Lone Wolf 

on the Loom

Now she’s eighty-eight. She lives by herself in a big old wooden house on the pilgrim route to and from Mt. Koya in Wakayama. This was the house she saw for the first time the day she met her husband—on her wedding day—sixty-eight years ago. In a large-beamed room directly adjoining the front of the house (a room that was once likely a teahouse for the pilgrim trade) she keeps her magnificent broadloom. Here, Fukuko Katsuura weaves hand-spun silk and paper threads colored with indigo, madder, pomegranate skins, and other homegrown plant dyes. Obsessed with a desire to weave, she has struggled to find her own way along a solitary path outside the usual Japanese organized system of teachers, students, and schools. She is truly a lone wolf—highly unusual for an elderly Japanese woman born into a farming family.

sad update

Fukuko Katsuura died in July 2016

Undeterred by her own initial ignorance, and undaunted by prejudice from insiders, Fukuko began weaving at age sixty, and has persevered through trial and error, coming up with her own style of hand-dyed woven fabrics in subtle hues and weaves that astonish the eye with their sophisticated simplicity. It’s not that she never had teachers, but she is very unusual in that she did not bind herself into the follower role that traditional Japanese arts and crafts have always demanded. When she wanted to learn something, she found teachers. When she was snubbed or ignored by the established guilds, she shrugged and went back to her loom. Had her life been one of leisure, she would have started weaving from her youth.

The eldest daughter in a farming family, Fukuko struggled through the war years with her mother and brothers after her father died. Life was still very hard in 1947, the year she married. Food was scarce, as was durable cloth for working wear. Frustrated in a search for fabric, she remembers coming across a bolt of striped kimono cloth woven by her grandmother. The feel of that honest home-woven cotton cloth was a revelation. That was the day her feet first stepped on the path of weaving, she says. Had she been able, she would have dropped everything and learned to weave then.

However, entering your husband’s family as the bride of the first-born son, even in mid 20th-century Japan, was little better than indentured labor. Fukuko waited on her parents-in-law, served her husband, worked in the fields, and bore children. All the while, the image of that striped cloth floated, out of reach, in her mind. Besides her responsibilities, Fukuko lived deep in the country. Nobody in the village had a loom, and there was no one who knew how to weave.

Then, in 1980, she heard of a weaver in a nearby town who would be willing to teach her the basics, and with her husband’s permission she travelled once a month to learn from him. For several years she went faithfully, even though, this whole time, all she was allowed to do was wind bobbins. One day she saw that other, newer students were put directly to weaving on the loom, and she stopped in disgust. Was it her age? The fact that she could not do weaving full time? Or just the inexperience of a terrible teacher? All she knew was that she was getting nowhere and needed a loom in her own house.

She managed to borrow one, set it up with thread, and through trial and error, wove herself a bolt of un-patterned silk to make into a kimono. The satisfaction of completing this project, from threads to kimono, meant she was irrevocably hooked. She wanted to weave more. She wanted her very own loom.

And then, in 1983, the year Fukuko turned sixty, her husband retired, and with his lump sum pension payment, bought her a professional loom from one of the great weaving centers in Kyoto. At their house, the original connected teahouse (which had been used as a garage for years) was cleaned up and refashioned into Fukuko’s weaving studio. There, the two of them figured out how to put together this loom that had been delivered to the house as a medley of parts and pieces. Sixty years is considered a full span of the zodiac in the Asian calendar, so life after that can be considered a new start. Fukuko’s new life as a weaver began at sixty.

natural dyed striped kimono

Her eyes were beginning to open to the wider world of technical skills involved in the things she loved to do most. She met the author of a classic book on indigo dyeing and learned about the famous Kawashima Textile School in Kyoto. She travelled to Nagano Prefecture for a workshop on natural dyeing wool. She had never had the opportunity to travel for her own interest before. Working alongside young people and learning with them and from them became one of her greatest pleasures.

Still, there were huge gaps in her knowledge that, self taught as she was, she would stumble into. Nobody had ever told her that thread for weaving was always sold plain, undyed. One either had it dyed by specialists before weaving, or afterward, as cloth. Unknowing, she bought some colored thread that had been remaindered, and found it extremely hard to work with. Without anyone to advise her, she gritted her teeth and managed to weave a bolt from it. Again and again, in her weaving life, she would trip on her ignorance, and then that initial disappointment would turn into resolve to figure things out herself.

Yet, asked if she would submit a piece of weaving to a group show, she offered this cloth that she had woven with such difficulty. At the exhibit, a dyer from Osaka inquired about the work. “You made this?” he asked her. When she replied, “Yes, that’s my work,” he said, “I can see your feelings expressed here so honestly it hurts.”

Fukuko was amazed that to the eyes of this observer the results she had achieved spoke of the struggle she experienced. Yet this was highest praise—the man bought the cloth. Encouraged, she focused on learning all she could about dyeing. Beginning with indigo, she resolving that from now on she would grow her own plants and dye her own thread.

silk thread in cherrywood dye bath

various natural dyestuffs

She had reached a point where she needed teachers again. In the winter of 1987, after the tangerine harvest had been completed, she enrolled in the Kawashima Textile School in Kyoto. She was the only granny in a roomful of young people, yet her eagerness to learn and love of weaving inspired everyone to help and encourage her. Living in the dormitory with the students at night, she dove into working on the looms during the day, mastering the techniques of tapestry weave and light to dark shading called bokashi.

She attended exhibitions of new works whenever possible. “Absorb everything!” her teachers told her. Back at home in Wakayama, she continued to weave and experiment. Then, another setback. At a dyeing workshop in Tenri, the teacher told her to move her project to make way for a younger student. What’s worse, he cut her threads off the loom. To a weaver this was unforgivable. Fukuko couldn’t understand why she should be treated so, and dropped out. Uncowed, she bought new thread with the class fees she would have spent, and went back to her loom.

She resolved to simply see what she could weave—on her own, piece by piece, without rush, without fuss. Weaving itself was the point. As was dyeing. On the mountain paths she picked up acorns for making dark brown; she discovered madder growing naturally in her orchards. When the village was ordered by the government to cut down tangerine trees because of overproduction, she wept, but saved the ashes from their wood to use as dye mordant. In the newly bare fields, she planted indigo.

digging madder roots

Occasionally she would place works in exhibitions. She started to win prizes. Then, another setback. In a show to be judged by a famous natural dyer, she was told her work was “lacking in heart.” Fukuko reeled. What was her work if not an expression of her deepest heartfelt desire to weave? She had run into the guild-dominated world of professional jealousies, of insider tracks and a system that rewarded the vertical relationships of teacher and students. As had become her habit, she shrugged off the barb and, with her husband’s encouragement, went back to her loom. 

There was always something interesting to learn in the pursuit of weaving knowledge, and most weavers responded to her eagerness by sharing their skills. She travelled all over and discovered and learned the ancient technique of making bast fiber from wisteria vines. She experimented and refined her indigo dyes. She met someone who showed her how to make thread out of Japanese paper. She made paper thread, and then wove not only strong obi sashes with it, but refined the technique of twisting paper thread to a degree of fineness that allowed her to weave soft kimono cloth. She learned the process of dyeing with sumi ink. Then, her husband died.

obi woven of paper thread

sumi ink dyed kimono

kimono woven of indigo-dyed paper thread

narrowly sliced paper

twisted paper thread

Her life had gradually become freer as old responsibilities dropped away, and her husband had become her companion, advisor, and support. Her weaving bloomed, and she was happy. But now she stopped weaving for exhibitions. Her grandson (now living in America) came back to Japan and they travelled together to Hokkaido. But the loom never ceased calling. She saw a kimono in a dyer’s window that was woven of unglossed, hand-reeled silk dyed with osmanthus. Her desire to weave was awakened anew. “I wanted to see! Wanted to touch! Wanted to weave that!” she recalled. She went to Gumma Prefecture to observe cocoons bobbing in a huge iron pot of hot water as the artisans hand-reeled the silk threads (zaguri-ito). Fukuko learned to pull the gossamer threads off cocoons herself, making her own thread.

 She began pulling filaments from the highest grade cocoons, called 

koishimaru, difficult to work with, but producing the finest, lightest silk.

koishimaru cocoon (left)

regular cocoon (right)

She always dyes her thread, never the woven cloth. Acorn, walnut, indigo, pomegranate, madder, cherry bark, nettle, gardeniacandleberry, carpgrass, chinaberry—she grew or foraged them all. From unfermented indigo she produced an amazing and steadfast lavender color. Sometimes the loops and skeins of dyed silk hanging out to dry would suggest a stripe pattern. Sometimes she felt they were so beautiful as they hung there, they hardly needed to have a weft woven through them.

By now she had come to look at the raw materials of weaving with great sympathy. Whereas at one time she felt she had suffered in trying to weave with a particular thread, now she felt that due to her lack of understanding, the thread was the one to have suffered.

natural-dyed striped kimono

unfermented indigo dye creating a light lavender color

(photo taken at the Berkeley exhibition by Christin Mckinight Sethi)

In 2013 Fukuko Katsuura gave a talk along with an exhibition of some of her works at the East Asian Center at the University of California Berkeley. I happened to attend, and was deeply struck by the story of her life as well as the astonishing beauty of her weavings. I got to know her son Hidefumi (a professor of mathematics at San Jose State University) who had served as interpreter for her talk, and I met Fukuko again the following year when she came to visit him in California. On my last trip to Japan in March 2014, I visited her house in Wakayama. It was a chilly misty spring day. We sat feet tucked under a warm kotatsu table, eating persimmon-leaf pressed mackerel sushi, sumo matches playing on the television. She showed me her loom, her garden, and rolls and rolls of cloth she had woven. In each roll she had tucked a note to herself. For an obi: “two rows walnut, one row indigo. These days I am loving to do un-pattern.” For a soft salmon-pink roll of hand-spun tsumugi silk: “Cherry tree heartwood, aged.”

From a cabinet Hidefumi had built for her kimonos, she took out a robe provisionally stitched but never worn. In this weaving, she had mastered the light-to-dark bokashi technique she had struggled to learn at Kawashima in 1987. Inspired by the colors of dawn, she wove gray that blended into pink and back to gray. At the hem was a large design of looped coils composed of a wavy herringbone-like pattern in extremely fine detail. It was a masterpiece of weaving.

herringbone-pattern bokashi kimono

In the past, when it was not rare for women in individual households to weave their own fabric, they often kept “stripe diaries,” samples of patterns they had devised and woven over time. Fukuko did something similar with leftover pieces of her weavings, setting them in a patchwork in a folding screen. I was struck, when she unfolded it, how all the pieces, despite their variety of design and color, nevertheless all appeared harmonious.

“It’s because they are all natural dyes,” she explained. “They come from the same world.” Another folding screen contained another of her experiments—a tapestry-woven roll of hempen thread depicting a calligraphed ancient poem in indigo-dyed thread.

sampler of striped and ikat fabrics

tapestry-woven poem in indigo-dyed hemp

In Fukuko Katsuura I felt a parallel to something in my own life and work. I myself, upon turning sixty, had decided that I was tired of writing books, and began learning to do something very different that had always interested me—the making of hanging scrolls. Largely self-taught in the beginning, I, too, reached a point where I needed teachers, and so went to Japan to study with a master scroll mounter in Kyoto. Then I returned home armed with new knowledge and technique and continued to experiment on my own, working with unconventional papers, fabrics, and designs. Like Fukuko, in my quest for information, I have met all sorts of wonderful and interesting people who have been willing to share their knowledge.

Recently I received a letter from her, at the end of which she wrote several sentences that summed up her thoughts on life. 

—When we have no prior knowledge, we are free to dream. 

—Because we are human we can make ten thousand friends. 

—The young are our teachers.

—In my opinion, we only begin to mature starting at age sixty.

—Our assets are simply the lives we have led.

A wise lone wolf, still on the loom.

Fukuko Katsuura