Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Passing down an ancient art with Asian textiles

Chinese, left, and Hmong embroidery as well as an Indian sari are part of the “Mysterious Fibers” exhibit.
Chinese, left, and Hmong embroidery as well as an Indian sari are part of the “Mysterious Fibers” exhibit.

Like the bird woman of Japanese folklore who wove with her own down, weavers put a little bit of themselves into their work. Passed on through generations, centuries-old techniques can be used to create modern pieces of wearable beauty.

Asian weavers, in particular, have worked their textile magic for millenniums. Archaeologists have found remnants of intricately dyed and woven silk fabric in Chinese tombs dating back to at least 2700 B.C.

“Weaving has an ancient history, especially in China,” explained Carol Miller of the Sacramento Weavers’ and Spinners’ Guild. “I don’t think a lot of people realize the most beautiful textiles come from Asia.”

Inspired by its members and the craft’s history, the Sacramento guild embraced the diversity of Asian textiles for its annual open house and sale this weekend. Called “Mysterious Fibers,” the show presents the creations of several Asian cultures.

“We’ve gathered Asian textiles from around the continent,” said Miller, who’s part of the team responsible for the show. “We have examples from India, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan and China. ... I think people will be surprised by the variety and the beauty of these textiles. They’re so intricately patterned. Asian textiles tend to be so beautiful because the whole culture is based on beauty.”

Naoko Masterson and Yumiko Swann, two longtime Japanese weavers and members of the Sacramento guild, provided the main inspiration for “Mysterious Fibers.” They’re co-chairwomen for this year’s show and, at the request of their fellow weavers, made it an opportunity to share their wealth of knowledge.

“They’ve done a fantastic job,” Miller said. “Naoko and Yumiko volunteered to be in charge of our open house, and the theme became very obvious at once. They’re both Japanese-born textile artists who do beautiful work. They’re so talented, so humble and so generous.”

Masterson and Swann taught other members Japanese techniques for making beautiful fabrics and clothing. That includes an early form of recycling called sakiori, which turns worn-out kimonos into new textiles. The old garments are cut into narrow strips that are woven with silk thread or yarn into a distinct fabric featuring a nubby silken texture all its own.

“It’s a way to take something old and make it new again,” Miller said.

The show also features examples of katazome, Japanese stencil dyeing. Rice flour is made into a sticky paste, then pressed through a stencil onto the cloth. When dyed, the fabric resists the color where the paste sticks. After the dye dries, the paste is removed, revealing the stenciled pattern.

Shibori could be called Japanese tie-dye; how the fabric is wrapped and knotted before dyeing creates its distinctive patterns. Kumihimo – Japanese braiding – is used to make intricate beaded jewelry as well as silk cords.

For the show, Masterson and Swann challenged weavers to use those traditional techniques to make new textiles that reflect specific elements: moon, wind, snow, flower and bird.

“We’re all weaving things that represent what those elements say to us,” Miller explained.

For a special display, Masterson and Swann turned to Japanese folklore and a fable dear to weavers, “The Crane’s Gift.” In this centuries-old story, a young man rescues a crane from a trap and sets it free. Soon after, a beautiful young woman visits the young man and becomes his wife. As a gift for him, she secretly weaves exquisite fabric, which the young man sells at great profit. He wastes this windfall on drink and gambling, then demands that she weave more fabric.

When he spies on her weaving, the young man discovers the crane creating the fabric from her own downy feathers. With her secret revealed, the bird woman flies away.

Asked to make something reminiscent of this fable, the Sacramento weavers let their creative spirits soar.

“Some used feathers in their weaving to create these beautiful scarves,” Miller said.

And like the story, they tie modern weavers to an ancient art.

Mysterious Fibers

What: Annual open house and sale, hosted by the Sacramento Weavers’ and Spinners’ Guild

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 13 and 14

Where: Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento

Admission: Free