A dedicated silk dyer, Nellie practices shibori, a Japanese dyeing technique. In this first part of our interview, I asked her about the technique and about her studies.
Quinstance: First up, tell me a little about shibori. What does it entail as a process? What is its history?
Nellie Rose Davis: Shibori is an umbrella term for hundreds of techniques involving squishing and compressing the fabric before putting it into dye. The term shibori is derived from the Japanese verb “shiboru” which means “to squeeze” or “to compress.” The particular technique I practice is arashi shibori. Arashi means storm in Japanese. They call it that because the resulting pattern is very linear, like a storm coming through. Sorry if this is going all over the place!
Q: Not at all, this is fascinating!
NRD: Great! So arashi shibori is also known as pole-wrapping. I start with plain white silk, cut it to size, and then underdye it. I really like to be subtle: using gradations, two tones, or a simple dip dyeing process. I then bind the silk tightly to a pole with thread and push the silk down the pole…imagine pushing down on a straw wrapper. Once all the pieces are compressed, the pole gets put into a steaming dye bath. The dye will only reach the places exposed, creating the patterns you see. If you look at a piece now, you will notice the evidence of where the thread once was.
Shibori involves techniques that have been passed down in the home. You don’t need all that much to do it. That’s the reason they were once passed from generation to generation so easily, because they don’t need fancy tools. That’s why I love arashi shibori. All you need is thread and a pole, yet it provides for endless experimentation.
Would you like to know more?
Q: Oh absolutely!
NRD: Great! So, even though the techniques can be so simple, they can really be versatile and allow for layers of intricacies.
I think it’s really neat that anyone who tries it can create something interesting, yet these techniques can be refined over a lifetime. Each person that gets their hands on it…My mom and pops and I all practice it, and yet all the pieces we create are so different.
Q: Oh yes, your parents are also textile artists.
NRD: They’ve practiced shibori for over 35 years. My pops is a shibori artist while my mom is more…she does a lot of things. She’s a weaver, spinner, basket-maker and a hand-dyer. So I learned a lot about fiber, texture and color.
Q: So you grew up around it?
NRD: Yeah. I wondered why I, the baby of four, picked it up while my siblings didn’t. I think because I had an attraction to adorning myself and I always wanted to make things with my hands, and it provided an easy connection to my parents. They encouraged me. I had a little recycled wool pot holder business as a kid. I never had a normal job in high school because I was always making and selling things.
Q: So you accompanied your dad on a trunk show in Japan. You were sixteen at the time, what was that like?
NRD: When he said we were going to Japan, I was not thrilled. At 16 I really romanticized Europe. Even with my parents’ love and admiration for Japan, I didn't know how much I would love it until I got there. I’m not sure if this would just happen to anyone, but those 10 days… opened my senses. The food, the scents, the people. I remember when we first stepped into a station in Tokyo and the whirlwind of movement was like nothing I had experienced in my 16 years growing up in rural West Virginia.
For the first time I was frustrated communicating. Well, not frustrated really, but it put a fire under me to study the language. It motivated me to seek out colleges where I could study Japanese. At the time though, I learned to communicate in a way other than language.
Q: You did an apprenticeship in Japan not that long ago.
NRD: It was…3 years ago? Wow, it was 3 years ago.
I apprenticed under Hiroko Harada, an all-natural indigo dyer and shibori artist in Shinshiro, Japan. I spent months living in Harada-sensei’s studio, stirring the indigo vats, learning the smell, taste, and texture of the indigo as well as most of the traditional Japanese shibori techniques. My time with her is so incredibly precious to me. However, as an apprentice you have a duty to learn the tradition, the fundamentals. There is not a ton of room to grow as an artist, per se, even though it is still a very important part of becoming an artist. See, you have to soak up everything that came before you. You do this until your fingers are about to fall off. Then you get to modify it and transform it to your own artistic expression. My time after my apprenticeship was about how to apply the tradition to my personal expression.
Check out part 2 here!