Monday, October 24, 2011

Patterns and Ideas

"When you return the natsume, move your hand around the chawan in a 'j.' Ah, no, no, no." Then an inhalation and pause. She takes hold of my hand. "Not across the chawan, see. Around it. Like this." Her hand moves my hand around the tea bowl in an arc, tracing a "j" from bottom to top, to replace the tea container in its original location.

As it was taking form in my mind, she anticipated my next question: If we're concerned with economy of movement, being still, being simple, direct, why then would we not return the natsume to its place via the most direct path? Without me asking, she answered, "If you move your hand over the bowl when you return the natsume, your sleeve may drag across it and spill the tea."

My next question was forming. I was wearing a T-shirt.

"Your kimono sleeve."

In those early lessons, Hirose Sensei made me aware of how body movement in the tea ceremony is influenced by the traditional garment of Japan, the kimono. My natural stride, hand gestures, arm and torso movements were suddenly confined in a narrow garment with hanging sleeves and bound by a wide, stiff belt. I had to learn to take small steps and bow from my hips while keeping my back straight. And above all, be aware of those sleeves! Hold it back with one hand when reaching with the other to keep it from knocking over utensils or worse, catching fire from the charcoal in the brazier. Although I felt like an unsteady child learning to walk, the kimono worked its magic. It cast a spell over me with beautiful brocades and sensitive colors. It wooed me with silk. Tempted me with textures. I fell in love.

Like many a young romance, the kimono and I drifted apart. We went our separate ways for many years but I never lost my love for it, or for textiles in general. Recently the flame has been rekindled. I'm once again under its spell but I look back on those years apart with some regret. I would know so much now about kimono and Japanese textiles had I just kept studying! So we pick up where we left off, move forward, taking baby steps and learning as we grow.

Indeed, I've learned as I have grown, but I've also learned that I have grown. Yes, I'm older and wiser (have plenty of gray hair to prove it), but my girth is considerably girthier than it was when Hirose Sensei first wrapped me up in a kimono and obi more than 20 years ago. The kimono, on the other hand, has remained the same. It does not come in a size 14 with relaxed fit. It is not sold prĂȘt-Ă -porter at Macy's. It comes in one-size-fits-some and is made in Japan.

I own or have access to several kimono, but none of them fit me properly. When I wear them, I find myself distracted by constant fussing to keep the thing closed, but inevitably it shifts and gaps and soon my lovely kimono has betrayed me. Attention diverted, concentration gone, tea practice sidetracked. That each of these kimono is a one-of-a-kind garment -- and in my mind, irreplaceable -- has kept me from altering any of them. I lived with them as they were. I wished for a body the shape of a cylinder, of an idealized Japanese woman.

But another of the things I've learned as I've grown (metaphorically now) is that while the Japanese people come in various shapes and sizes too, with round hips and tummies, it doesn't keep them from wanting -- and, for the most part, achieving -- that ideal figure. Their secrets include, but are not limited to, padding the hollow of the back with towels, binding down a large bust, and altering their kimono to fit. I had long resisted altering my kimono, but it was becoming increasingly clear that this was an untenable situation. It took a combination of experience, frustration, encouragement and nudge from an experienced textile designer to get me to take a chance.

The nudge came from John Marshall, a winsome man from rural Mendocino County in Northern California, a world-renowned textile artist, expert dyer and all-around nice guy. We met him at a textile arts fair last month where he sold assorted Japanese garments, yarns, gold thread (14 karat, straight from Kyoto), books, patterns and accessories. He was comfortably attired in linen kimono and haori, and we immediately struck up conversation. Actually, it wasn't so much conversation as it was us peppering the poor man with questions about where he buys his kimono, if he has retail shop or sells online. We explained have a hard time finding kimono that fit (pat the tummy) and we're always shopping -- and, oh, by the way, where did you get your kimono? What? You made it?

It turned out that he studied Japanese garment construction (among other Japanese textile arts), and if we wanted to learn more we should read his book, Make Your Own Japanese Clothes. (Read it? We own two copies! And if we come back to the fair tomorrow, would you autograph it?) Then the nudge, advice that caused me cancel my never-alter-the-kimono policy on the spot: he simply pointed out what seams generally have extra allowance and can be let out easily, without deconstructing the entire garment.

Kimono, can we give it one more try?
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