BA Textile Design students Guy Genney and Maria Appleton recently travelled to Japan with Textile Design Programme Director Caryn Simonson on a research trip to Kyoto Institute of Technology (KIT) as participants in KIT Design Lab Textile Summer School, led by Professor Julia Cassim.
Along with several other design researchers from around the world, they looked at the production process of Chirimen, the silk fabric traditionally used for the Kimono, created and produced on the Kyotango peninsular.
We caught up with them to find out how their trip went, what was involved and the key aspects they gained from it.
Tell us about the research trip:
Caryn Simonson, Textile Design Programme Director:
“The research trip provided a fantastic opportunity for a full programme of inspiring visits to silk producers, innovators and the Textile Industry Research Centre in the Kyotango area. Following a rich insight into the making of Chirimen silk from cocoon to woven cloth, we went back to KIT design lab’s hybrid maker space and studio to develop new ideas reimagining new applications for Chirimen.
“Working on key themes around universal and inclusive design such as extreme sports and independent living, we worked collaboratively with other international researchers to prototype our designs. The two weeks were action packed and the teamwork spirit driving our design directions and working towards a common goal generated an inspiring energy.
“We learned new skills including the use of sensory surfaces through Arduino and conductive thread, as well as a deep insight into one major aspect of Japan’s rich textile culture.
“This trip stays vividly in our memories and will influence our future design work and collaborations.”
Tell us about to your trip to Japan, where did you go? Where did you stay? What were your first impressions on arriving?
“A group of three from Chelsea participated in the Textiles Summer School at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan. Our destination was the ancient city of Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, a great place for culture and the arts on a first visit to the country.
“The Kyoto Institute of Technology (KIT) is one of the most respected academic institutions in Japan, but it doesn’t have a textiles department. To remedy this, it invites students and academics from various universities across the world to spend two weeks working collaboratively to a design brief.
“On arrival, I remember how visually different everything was, from architecture and signage to packaging, and how many ideas that were generated for future projects.”
“I have always wanted to go to Japan. When I could finally see the mountains from the airplane window, those different shaped mountains, that are so characteristic to that place, I found myself in this limbo between the old and the new, the preconceived and the discovery. There was something very special about finally stepping on the ground that intrigued me since I was 14 and read Pearl Buck’s novels.
“The excitement was big and so was the strangeness of that place at first sight. We landed in Osaka and traveled to Kyoto where we stayed in Marikoji House, Kyoto Institute of Technology (KIT) student accommodation. What a unique building, where a lovely man checked us in, making sure we had everything we needed.”
How did you get involved in the project?
“I was fortunate to be selected as one of two students representing Chelsea at the summer school. It was a longtime ambition to visit Japan, but particularly to learn more about the textile industry and practices there.”
“In June I received an email, about an opportunity for two students to go on a research project to Kyoto. It was just the right timing, I was available in September, I have a special interest in the subject to be developed and a profound desire to go to Japan.
“The idea of getting so much insight into the textiles industry in this country, and with the extra feature of being able to contribute to its development was something that really spoke to me. I completed my application in two days, and after two weeks there was an email starting with “Congratulations…” and I couldn’t believe it.”
What work was created as part of the project?
“We spent the first week in the Kyotango peninsular which is the heartland of traditional kimono weaving, visiting mills and experimental artisans in their homes. Sadly, this is an industry in decline as the kimono is more associated with ceremonial dress and tourism these days. Our challenge as a group was to identify new uses for a fabric called silk Chirimen, a crepe fabric used for the kimono which has a range of interesting material properties.
“In the second part of the trip, we were based in the design lab at Kyoto Institute of Technology, where we had access to the full range of facilities and technicians. I worked in a sub team that considered the use of silk Chirimen in a health context and our ‘product’ was a pillow for dementia patients with smart textile properties that allowed the user to play music tracks that evoke significant memories.”
“The idea was to bring into this part of Japan called Kyotango a group of young and multicultural people that would take a deep look at this fabric properties and qualities in order to purpose fresh and different applications for it. In my case I developed a series of prints based on the story of the production process of Chirimen, the fabric that is traditionally used for the Kimono.
“As we know the Kimono Industry is dying due to the success that western clothing has had and continues to have in Japan. It is unfortunate to see such a craft being forgotten. Chirimen is a fabric which requires highly skilled workers. Seeing these people working with such passion on the production of this fabric, made me want to tell this story.
“Inspired by the collections of printed fabrics in the archive at the Textile Research Centre in Kyotango, I combined visual elements of the industrial context of Chirimen, with the colour palette that I found not just in those factories but transversal during my experience of Japanese culture.”
Who did you collaborate with? What was this experience like?
“The project allowed me to explore an entirely different area of practice. There was a lot of help on hand and we had the freedom to take our prototype in the direction we chose. I worked in a team with staff and students from the Royal College of Art and from Tama Art University in Tokyo. We each brought a very different skill set to the project and although the last day was very busy and we prepared for the final demonstration, the reaction from the audience made it all worthwhile.”
“The group was made by staff and/or students from Chelsea College of Arts, KIT, Central Saint Martins, Design Academy Eindhoven, Royal College of Arts, and from Chile and other schools in Kyoto. I think that the major learning for me, came from being surrounded by a so many people with a variety of paths and backgrounds within textile design, product design, service design and material design.
“We all have very different backgrounds and interests, which opened a lot of doors for me. There was a high concern from every member on this team for truly understanding all the characteristics of the material that we were working with. There was a very deep sense of questioning, “what if…”. That really challenged my point of view when working on the exploration of the material. I learned mostly through questions from the other participants.”
In what ways did the project enhance your practice? Did it change the way you think about, or approach your work going forward?
“My textile design specialism is weave so I led on that part of our project. I used conductive yarn to embed sensors within the cloth which linked to an ‘Arduino’ board which was connected to speakers. So, the loom became an interactive musical instrument that people ‘played’ after our demo. The experience has opened my mind to taking my practice into other areas for the final project.”
“The trip revealed a lot of options material wise and helped me build my critical thinking during the making process. That is enough to make my work change its own fate. Just questioning it makes it better, more conscious.”
What were the highlights of the trip?
“Beyond the academic part of the trip, we had a free weekend in which to explore the city of Kyoto. We made the most of all the city has to offer, from the temples and shrines to museums and more, as well as stocking up on some local yarns.”
“My highlights were the four days visiting the factories and companies that produce or treat Chirimen in Kyotango. I finally got to see the craftsmanship in the Japanese context, which is so acclaimed worldwide, but very romanticised. It was a very important thing for me, to be able to engage with these craftspeople in a raw and honest way, questioning the reality of their work, offering my reflections and ideas.
“Another great highlight was the two days I spent printing on an inspiring paper-making workshop room. It was slightly like a secret allowance. A paper-making studio needs to be shiny clean. I couldn’t make any kind of mess. A spot of ink would be a problem. So, I took much care cleaning up any kind of left-overs from my work. It was a challenge working in such a short amount of time, and in a space with such imposing rules. The important thing is that the space didn’t dictate my work.”
Has the project led to any future projects or ways of working?
“I came way from this trip having tried something entirely new and I will have the option of returning to that in my final year at Chelsea. I wouldn’t say that it will mean a complete change of direction, but I’ve learned how joining forces with other specialists can lead to much more interesting outcomes.”
“I am now thinking about ways for future collaborations between myself as a designer and these companies. From now on I feel responsibility for this industry, and when the right opportunity comes, I will definitely aim to work with them again.”
What are the main things you learned from the experience?
“I learned a considerable amount about process and industry from our regional visit. I benefited from the collaborative format of the workshop and made a new set of contacts. I pushed myself to try something new and succeeded.”
“Craft suffers equally in almost every part of the world. What we have done in Kyoto was inspiring. It is about the relationship between designer and producer, technology and craft, tradition and innovation.
“I believe it is a major part of the role of a designer to create alongside existing practitioners and/or techniques, supporting somewhat forgotten industries. It is a sustainable and political approach to design. I can say I gained a major insight into Japanese culture and I am happy it was a first hand accomplishment, not dependent on other people’s romantic idea of such a curious and varied place.”
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Header image credit: Guy Genney