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 Patchwork quilt cover
 Patchwork quilt cover  Length of fabric (from a quilt cover)  Patchwork garment  Notebook containing textile scraps
New Acquisitions: 2016

Patchwork quilt cover

Striking in their strong graphic compositions, these textiles were woven or stitched in farming households or small towns during the early twentieth century. Four were made with indigo-dyed cotton fabric, the mainstay of merchants and peasants. Together these works expand our collection of Japanese textiles—which contains garments used by the warrior class during the Edo period (1615–1868), including both wool parade jackets (S1997.11.1–2, S2009.2) and silk costumes for the Noh theater (S1995.97, S2009.1)—in a new direction.

Three of the works use patchwork, a technique associated with the north and northeast coasts of Honshu, where the chilly climate made cultivation of cotton impossible. Itinerant peddlers sold textile remnants collected from southerly cities to peasants of these cold areas, who pieced them together inventively in multiple layers, reinforced by quilting, to create warm garments and bedding. 

The results differ dramatically depending on which scraps a peasant was able to purchase. The more uniformly blue quilt cover serves as a lexicon for the varieties of striped and plaid patterns woven on household looms. The patches are carefully squared and joined, indicating that its maker had a sufficient supply of quality cloth. The other quilt cover suggests a level of desperation: it is composed of random scraps, including parts of a commercial cotton flour bag and an old shrine banner. Faint traces of an address written with brush and ink remain on the section of shibori-dyed white handspun cotton, indicating that the cloth previously had been used to wrap and mail a package. Other patches, however, are cut from fine ikat-dyed fabric.

The narrow strip of machine-spun cotton represents a different, more prosperous milieu. It was once part of a quilt cover, which was sewn from five lengths cut from a new bolt of specially woven cloth patterned with the process called ikat. Before weaving, the patterns had been tied off on the undyed white yarns, which were then dipped into the indigo dye vat. A white grid frames ikat-dyed pictorial motifs alternating with various check and plaid patterns, also rendered with ikat dyeing of both warp and weft threads. The resulting patchwork-like effect across the five panels would have belied the maker’s careful planning, dyeing, and weaving.

The full-length robe is a masterwork of careful balance. The symmetry of differently patterned segments prevails down to the small triangular patches on the front. The hem is precisely finished with a narrow band of contrasting fabric. A grid of fine quilting reinforces the garment.

The book of textile scraps belonged to a man with the surname Shibuya who, on the first day of the new year of Meiji 38 (1905), inscribed his new “lucky notebook” (daifukuchō). He appears to have used it primarily to practice brushing phrases that were commonly included in letters. He then repurposed the precious paper to create an album of varieties of striped cotton fabric, cut into small strips and pasted side by side on eight of the pages. This may represent the record Mr. Shibuya kept as a proprietor of a small weaving factory or as a textile vendor. The tradition of sample books goes as far back as the famous scraps (meibutsugire) kept by collectors; this notebook is far more modest in ambition. The dog-eared covers, however, suggest that it was consulted regularly for some time.  

Patchwork quilt cover
Japan, early 20th century
Indigo-dyed and vegetable-dyed cotton and repurposed commercial flour bag
141.5 x 121.5 cm
S2016.5 Gift of the Jeffrey Krauss Collection of Japanese Textiles

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