• Fabric,  Travel

    Nippori Textile Town : Fabric Heaven

    nippori textile town -

    Oh, Nippori Textile Town. It’s hard for me to even begin to describe it because I know I’ll sound sappy and overdramatic. But it’s a truly magical place for anyone who loves fabric. And boy, do I love fabric.

    It’s surreal to be sharing this post right now – I can’t believe that just over 2 months ago I flew halfway around the world, and now I barely leave my house! But I think we’re all in need of a virtual adventure, so I hope you enjoy this photographic trip to Japan.

    My first visit to Nippori was in the fall of 2015. It was delightful and overwhelming. I was determined to see as many of the shops as I could – I just had to see everything to really get a feel for the place and my options. This is my typical way of absorbing new places, especially when there’s something as valuable as “fabric variety” at stake.

    nippori textile town - tomato fabrics watercolor
    a watercolor taped to the wall at Tomato – clearly I’m not the only superfan.

    My research served me well because for this trip, I was able to prioritize. You might think this means I spent less time in Nippori than on my first trip… oh no. I spent a day and a half exploring the fabric street. But the majority of that time was spent at Tomato – specifically, the bottom floor of the big Tomato store: the sale floor.

    nippori textile town - tomato sale fabrics floor
    Saturday afternoon rush hour on the Tomato clearance floor
    nippori textile town - 2020 map
    Map of shops in Nippori Textile Town – click for larger.

    There are multiple small Tomato shops on the street, each with a different focus: notions, home decor fabrics, fashion fabrics. But the heart of Nippori is the 5-story mega-Tomato store, filled with mostly quilt-weight cottons.

    My recommendation is to take the elevator to the top, then walk through each floor on your way down. Each floor has specific fabrics, some are grouped by country of origin, others by fabric type. There’s one floor of novelty fabrics, with great holiday prints and prints of all the animated characters you could want: Hello Kitty/Sanrio, Pokemon, Nintendo, Miffy, even some Japan-exclusive Disney prints. And of course, there are the Nani Iro and Kokka sections, made for swooning.

    My recommendation is to swoon away, soak it all in, but don’t buy anything until you’ve explored the ground level, the sale floor. This is where I’ve found so many treasures! It’s like eating salad before a meal: snagging some good sale fabrics helps me to exercise better restraint with the full-priced fabrics.

    Fabric prices in Japan are similar to those in the US, in my opinion. The nice quilting fabric starts around $7-8 per meter and then goes up to $20 or so for the Echino Kokka or Nani Iro designer fabrics. The sale floor, though, averages $4-8 per meter and there’s even a section where all fabrics are 100 yen per meter – about a dollar! Most of these are what you’d expect for the bargain-bin zone, just solid fabrics of varying weights, but a lot of it is great quality (if mysterious in content).

    I’m sure you can find just about any fabric in Nippori, but since I’m always limited by suitcase space, I aim for print cottons because that’s what I think Japan does best. Japanese fabrics are adorable while not being 100% cutesy. I can never get over how many normal-seeming prints have animals hiding throughout, like the Hello Kittys and polar bears in the fabrics above.

    Many of the prints are whimsical; many are geometric or modern. They’re all just so much fun.

    nippori textile town -

    Besides Tomato, here’s what I call “my other favorite shop”, or also, “the shop with the red awning with the cute little girl with scissors”. It does also have a real name: Yamayo (24 on the map). They obviously can’t compete with the sheer volume of inventory at Tomato, but they have a well curated selection of quilting cottons and novelty prints, plus some fun notions and tools.

    Another treasure trove is Satoh Bin, down at the end of the street. It’s extremely unassuming from the outside, but if you’re anything like me, the rubbermaid bins full of clearance remnants will draw you right inside. They had all sorts of fun stuff, all in half-meter cuts: past seasons of Cotton and Steel, Alexander Henry, and other quality designer quilting cottons. Each cut is marked with its price, and some of them are crazy cheap! Even the most expensive were around 500 yen / $4.50 USD for a half meter but many of the pieces were 150-200 yen.

    nippori textile town - printed linens and kokka

    Finally, I know what you’re thinking – show me what you bought already! Here are the gems that came home with me. A lot of linen-blend cottons in the best jewel tones. Some fun animals: polar bears, space animals!, French bulldogs, Shiba Inus with sushi. And of course some Cotton + Steel remnants, and just about any fabric with gold metallic ink.

    I’ve already started cutting into some of these and can’t wait to share my next few projects with you. Fabrics like these sure make it easy to want to sew happy things!

    It’s extremely easy to get to Nippori from Narita airport – the Skyliner goes straight from Narita to Nippori with no stops. The ride is less than an hour and costs about $25 USD each way. Or you can arrive from anywhere in Tokyo by subway. The Tokyo subway is extremely intimidating, but I just focus on where I need to go and block the rest out, and that works. Also, each stop has a number as well as a name which is hugely helpful if you don’t speak Japanese.

    Here are my favorites. The numbers correspond to the Nippori guide map.

    24. Yamayo (Google Maps)

    22. And Leather (Google Maps)

    59. Tomato, main shop (Google Maps)

    79. Satoh Bin (Next to humongous, Google Maps)

    To see my haul from my first time in Nippori, visit Fabric Shopping in Japan on the Fluffyland blog.

    Nippori Textile Town Guide
  • Travel

    Gratitude During Uncertainty: Thankful for Travel

    chiang mai flower and garden festival 2020

    Before I start, here’s my disclaimer: I know that our global pandemic is an enormous problem. There’s the primary pain of loss of human life due to the illness, and thousands of secondary pains to medical workers, small business owners, local restaurants, wage workers, and so many more. I’m not celebrating by any means, and I ache for the many people who are suffering. But I can’t change our current reality, so I’m practicing gratitude for what I do have.

    During the past week of isolating at home, I’ve been savoring the memories of all the faraway places I’ve been able to visit. The privilege to travel is one we don’t have right now, but that helps to remind me what an enormous blessing it is, and I’m so glad I’ve explored so much of the world when I’ve been able.

    Planes are magical. I read a lot of historical fiction, and whenever I read about immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, leaving their families and homelands forever as they board a ship for a months-long voyage, I think of how incredibly fortunate we are to be able to travel as rapidly as we do. It’s something we take for granted, even complain about. My journey to India took around 30 hours each way, and yes – it was brutal! But the privilege to travel around the world and return within the same month is unheard of in most of human history!

    flying over the arctic circle: a white wonderland

    This is a picture of one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen. I was on a plane from Newark to Tokyo, somewhere about 10 hours in, and cracked open my window shade only to be blinded by the white landscape below. We were flying over Siberia, and I stared for nearly an hour as endless mountains of snow and frozen rivers passed below us. It was clear that this vast landscape was uninhabited, perhaps barely explored, and most likely ever changing with the winds and snow. I still can’t fathom the scale of it all. It was so barren, so frigid, and so beautiful.

    This week, I’ve been cooking some of my favorite foods from my favorite places. Nothing transports me back to Thailand like a hot bowl of Khao Soi, started with a packet of curry paste that I carried back from Chiang Mai. I even made my own sweetened condensed milk to add to my Thai iced tea (yes, that one’s the real deal). The spices, the flavors, exude vivid memories of my day of learning to weave, or my delight at wandering the Jim Thompson house, and I can’t help but be filled with gratitude for the chance to have had those experiences.

    sunny day in tokyo - japan wearing face masks before it was cool

    I may be stuck at home, but with a cupboard full of spices and a phone full of photos, home doesn’t feel so small. I have the power to make home whatever – or wherever – I want it to be, and for that I’m grateful.

  • Printmaking,  Travel

    Woodblock Printing at Jaitex Art in Jaipur

    woodblock printing at jaitexart in jaipur, india with ace camps

    This was the final workshop of our Jaipur trip, and it was a true culmination of everything we’d learned. We drove out to Bagru again, this time to Jaitex Art, for a session on true woodblock printing (as opposed to the mud printing for indigo resist).

    jaipur woodblocks at table
    first night dinner table, set with our custom blocks

    When we first signed up for the trip, many moons before departure, we were given the opportunity to each design our own woodblock. Our designs were sent to India, and our blocks were carved by master artisans in preparation for our arrival.

    When we all met at the hotel for dinner on the first night, our blocks greeted us by candlelight. It was the cutest gesture and a very warm welcome to a new place with a new group of people.

    The center photo shows the block I designed, with the two nested triangles. I wanted something that could make some fun repeats and tesselations. To augment our designs, the workshop included a huge table covered in woodblocks that we could use, and that felt like Christmas. It was so hard to choose between the hundreds of blocks, but I grabbed an armful of various triangles and tried my best to just go for it.

    woodblock printing at jaitexart in jaipur, india with ace camps

    The pigments used for these prints were natural dyes. We had access to four colors: black, yellow, red, and brown. I chose to limit my design to just black and yellow because those are my favorites, and I wanted to maintain a very graphic, modern look.

    I played with different repeats of my block, and added other triangle blocks where appropriate. I didn’t plan the design out in advance, which was very contrary to my usual style, but my biggest takeaway from the week was to let myself play and be creative. So I just started. I worked my way around the edges, and filled my scarf: triangle by triangle.

    woodblock printing at jaitexart in jaipur, india with ace camps
    woodblock printing at jaitexart in jaipur, india with ace camps

    I’ve probably said this about every day, but it was so fun to see what everyone else was working on. This project was especially interesting, because we were all working with blocks that we had designed months ago, often with certain intentions in mind. We had all learned so much over the course of the week that many of us ended up making entirely different creations than we anticipated when we first designed that block. And that was pretty awesome.

    woodblock printing at jaitexart in jaipur, india with ace camps

    Every scarf was so beautiful, special, and unique.

    This picture makes it look like everyone went with yellow, but the red dye actually looked yellow until it was set with a mordant that set the dye permanently and turned it red.

    It’s been fun to go back through these pictures a full three months after the trip. This blog post reminds me that there are so many more things I want to print, and I’d love to try different colors and different variations of my little triangle woodblock. That block and my handprinted scarves are some of the best souvenirs I’ve ever brought home from a trip, and I will cherish them and their memories for a long, long time.

    woodblock printing at jaitexart in jaipur, india with ace camps
  • Printmaking,  Travel

    Indigo Dyeing with Block Printed Mud Resist

    Indigo Dyeing with block printed mud resist – samanthasews blog

    After two days of carving our own rubber blocks, it was time to graduate to real woodblocks, Jaipur-style. We piled into our Innova caravan and headed out to Bagru for our first workshop: Indigo dye with Dabu mud resist.

    Indigo Dyeing with block printed mud resist - samanthasews blog

    Before we even began printing, I was blown away by the woodblocks. They are works of art in their own right, and it’s amazing to know that each line, each swirl, is painstakingly carved by hand. Each block is designed with cues to ensure proper alignment with the repeat patterns, and it was so interesting to start to understand how it all works.

    Indigo Dyeing with block printed mud resist - samanthasews blog

    We had a huge array of blocks to choose from – it was very hard to narrow down my selections! We started with one practice piece, about 1 meter of muslin, so I took the opportunity to play with a few patterns and see which I liked best.

    Printing with the mud was challenging but fun. The mud used in dabu is a special blend of natural materials that includes some portion of clay as well as a natural gum (think xantham gum, or other natural coagulants used to keep sauces shelf-stable and consistent). This blend keeps the mud from washing away when the fabric is dipped in the indigo bath.

    The mud was smooth, but drippy and unpredictable. The slightest variation in printing pressure made a big change in the amount of mud left behind by the block. But we would be dipping the scarves in dye, so this was already such an organic process that perfection would be impossible – even, undesirable. With that in mind, I was able to lean in and just print freely, having fun with it. Because, oh my goodness, was it fun.

    After printing with the mud, we sprinkled sawdust over all the mudded areas. This helped the mud dry more quickly, and I think it may also give the mud a little more stability – something else to hold onto while it’s submerged in the indigo.

    We laid our scarves to dry in the sun, then ate lunch while we waited. They gave us the most adorable box lunches. I don’t know what it is, but there is something so comforting and caring to me about getting a lunch that comes in a cardboard box. I even love those sandwich box lunches you get on planes. Is that weird? This was like that but twice as special because it was obviously packed by hand AND there was paneer.

    This was my first time working with indigo dye, and learning about its cultivation and care was fascinating. This indigo vat was a cistern in the ground, 10 feet deep. The indigo dye is a fermented substance, and since this cistern is relatively new (less than 10 years), they bought a culture from a much more established indigo vat – one that was hundreds of years old. It reminded me of sourdough, or beer – a good starter is what makes the magic happen.

    They rolled away a giant concrete slab to expose the dye bath, which was covered in a layer of foamy bubbles (above, top left). The dye-er carefully scooped the bubbles out of the bath and into a bucket, then set the bucket aside. After our dyeing was complete, he poured the bubbles back on top of the dye bath. This is important because the bubbles form a protective layer, sealing the dye bath away from oxygen in the air. The indigo color only appears after oxidation – the liquid itself was actually green, as you can see in the photo of the freshly emerging scarf.

    Indigo Dyeing with block printed mud resist - samanthasews blog
    waiting for our scarves to dry.

    After the first dip, we let our scarves dry, and then printed with mud a second time in preparation for a second dip. The scarves were already very blue at this point, so the resist effect from the second application has far less contrast. There was also an option to do the first dip in a gray dye, and then the second dip in indigo, which gave really beautiful results. But I was all in on the indigo, no regrets.

    After the dye dried for the second time, the scarves were soaked in water to loosen up the mud. Then, amazingly, one of the workers pulled out each piece of fabric, held it over his shoulder and then SMACKED it on a concrete slab. One by one, our fabrics received a good thrashing, and that seemed to be enough to break up the clay. Then they passed from one rinse bucket to the next, leaving behind less and less blue in the water with each rinse.

    Of course, it’s indigo, so it will probably always leave a little bit of blue on anything it rubs against. But I washed my pieces three times (on cold) when I got home, and now at least my scarf doesn’t turn my arms blue when I wear it!

    Indigo Dyeing with block printed mud resist - samanthasews blog

    It’s been exactly a month since the day of these photos, and I still can’t believe how wonderful it was. I’m working to incorporate the spirit of that trip into my normal life, and keep making things just for the fun of it. I just started a fantastic new project and I can’t wait to share.

    indigo dyed scarf - dabu mud resist

  • Printmaking,  Travel

    Block Printing in Jaipur: Abstract Stripe Block

    block printing with a hand-carved abstract stripe block

    When I signed up for the trip to Jaipur, I knew I’d love every part of it. It was a whole week that revolved around fabric – what could be better?! But there were two things that were a million times better than I had imagined. First: I was absolutely enthralled with block printing and, more than anything, loved that this class gave me some much-needed creative space to play. And second: everyone on the trip was wonderful, kind, supportive, talented, and FUN.

    The combination of these two factors made every single day a treat. On the first few days of the trip, when we were designing our own blocks and printing with Jen, there were great ideas being manifested everywhere. Everyone was working on something unique, and it was pure joy to take a break from carving my own blocks, walk around, and look at the eye candy that everyone else was making.

    block printed fabrics created by my trip mates

    With block printing, it’s impossible to be perfect (unless you’re Brigitte Singh…) and Jen’s attitude, which I worked to emulate, is to: accept that the imperfections will happen, plan for them in your work, and embrace them as part of what makes a handprinted textile so special.

    This attitude, the acknowledgement that imperfection is part of the charm of the craft, was so freeing! And as we all began printing gorgeous pieces of textile art, I was constantly inspired. There are infinite options for beautiful blocks and then, once you start playing with repeats, the variety of interesting work you can create is simply boundless.

    Blockprinting - abstract stripe skyline block

    All that is to say that after I had made my peacock block, I wanted to try something entirely different.

    I wanted to make a fabric I’d be likely to sew with and wear, so that pushed me in a more graphic direction. I was also armed with the knowledge that my prints would be imperfect, and those imperfections would make the fabric interesting and beautiful. So I got the basic idea in my head but then I just winged it.

    hand carved block for block printing - abstract stripe

    I started by carving a bunch of stripes into one rectangular block. I varied the stripes slightly on purpose (especially since they were bound to vary slightly by accident). I then cut the block into two separate blocks, but I cut it jagged so that each stripe would be a different height.

    block printing with a hand-carved abstract stripe block

    Then I printed rows. First in a hot pink, because I loved how my test print came out when I borrowed a friend’s pink-inked roller. Then orange, and finally a deep but bright navy.

    I had packed a few scrap fabrics for the trip without knowing what I’d be printing. I threw this gray crosshatch print in my suitcase on a whim, and I love the way the overprint plays with the existing pattern.

    I had also packed a big cut of this blue chambray, so once I had the striping down, I printed a solid navy variation. It’s so much fun how the same blocks, printed in all one color, can create a fabric with such a different feel than the bright, varied stripes. I’m hoping to make a top or a shirtdress out of this fabric eventually. I didn’t finish printing the full yardage, but lovely Jaime let me take the rest of her blue ink home with me so I can carry on!

    Of course, then I couldn’t stop. I printed a border on the pants I was wearing – I had made them for the trip out of the same blue chambray. And then I stamped my arm for a temporary tattoo. Yes, I felt like a rebel.

    I posted this photo to Instagram and we all joked that my mom and/or my fiancé would panic and think I had gotten a tattoo. But alas, they were both entirely unfazed.

    After those 2.5 days I was thoroughly convinced that I need to spend more time with ink, fabric, and of course my beloved carving tools. I love making things, and block printing has all the best parts. It’s pretty, it’s colorful, it’s nearly limitless, it’s really hard to fail, it has lots of zen/”flow” steps, and after the initial effort to carve the block, the printing is nearly mindless (in a great way). Needless to say, I’m hooked.