Restoration In Progress–The Elephant In The Obutsudan

I have been asked a few dozen times over the years by various individuals, usually in good faith, why my lily-white ass is so interested in kimono and such. It’s usually people that don’t know me very well that ask that question, because if they did then they know that I’m a goddamn artist and that eat, breathe, and shit good design. Of course I like kimono. But even though I fully intend to cover other things in my interest spectrum on this blog, so far most of this is kimono stuff. There’s an attachment here that goes beyond the natural metabolizing of good design. I’d snort hot rails of kimono if I could. That’s a fair assessment.

You can blame a lot of this on my relationship with my husband’s grandmother. The fuck does that mean? I hear some of you asking, as you should. Well, a lot of stuff. It’s deeply personal, and I’m deciding as I type this out how much of it I really want to talk about. It’s not that I’m particularly secretive about it, it just makes me cry like a little bitch. We all cry when we miss someone we can’t see again, right? Embrace the little bitch inside of you, it’s only natural. Nothing wrong with that.

Grandma Mitsui and I got off on a weird start because I was incredibly standoffish and didn’t realize it. My family background is weird. Most of them mean well, but love could be transactional in my extended family. My own grandmother didn’t do nice things for people out of love–she did them because she wanted the brownie points and to remind you for eternity that she did them. I was used to that when I met my husband’s extended family, and so you can imagine the size of the big angry concrete fucking wall I had up to protect myself from that. I didn’t drop that wall just because I was with a different family.

Grandma Mitsui thought I was being rude. Husband took a moment to explain me. Grandma literally told him, “Well we’re just going to have to fix that.”

Suddenly we started talking about things. I like old stuff. Art. Design. We would talk about cool stuff we saw at great length. One day I bought a haori without 100% understanding what it was, and I wore it over to Easter dinner. She just exploded with excitement. Turns out, Grandma Mitsui knew a lot about kimono, and her mother used to wear kimono. So I researched more, and because I eat, breathe, and shit good design, falling in love with kimono was just the logical next step. My interest and study into traditional Japanese art and design gave us a lot to talk about, too. I made a hard, positive, loving familial connection with it.

There is a side of this woman that I feel like only I knew, because one of the things she told me about is how for a long time, it was a good idea for her and her family to stuff down and suppress anything uniquely Japanese here in the United States. Her mother stopped wearing kimono after their time in internment camps, especially because most of them had to be sold or were stolen. Yeah, that’s heartbreaking. But she didn’t dwell on that part as much as you might think. Significantly more time was spent talking about her favourite motifs (ayame, ume, sho-chiku-bai, tsuru, and matsu), and what some of her mother and grandmothers’ kimonos looked like. No small part of my knowledge, or the jumping off points for them, came from her.

Grandma has been gone for awhile now, although sometimes it feels like it was only yesterday. Sometimes it feels like longer. Time is weird. Especially here in the Pandemic times. The fuck even is a clock?

Pictured: I tried to make it home-y.

So here we are. Just two years ago, my husband and I took ownership of the Obutsudan–the Mitsui family shrine. I wipe it down every day, say hello to everyone, burn incense, and leave treats as an offering. Before this time, I had found a kimono for sale that smashed the alarm bells in my memory. A heavily textured ultramarine kimono with bamboo leaves and little gold threads, adorned with five daki myouga kamon. Is this the one she described to me once? I have no idea. She was gone before I could show it to her and ask.

It’s in rough shape. It needs the sleeves resewn, and there are stains everywhere, and I had no idea how to handle any of that when I got it. But I fucking bought it anyway. And ever since, it’s lived neatly folded in the stand for the Obutsudan, and our aunt’s house before it came to us, and now here. And it’s been a little angry elephant making little trunky-toot-toots in the back of my mind for the better part of two years. Part of me was afraid to touch it because what if I put my hands on it, and this thing that resembles so closely my minds eye’s reconstruction of a kimono her grandmother had just disintegrates? I would crumble.

But I am also a technical expert in a lot of things, and my big noodly logic brain likes to kick the door down and explain to me why I’m fucking wrong sometimes. For example, when I got it I wasn’t sure how to handle silk like this. Now I am. So what’s actually happening is that I do have the necessary sewing skills AND the stain removal abilities to gently fix this kimono back up.

But what if I hurt it?

Well. What would Grandma have me do? What would her advice be?

I think she would tell me to start slowly, and that I’d do just fine. And the elephant tooted louder. So I opened the compartment in the stand where the Obutsudan sits and pulled it out, looked at the shiny white urn decorated with purple ayame (iris), and said, “I’m going to do my best.”

This is the oldest kimono I have. The lining is newer than the shell. Upon inspection (not pictured), I found the white, paper-thin and decaying old fragments of the original lining still tacked to part of the inside sleeve. I know that this is a susogara kimono from the Meiji era. I also know that it’s an unusual colour for its day. I also think that it’s possible that it was a furisode that was cut at the sleeves, because the formality and existence of the irotomesode (five crested kimono with decorated hem that isn’t black) wasn’t quite as solid as modern rules would dictate. So in that way, this one is a little bit of an oddity.

Now that I’ve taken a whole kimonos apart to clean and reconstruct, now that I’ve mastered some stain removal techniques, now that I know how to stabilize fragile fabric, I am ready to face the elephant in the Obutsudan. I’m going to clean this one up as best I can, and sew her back together. She isn’t going to be perfect, but she’ll be better. I know that she probably isn’t the kimono that Grandma Mitsui was talking about, and I know I have no way to find out really. But my attachment to this kimono is the concept of connection. I think to me, it means to tell her that I was listening when she described some of those kimonos to me, and…I’ve been looking.

I probably can’t ever bring any of them home again. But…here’s this one, Gramdma. And I think you would like it. So I’m ready. Let’s do this. -Shotgun chk-chk-

2 thoughts on “Restoration In Progress–The Elephant In The Obutsudan

  1. I’m so in love with this post. The beauty of your intent shines so hard. I think your grandmother is smiling at you. I will watch your process on this absolutely beautiful kimono as I also will consider tackling, ok-calling up the bravery-to repair the not as old, but damaged by war, kimono that needs to be healed. (The one that I showed you, thank you so much for your advice)

    Liked by 1 person

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