Exploring the traditions of Japanese craftsmanship with Rob Jones of Romor Designs
Here at Couverture & The Garbstore, we encounter many artisanal crafts and practices from all around world. However, none seem to have the wide-reaching impact of those from Japan.
From Shibori dyeing processes used by brands such as Suzusan and Apiece Apart, to Sashiko stitching techniques applied by Kapital, Engineered Garments and our own Garbstore label, a strong influence can still be felt from the age-old Japanese crafting traditions.
We spoke to Rob Jones, the man behind London-based Romor Designs, and a certified expert on the topic, to get some deeper insight into these techniques, the history surrounding them and what exactly makes each one so special.
Hi, Rob! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. To start, could you tell us a little bit about your background?
I am a Japanese textiles artist, designer/maker and teacher. I work with Shibori resist techniques (1500 years of history and hundreds of patterns using binding, stitching, clamping and folding) and Katagami stencilling (rice paste resist using finely cut paper stencils), both of which use indigo as the dye of choice. I also practice three types of Sashiko embroidery (Moyozashi or pattern sashiko where the stitches never touch), Hitomezashi (one-stitch sashiko where the patterns are stitched in a grid form and the stitches meet) and Kogin (counted thread Sashiko from the Northern part of Honshu, Japan's main island). I also work with Boro inspired mending and natural plant dyes.
I've been working with Japanese textiles crafts since 2011 and, as a full-time artist and teacher since 2016.
I've dyed outfits for Tinie Tempah and Zak Abel for Levis and I'm currently exhibiting a piece of my Shibori work at an exhibition on indigo dyeing at the Japanese Embassy in London.
You clearly have a wealth of knowledge on artisanal Japanese techniques, such as Shibori dyeing. What initially drew you in?
I used to make jewellery as a hobby and attended many courses at West Dean College near Chichester (a lovely stately home for short course crafts). I'd occasionally go off piste and try a different craft, and chose Shibori and indigo dyeing pretty much at random one time. I fell in love with it, a true light bulb moment. I was hooked by the huge range of patterns and the potential for design and creativity with the craft, but especially the indigo! Watching a piece of fabric change colour before your eyes never gets old - It still feels like magic. I then got the opportunity to go to Japan to study with international Japanese textiles guru, Bryan Whitehead, now a firm friend and my sensei in Japan. Spending 10 days dyeing shibori and katagami pieces in his indigo vats and immersing myself in Japanese textiles history and culture was literally life changing, I ended up leaving my Head of eCommerce job a year later and starting my second career in Japanese textiles.
Your pursuit of knowledge has enabled you to study in Japan. How was that experience?
It’s hard to describe just how wonderful it is to spend 10 days working hard making Shibori work and Katagami stencilled pieces, then dyeing them in the rich blue of indigo dye. The process of creating dramatic Shibori is laborious with many hours of patient stitching and knotting and then hours more at the indigo vat (good colour only comes from repeated dipping in the vat, 10-12 times for really dark blues). Bryan has an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese textiles and passionately explains the history, culture and meaning of the rich traditions that have kept this wonderful craft alive. My trip also allowed me to experience wonderful Japanese food and to visit temples, zen gardens and great craftspeople and to fill an entire suitcase with vintage textiles and craft supplies. (I always bring an empty suitcase with me every time I go!)
Are there any significant cultural reasons behind Japan’s predilection for these techniques?
Japan was a closed society for several hundred years and this meant they didn't have the external influences on their craft traditions of other countries around the world. That, and a strong demand for the fabrics (kimonos were worn by all, the word literally means "Thing to wear") meant that the craftspeople worked hard to create their own patterns and techniques to stand out. The Japanese are great innovators and problem solvers and have created huge diversity through experimentation and committed practice and skills were routinely passed down to the next generation, keeping their crafts alive.
In today's world, DIY upcycling and mending has become somewhat of a popular movement – do you think this helps keep ancient arts, such as Boro, relevant?
I've found that there is a great appetite for mending and repair and that people really like seeing and hearing about the Japanese traditions of Boro mending. In my classes I talk about the background to Boro (great poverty amongst the poor farming communities forced them to make and endlessly repair their clothes and bedding with scraps) and show people real pieces of Boro and other vintage fabrics I've collected on my trips to Japan. People love to be inspired by these fabrics and to use traditional Boro mending techniques to mend their clothes. There's also still a great interest in mending as evidenced by it still featuring prominently on programs like the Great British Sewing Bee. My work was featured in the semi-final of the program in 2022 in Japanese Week when the conversion challenge was about using Sashiko hand work to mend denim pieces. The episode is still available on BBC iPlayer.
Here at C&TG, we see modern takes on Japanese indigo dyeing, Sashiko embroidery and repair work through brands such as Kapital and its Kountry sub-label. Do you think these brands hold true to the roots of such crafts?
I love Kapital! They have three shops close to each other in Tokyo and I always go there when I'm in Japan to see where they are taking Sashiko and Boro pieces. Not everything appeals to me, but I love the creativity and use of materials and they are a great source of inspiration.
Finally, could you give some advice to any readers who may be interested in exploring these techniques for themselves?
I'd really encourage people to take a class and then they can continue their practice at home.
I also sell kits with vintage fabrics and needles and threads if you just want to play, but with the right materials!
To keep up with Rob's work, follow Romor Designs on Instagram and explore his website.
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