In a previous post (Fossil Garments, part 2), I mentioned boro, and said I would tell more about it later. In case you missed that post, here's the gist of it:
In early 20th century Japan people living in the north couldn't grow cotton, so they grew hemp. Each family was able to grow, ret, spin, and weave enough cloth for 2 or 3 items per year. Maybe a jacket, a pair of pants and a blanket. Per family. So if something was torn, it was mended, patched, patched again, and again, until there was more repair than original. Clothing was handed down. And darned again. And the white stitches on the indigo dyes blue fabric became living history. After World War 2, when cotton cloth became available, people were ashamed of the old clothing, calling it 'boro' - rags. Much of it was thrown out. But a folklorist named Chūzaburō Tanaka began collecting these garments, recognizing their beauty and value as an irreplaceable art form (there is a big collection of boro at the Amuse Museum in Asakusa, Tokyo).
The patterns of worn layers on boro can look like fossil remains.
And the stitches are magnificent. So, for today, let's just look at these wonderful pieces at the Amuse Museum:
A sewing bundle. Fabric was so scarce that every tiny scrap was saved. I bought one of these bundles at a temple flea market in Tokyo. One piece - no more than 8 x 10 inches - was made up of even smaller segments, stitched together.
Shoes, with the traditional split toes. Think about these the next time you throw away a pair of socks.
If you see this garment, and don't understand the history of it, you might be forgiven for not appreciating it. But knowing the incredible amount of work needed to produce and maintain it, the desperate creativity it required, how can you not look at it with reverence? One last point: The people who made this had to pay to have it dyed with indigo. They gave up some of their precious cloth to pay for the color. Beauty was needed as much as warmth.
As George learned, the biblical flood story wasn't the only one. And the Christian images of Noah and his ark weren't the only pictures:
But in putting together my own flood tablet, I stuck with European Medieval images like these:
This last one was best suited to the tablet I wanted to make. Combining it with the image of the clay tablet required only minor changes:
Just a note here: this piece was actually the first one I designed and printed. But after it was dyed, I started sewing the Scribe Tablet and the Stained Glass Tablet. All of them have a lot of lettering. As the series continued, I decided I really didn't need quite so many words. The Beasiary and Tibuktu Tablets have smaller explanatory wording, but the tablets still further along (waiting for me to even start sewing) have a minimum of words.
After dyeing, I started sewing, but changed my mind and decided to applique some leather and wool for the animals:
This one is close to finished. I keep telling myself that, and then finding more to do. Here's the pinned-down-and-almost-ready-to-mount version:
And here's the finished, mounted version of my Flood Tablet:
Up in the left hand corner, under the word "of" is George, pointing out the cuneiform.
While I still have more tablets, none are finished enough to share yet. So starting Friday, we'll be starting a bit of a detour, back to boro and the art of mending.
There's Noah, the Ark, animals 2-by-2, the flood. Famous biblical story.
But….long before the bible, the same plot shows up in the eleventh tablet of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (which we all read in class long ago, right? Sure we did. Gilgamesh has a big quest, fights monsters and there’s a big flood. Remember?It's basically the oldest novel in the world). The ceramic version of this story (a clay tablet) was found amid the ruins of the Library of Ashurbanibal, King of Assyria.
The tablet inscribed with the story (the Flood Tablet) is only about 6” x 5”, and it’s covered in cuneiform writing. It’s a small scruffy-looking thing. In the 1870’s, it caused a huge uproar, and here’s that story:
Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was the archetypical British Major General who studied the inscriptions at Behistun, in Iran, and figured out how to translate cuneiform. He was rich, well-connected, and smart. He made quite a name for himself. Meanwhile, George Smith was poor, unknown but very smart and obsessively interested in Assyria. He would come to the British Museum whenever he could, and taught himself how to read cuneiform.
Eventually, the museum hired George, and he was the guy who first realized that this scrap of ceramic was a game-changer. He wrote a paper, presented it to the Society of Biblical Archaeology and (in a very religiously strict society where people believed their bibles) caused quite the ruckus. How could this biblical tale be a re-make of an old stone? All this, just a quarter century after Darwin published that business about evolution.
George did achieve some fame, not much fortune, and died at age 36. I have great empathy for George: simple name, no titles, just addicted to all things Assyrian, needing another fix of translation, please, just a little more. There's a story (probably apocryphal) that when he first realized what the tablet held, he was so excited that he tore off his clothes. There's another story (probably true) that the delay on his final expedition led to his death from dysentery....a delay that he was forced to make due to financial constraints.
Writing as someone whose grandmother was born in a thatched hut, and who can never stop sewing, I understand, George. And you'll have a place in my tablet.
The tablet had to include the shelves, the crates, and the new library.
After several tries, I had the basic arrangement, and as usual, I added to it:
I fit in images of manuscript pages on the sides, along with the scholar examining the crates of books on the right.
Since Medieval manuscripts were written on parchment (which is a form of leather), I used extremely thin strips from old white leather gloves to create the scrolls on this tablet.
In this picture, you can see the leather scrolls, as well as some constructed from embroidery floss. The books were made from the same stash of old cloth book covers and wallets that I used to make the books on the Louvain Tablet.
An extreme close-up, with the various threads and strips of leather used to make the books and scrolls.
After I had finished this one, I happened to be reading about American scientists frantically struggling to download all sorts of climate data in 2016. They were worried that the new administration would delete the data from public websites. When I discussed it with my husband, he said "it reminds me of that piece you did, the one on Timbuktu, and how they hid books". Yes, unfortunately, the threat to collections of knowledge is not limited to the distant past. This one is designed, dyed, and waiting to be sewn:
On Friday, I'll be sharing some patterns before we start the Flood Tablet on Monday.