Midori-san is a talented practitioner, designer and tutor of Japanese embroidery and Kinsai. Kinsai is the application of gold leaf to fabric. The first time I went to Bournemouth for Japanese Embroidery lessons, a supplementary class in Kinsai was held the following weekend. Perhaps my tutor thought 5 days of intense lessons was enough for an absolute beginner to handle in one week or maybe the class was fully subscribed. Whatever the reason, I was not offered a place on that occasion and I have always hoped that the class would run again. Well, yippee, this year it did. In 2005, I believe the class did Japanese Vista. This time we were taught Dropping Cherry Tree, one of two fans that Midori-san has designed.
We were working on a very pretty, light weight silk that was spaced dyed in the palest of pastel colours. Each piece was unique. The silk is first applied to a piece of foam core board using 505 spray, taking care to ensure there were no wrinkles of air bubbles. As with most techniques it is worth taking time getting the preparation right as this can affect the quality of the work. We then drew around a card template to mark the outline of the fan on our fabric.
The gold leaf was applied using various techniques. For each step, sections of the fan or surrounding fabric were masked out using sticky backed plastic. Midori-san had pre-printed the masks on to the plastic and carefully labelled them so we could easily identify each piece after we had cut them out.
First everything except the gold cloud shapes was masked out. We then applied gold paste paint to these shapes using a tool called a pallet. It is rather like a rubber squeegee attached to a rectangular wooden handle. Basically the pallet is used to drag the paste across the area and then remove the surplus much in the way you do screen printing. As many of us discovered, this is not as easy as it looks and our paste bled under the edges of the mask. For this design that did not matter too much since the next step was to soften the edges using gold paste and a stippling brush. Silver paste was also stippled onto some of the clouds.
Once the paint had dried, assisted by a hair dryer, we removed some of the masks and applied new ones over the completed central panel.
The left and right panels were first colours with red and blue paste paint applied in a random manner with a stippling brush. Again, this was more difficult than I had anticipated. The paint is very strongly coloured and we were aiming for a more subtle look. You have to pick up a small amount of paint on the brush and then remove most of it on kitchen paper before applying a very light covering to your silk and gradually building up the layers to achieve the desired effect. I think that most of us felt that we had applied to much and that the colour was too strong. Having said that, I think the colour faded over the next twenty-four hours, perhaps when it had fully dried, and when I looked at it the following day, I liked it better.
A new mask was applied over the end panels leaving only two small fan shapes on each end. These were filled with dark gold paste paint in the same way as the clouds but this time through a silk screen with the design(s) of your choice. There were seven designs to choose from. We did not have the same problems with bleeding this time, partly because we were aware of it and made sure we pressed down the edges of the mask more carefully and partly because the silk screen helps to prevent the paint squiging under the edges. The main difficulty here was ensuring that you had covered the whole of the shape before removing the mask.
After the fan masks were removed, the end panels were covered with various gold and silver leaf ‘bits’. Glue was spread over the whole area using the pallet in the same way that the paste paint was applied. You then had to work quickly as the glue soon dried. First fine gold leaf strips were lightly scattered using bamboo tweezers followed by gold and silver cut ends using bamboo sifting tubes. The large cut ends are placed in an open mess tube which is gently rotated to gently release the pieces; the smaller pieces are placed in a fine mesh tube and a brush is used to sprinkle glitter-like pieces. And you guessed it; none of this was as easy as it looked. With the tweezers, you either picked up too few or too many; with the seize either too little or too much leaf came out at a time; and the gold leaf is so unimaginably light that in a seemingly breeze free room the pieces float around and end up in a completely different place to the one that you intended.
The application of gold was now finished, all that remained was to dry our designs using a hair dryer and heat sealing everything using a heat press before Midori-san screen printed the embroidery design ready to begin stitching the next day.
Rereading this, it sounds as though I did not enjoy the class. Nothing could be further from the truth. The materials that Midori-san had prepared for us (templates, masks and instructions) were spot on. One of the required pieces was not labelled and some students did not realise that it was needed but that only meant that they had a different feature on their design but every design was unique given the vagrancies of the gold leaf. It is not a characteristic unique to Japanese embroiderers, but I have noticed that we tend to have high expectations of ourselves. Despite this being our first or, for some, a second attempt at this difficult technique, we all wanted to achieve the same standard as Midori-san, who has been practicing Kinsai for I don’t know how long. I really enjoyed the class and learning the techniques even though I was not terribly satisfied with the results of my efforts.
The course runs over two days. By the end of day one, we had covered what normally takes one and a half days, which meant we would had a full day for stitching on day two and Midori-san was able to spend plenty of time with each student demonstrating how she designed the stitched part of the fan. By the time my turn came, afternoon tea was announced. Midori-san said she didn’t want tea, she wanted to stitch and even though I was ready for a cup of tea, there was no way I was going to miss my opportunity of a one on one lesson with her.
For me, this was a fantastic weekend but the best thing on Sunday night was ... I still had FIVE days of Japanese Embroidery to look forward to.