The Genteel
August 20, 2014
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Silk chiffon shibori stitched scarf. All colors are hand-dyed.

Shibori is the Japanese word that encompasses the various techniques of working with and designing textiles. The ancient art form dates back to 8th century Japan where it was originally used by those people who, not able to afford silk or cotton, had only hemp from which to make their clothes. Using the various shibori techniques, clothes could be shaped and dyed over and over again.

One of the oldest shibori techniques is arimatsu, brought from China into Japan 1300 years ago, where the artist draws a design on a piece of fabric, ties knots around points of the fabric and then dyes it. The dye doesn't infiltrate the knots and when the cloth is untied, a geometrical pattern emerges.

I think of shibori as being like origami with its many different types of folding or of making an eight-sided snowflake out of paper. Fan folding, triangle folding, clamping one area, manipulating and distorting.

Some other shibori forms are: Kanoko, which involves binding off sections of the cloth and dyeing only those sections; Muira, where a hooked threaded needle is used to bind off sections of cloth; Kumo, where sections of the cloth are closely pleated and bound to get a unique design; and Nui, where a wooden dowel and a running stitch are used to tightly pull the cloth together.

Textile artist Amy Nguyen uses Itajame and Arashi shibori art in her designs. Several years ago she became fascinated with shibori art which she describes in this way: "I think of shibori as being like origami with its many different types of folding or of making an eight-sided snowflake out of paper. Fan folding, triangle folding, clamping one area, manipulating and distorting."

When working in the Itajame style, the cloth is placed between two flat objects, whether acrylic, plexiglas, or wood, which are tied together with string. Arashi is pole-wrapping shibori where the cloth is tightly bound on a pole using a diagonal cut then thread is used to bind the cloth. The next step is to tightly scrunch the cloth on the pole to give it a pleated diagonal design. 

Growing up, Nguyen was surrounded by bolts of fabrics, skeins of yarn, sewing machines, ribbons and hundreds of spools of thread. Her mother sewed and knitted all of her clothing and, today, is an accomplished quilter who, from time to time, offers artistic advice to her daughter. 

As a child, Nguyen loved pouring over her mother's pattern books, made her first quilt when she was in her early teens and has always designed her own clothes.

Nguyen graduated from the College of Charleston in South Carolina where she earned her degree in painting and costume development. While in school she developed an interest in photography and graphic design. It was after collaborating on a project with batik artist Mary Edna Fraser that Nguyen decided to create her paintings on fabric and fell in love with the affect that the material gave her work. In the mid-1990's, she started studying shibori art with Yoshiko Wada and Joy Boutrup at the Penland School of Crafts. 

Working out of her tiny apartment in Boston, she uses bolts of white silk organza and silk chiffon to make her kimonos, jackets, scarves and flowing vests. Her husband is of Vietnamese ancestry and it's from him that she developed her love for East Asian designs. 

Silk organza shibori stitched textured wrap.

Nguyen's pantry is her dyeing room, where she fashioned a dye box out of pieces of cardboard she taped together and lines with wet newspaper. For clamping and manipulating the fabric, she'll use vise grips, pieces of wood, clothes pins and anything else she deems suitable, even salad tongs. When designing in Arashi shibori, she uses string, yarns, ribbons or threads.

Whether working in Itajame or Arashi, Nguyen hand stitches the biases on all her designs. To get a leaf pattern, she sews in microscopic size stitches to create the leaf vein in the material. Nguyen believes that shibori art's greatest asset is the texture that stitching gives each piece of work.

Nguyen is drawn to the shibori technique because of the way the artist has to work the fabric with a strong personal intensity.  Standing all of 5 feet 2 inches and weighing one hundred pounds, she is a formidable force when it comes to working the cloths in the shibori process. Amy looks at it this way: "I don't have to go to a gym to work out; I get my exercise with all the pulling, wrenching and twisting I do for my art." 

The dyeing process is another form of shibori in which Nguyen folds and clamps the item in the design she wants and manipulates the fabric before and after placing it in the dye bath and even over dyeing it. She sets the dyes by boiling the item in synthrapal, then pressing and clamping it. If she wants the silk to be softer, as in a kimono, using a chemical process she removes the sericin from the material, the glue like substance that the silk worm leaves behind. If she is working with an idea of leaving certain aspects of the design stiffer for stitching she clamps these off before removing the sericin. 

Nguyen feels that shibori dyeing is like being a potter putting on glaze you don't know what you're going to get with the finished product. And that the most beautiful thing about the dye work is the flow it gives in uniting the materials.

Like other shibori artists she takes many steps in creating her designs (in some more than thirty); planning, pattern, cutting, clamping, the dye process(es), opening, folding again and again, measuring, more clamping, more tying, and, finally, pressing. One simple kimono takes two weeks, scarves about five hours, and the more intricate and elaborate designs, jackets, coats, can take several weeks.    

In a former life, Nguyen was an administrator in academic affairs at the New England Institute of Art in Boston. She was doing that full time during the day and her shibori art at night. In 2009, she took a massive leap of faith, giving up her day job to create shibori art full time. That leap paid off in that she is doing what she loves and doing it beautifully.


Photographs courtesy of Amy Nguyen.

Amy Nguyen's work can be seen and purchased at her website: www.amynguyentextiles.com.

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