic crafts made throughout the world, the commercial market for quilts is largely nonexistent, with its practitioners relying upon teaching, writing books and selling quilting supplies to make a living. Because of this, the Japanese quilting world is inherently based upon community, its prominent members forming schools around themselves that resemble the iemoto hierarchical system found in traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana and tea ceremony.
Based historically around a house or family, iemoto refers to a teaching structure in which prominent artisans generationally pass on their unique approach to an art form, often with large followings of students who sometimes even produce works under the name of their master artists’ studios.
For quilting, one artist who has a significant following of students, and whose books have been published in multiple languages, is Shizuko Kuroha, owner of Nuno Space quilt shop in Tokyo. Kuroha, who also has a line of fabric to her name, has worked for more than three decades finding innovative uses of indigo-dyed textiles.
“I always start a project by looking at the fabric,” said Kuroha as she showcased works on her booth at the fair. “A quilt is a way to show off beautiful, old fabric.”
Kuroha’s interest in textiles led her to use fragments of antique cotton kimono, her works often combining shibori tie-dyed, sarasa resist-dyed and woven kasuri fabrics. Although originally used by the lower-classes in the early Edo Period (1603-1868), the rich blue tones produced by indigo dyes gained popularity throughout Japanese society in the subsequent centuries and flourished as a medium for exploring the then-fashionable blue-and-white aesthetic.
Driven largely by the scarcity of such fabrics (an effect of a boom she helped create), Kuroha also began producing and integrating new textiles into her designs. Though these new fabrics imitate antique aesthetics, the difference in textures produces a tactile dialogue between traditional Japanese crafts and contemporary interpretations. Old, otherwise fragile, fabrics are reinforced, while the longevity of highly specialized traditional craftsmanship is highlighted, as well as the need for its preservation.
Whether it is in the recycling of inherited kimonos or through the use of new Japanese fabrics, similar evocations of Japan’s unique cultural legacy can be found throughout the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival. This year, an exceptional exploration of this conceptual conflation of fabric and history is Sachiko Yoshida’s “Red and Violet” quilt, which layers red circles atop a grid of dark squares — an image that, she says, came to her after seeing the multitude of police barriers following the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013.
Using brightly colored chirimen crepe fabrics from children’s kimonos, Yoshida’s body of work regularly engages issues of cultural connectivity in times of national disaster such as the Great East Japan Earthquake. Stitching an impressive collection of antique or vintage fabrics together, Yoshida’s quilts draw attention to the incredible variations in style, motif and texture found across kimonos. As with much quilting, her work provides a collective memory — an illuminating accumulation of hints of the past and of women’s history, which have been woven into fabrics hailing from all over Japan.
Katsuhiko Degai — an Aomori Prefecture-based vendor who had a booth of historical textiles at the fair — specializes in selling fabrics decorated with kogin embroidery, just one example of a textile imbued with local cultural significance. Developed by farmers in the north of Japan, kogin is a form of sashiko (decorative stitching) that utilizes thick thread and dense cotton fabric to help finished works retain heat. Due to the narrow specializations of such fabrics, many antique textile dealers develop considerable trust within the crafting community, granting them access to the often-limited sources of their wares.
Other forms of craft at the fair, such as clothing and accessories, can often reveal what is perhaps one of the most artistic merits of quilting in Japan — the ability to weave in the personal with the culturally historical. An exquisitely embroidered white kimono by Shizuka Kusano, created as part of her daughter’s wedding attire, is a lush silk garment overlaid with a host of colorful historic motifs. A landscape of pines, bamboo leaves and plum blossoms is overseen by a sweeping entanglement of gold-fringed turtles and cranes, atop of which lies an array of dancing symbols of longevity, prosperity, and happiness. Despite Kusano’s acute attention to craftsmanship and historical design, her unique composition, juxtapositions of colors and sense of scale forms a touching and intimate artifact for her family.
Whether it’s found in the humorous, Western-inspired covered-wagon appliques of Yoshiko Katagiri or in the renowned Hawaiian-style quilts by Kathy Nakajima, the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival is an event that speaks of community and cultural history. It’s an example of the perseverance of tradition in the face of a rapidly shifting global society. And this often results in highly creative innovation. With this in mind, it is no wonder that the festival has become one of the more popular attractions of Tokyo Dome.
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