Text and Textile (1) – the IROHA Poem

June 4, 2009

Iroha Poem

2/20 tencel, white and blue, 4 strands per bobbin, 68 bobbins.

My third attempt at braiding the 48 syllables of the Japanese language, commencing i-ro-ha-ni and so on, arranged in a poem, not dissimilar to ‘The quick brown fox…‘ in English. The design is by Yayoi Miura who has followed a very flexible, ‘grass’ style of calligraphy of Kietsu Gire (Edo Period, 1600-1868), though the syllables are not so abstracted or stylized that they can’t be deciphered by any Westerner who has made some small progress in learning the kana syllables.

Yayoi Miura’s website, www7a.biglobe.ne.jp/~kumihimo, supplements the published work on double-layer pickup braids of Makiko Tada and Rodrick Owen very well since it presents a wide range of very simple and straight-forward plant, insect, animal and other motifs, suitable for 68-bobbin pickups (with a nice karabana/Chinese stylised flower in 60-bobbins). She and her braiding colleagues have braided a famous collection of Japanese waka poems The 100 Poems by 100 Poets; the anthology sports its own museum in NW Kyoto, the Shiguraden. Mrs Miura has published a monograph devoted to colour photos of each of the braids of the individual poems, with accompanying designs (ayagaki) for braiders. The exhibition of the Braiding Conference in Kyoto November 2007 featured many examples of braided poems of this type.

Braided on the taka-dai, most of the work is in the coding – plotting out each of the stitches – compared to the actual braiding, made all the more easy because there are no stitches which go to the edges (torii stitches). Working ‘centrally’ like this is blissful after enduring the heavily cropped designs so characteristically Japanese. My previous two attempts (mainly to check and double-check the correctness of the ‘coding’ in the pattern drafts) were done in blue and white matt cotton; the slight sheen of the tencel helps considerably. This batch of blue tencel started to fall apart from being under-spun (or as a result of the dyeing, I can’t be sure).

The poem is well-known in Japan, dating from Heian Period and supposedly written by the Buddhist monk Kukai. Japanese today know it as a useful way of listing things in order, e.g. theatre seats run in the order i, ro, ha, ni, etc.

Here’s a translation by Basil Chamberlain (1850-1935), preceded by the syllables in Romanji:

i  ro  ha  ni  ho  he  to  chi  ri  nu   ru  wo  wa  ka  yo  ta  re  so  tsu  ne  na  ra  mu

u   wi  no  o ku  ya  ma  ke  fu  ko  e  te  a  sa  ki  yu  me  mi  shi  we  hi  mo  se  su  n

Though gay in hue, the blossoms flutter down also, Who then in this world fo ours may continue forever?

Crossing today the uttermost limits of phenomenal experience I shall no more see fleeting dreams, neither be any longer intoxicated.

References: Yayoi Miura’s website; Miura, Kumihimo; Christopher Earnshaw, Sho Japanese calligraphy. Tuttle, 1998.

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