Noboru 幟る

What better watch word for Boys Day than noboru? Noboru is the verb form of the noun nobori. One of the fascinating and useful aspects of Japanese language is the ability to to “spell” a word many different ways – that is to be able to write a word with many different options of kanji (Chinese characters). For instance, take the word nobori… in English, this is really the only correct way to spell it. However in Japanese it may be written in many different ways, each time changing the meaning or nuance:

幟 This nobori is correctly used to mean the pennants on display for Boys Day. The left part of the character is the symbol used for cloth, and on the right we see the character for weave. So even if you aren’t familiar with the kanji, you can tell that it has something to do with fabric.
上 This nobori means up–as in overhead.
登 This nobori means to climb, or ascend–as in go uptown, or swim upstream, or to come up on an agenda.
昇 And this one means the same as 登 with a slightly more clinging quality.

Can you recognize how they all have the same pronunciation and very similar meanings? You could, however,  have a simple sentence and by substituting only the kanji come up with greatly varying tales!

If you write koi-nobori (carp-nobori) it would take on different meanings depending on the kanji used. 鯉幟 means carp windsock. 鯉登 would mean riding a carp up a waterfall, as Kintarou is often depicted. And Kintarou could also be said to 鯉幟を登る, which would tell us that Kintarou is climbing up the carp windsock and getting into trouble again.

Sometimes to avoid confusion, Japanese will double up on a meaning. For instance, when growing up, in our neighborhood we referred to people from Japan as Japanese and Japanese from the US as Japanese-Americans. However, often times Japanese-Americans were simply referred to as Japanese for convenience sake. So in a crowd of Japanese-Americans, say at O-Bon, if a person from Japan showed up (they would usually stick out quite a bit) we would refer to him or her as Japanese-Japanese. Just as India-Indian means people from the Asian sub-continent.

So…..if you want to make sure that the person to whom you are speaking understands that when you say nobori, you mean the banner, you can say noboribata. Hata means flag. So you are basically saying flag-flag. If you say hata by itself, it means flag as in hi-no-maru , or stars-and-stripes .

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Donsu 緞子 201102

Donsu 201102


For any of you who have had a chance to see up close the incredible workmanship found in Japanese suits of armor, you won’t be surprised to hear of the valuable silks used to enhance their quality. In keeping with the Boys Day theme, this week’s textile is a donsu* (緞子) weave from Kyoto. It has a very finely executed, diminutive pattern coveted by the wealthier warriors. This type of fabric may have been used in making covers to various precious tools and weapons, as an item of luxurious clothing, or even as a trim laminated to portions of the armor itself.

Detail of Fabric Face – The circle is one inch wide.

This is an exquisitely minute pattern. So small that it is difficult to discern the true pattern unless it is enlarged. It seems to be a karakusa pattern made up of tiny leaves and  stems, chrysanthemums mum detail, and peony detail peonies.

Let’s take a look at the back side. I’ve magnified it considerably to make it easier to examine.

enlarged detail of back

Enlarged Detail of Back

In the image above, it is a bit easier to observe the weave structure without being distracted my the pattern itself.

$12 plus postage and sales tax

($12 even as part of a set. For more information about sets, click on this text.)

*donsu is defined below according to the Unabridged Dictionary of Colors and Weaves, ©1977, Tankousha Publishing Company (原色染織り大辞典©昭和52年株式会社淡文社)

Donsu is a weave structure based upon combining warp and weft faced imagery, employing organzine (silk that has been additionally twisted in opposite directions, used warpwise in weaving silk fabrics) warp thread and glossy silk weft thread (made from raw silk treated in a solution to dissolve the sericin) . The play in structure and light reflection creates what the Japanese call noon and night weaving – a variation on a satin weave. (John’s translation)

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Japanese Warrior Prints

While I was in Japan in the mid ’70’s, I was assistant to Kunio Ekiguchi, author of many books on traditional paper arts. It was fun working for him because he always had a wide variety of projects going on at any given time and they all required research which entailed leafing through old books for ideas. I was in seventh heaven!

During that time I developed a fondness for a style of Japanese cartooning that was popular in the mid-1800’s and earlier. These were rather cheap block prints printed in black ink, and sometimes with a few minor colors washed in afterward. Presented here are a few samples of warriors I have dyed in this style.

warrior stencil

Lacquered Warrior Stencil


To start with, I drew a sketch of the warrior I wanted to portray. Then cut a stencil from hand-made mulberry paper that had been lacquered with persimmon tannin and smoked.

This stencil was then used to apply a rice paste resist made of rice bran (小紋糠) and powdered sweet rice (餅粉).

Rice Paste Applied to Silk


Notice how the pasted areas correspond to the holes in the stencil. The paste will prevent the areas they cover from being dyed until later.


Indigo and Ivy Applied with Brush



I prepared a blue dye using what is called indigo bloom (藍花), is made from the bubbles on top of an indigo vat. To this I added some ivy berry juice and stained the cloth by applying the colors with a brush.


Indigo and Soot Applied to Outlines


Over this I applied a very concentrated version of the indigo bloom to the outlines of the figure. And over that some concentrated soot mixed with soymilk.

Silk with Pate Removed



The dyes need to cure, so I set the fabric aside for about two months and then washed off the paste to reveal the design.

Now that the paste is gone, I can go back in and dye the face, clothing, and weapons. I used a very thin wash of soot, another of indigo, and some of rust to give the piece a little life.

Finished Piece with Touch of Gold Added


One of the qualities of the rustic block prints that I liked so much was the way in which the colors look as though they have been applied casually or spontaneously–often reaching well beyond the borders of the item being colored. I tried to emulate this effect with my dyes and brushes.

In the end, I decided to put two tiny dots of gold on the hand guards to bring out some of the colors.

To view a wider range of these designs, click on any of the warrior figures above, and you’ll be taken to my web site.

Carving stencils, making the paste, and dyeing work such as you see above are all covered in any of my katazome classes. Check out my Calendar of Events on my web page by clicking on this text, or take a look a the classes I’ll be offering in my studio this summer in Covelo, CA.

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Sparrows and Bamboo 竹に雀

This is my inaugural posting to my blog. I’ve really hemmed and hawed in terms of what to write about first. I want it to give a taste of what is to come as well as give you a sense of what has brought me to this point.

In 1973, I went to Japan for the first time. It was the peak period for the boom in the Japanese post-war traditional craft revival. This is the period during which the larger world became aware of the Mingei movement. There were exquisite traditional crafts of all sorts to be seen in every upscale department store and exclusive boutique, and it was considered quite chic for women to be seen in kimono.

Initially I went to Japan to study doll making, which I will cover in later postings, but found myself focusing most of my energies on textiles, settling on my true love, bingata 紅型, an Okinawan form of folk dyeing very popular in Japan.

A couple of years into my studies of bingata, under master dyer Matsuyo Hayashi, I was casually presented with a stencil. During this phase of my apprenticeship, it was common to use of my teacher’s stencils. However, in this case she allowed me to use a stencil that had been given to her by a fellow artist. The image depicts a rather common theme of sparrows in bamboo.

Sparrow and Bamboo Stencil

Sparrows in Bamboo Shibugami Lacquered with Silk Netting

Mdm. Hayashi had me use this stencil several times in the course of my studies. The first few times, after I applied the resist and prepared the fabric, she would indicate where and how I was to apply each color, correcting my technique as was often required. With time I was encouraged to try my own color arrangements. Below are two samples of my work.


Sparrows in Bamboo Natural Pigments on Indian Cotton.

Sparrows in Bamboo Natural Indigo and Prussian blue Pigments on Cotton Denim.


Upon my teacher’s death, I found that this stencil was one of the treasures she left to me.

I have a weakness for forgetting names and on occasion faces, but I never forget a pattern. Fast forward thirty years – I was surfing on line and came across the haori you see below. Imagine my surprise! Never worn and in perfect condition–I had to have it!

The Haori That Foud Its Way to Me After So Many Years

When it finally arrived in my studio I wasted no time placing the treasured stencil over the dyed image and…….it was a perfect fit! It must have been dyed using my stencil, or one that was carved at the same time by the same artist. I was ecstatic!


This is how my life seems to go – in series of recurrences. On going reminders of kindnesses received.

As my blog develops I hope to be able to pass on some of these kindnesses to you through sharing my love of Japanese textiles, and in the hope that you will share your knowledge and experiences with me and others. I hope that you will write in with your questions and comments, and help me when I seek information.

頑張りましょう!  (Ganbarimashou!)


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Japanese textiles, dyeing, weaving, culture, John Marshall, katazome, somemono, natural dye