Friday, July 30, 2021
Straw is having a bit of a moment. Loewe have just launched a contemporary craft exhibition featuring Japanese straw artist Arko’s experimental handwoven creations. You can now pick up a cheeky straw clutch bag from the MM6 Maison Margiela collection. And humble 20th Century Asian farmer’s workwear - straw bandori, capes, workers boots - have become covetable, nay collectable objet’s d’art. Cue scraps amongst antique dealers.
Today we’re inviting you into the studio of Azusa Fukushima, an artisan who works with straw and makes our sorghum handbrooms. We first visited Azusa in Japan in 2019, when she was kind enough to welcome us in and show us her process.
Azusa is part of a young generation of Japanese artisans, preserving and reinvigorating ancient craft techniques and reinterpreting them in modern ways.
She makes her brushes from sorghum straw, just outside of Tsukuba City. Broom making was introduced to Tsukuba in the Meiji era and the area reached its peak by the Showa period, but these days most of the remaining practitioners are 70, 80 even 90 years old. They’ve been making brooms for 60 plus years but the craft has been dying out and the methods nearly lost.
Azusa fell in love with brushmaking after a meeting with Sakai Toyoshirō, a master of the craft, whilst at college. She wanted to make tools with her own hands and liked the charm of pieces made one by one. She applies her creative approach to these traditional handicrafts, using natural materials and reinstating faded customs.
In Japan, straw used to play a large role in everyday life, as agricultural feed, straw shoes, straw coats, blankets, food wrappers and bags. Nowadays you’re more likely to see straw used just in a shimenawa 標縄/注連縄/七五三縄, a Shinto ornament with lengths of straw or rope hung across doorways at New Year.
Azusa first sows and harvests her own sorghum crop from grain in the Ibaraki countryside. Badass.
It gives her straw a softer quality so that the brooms capture more dust.
From her plot of land we could see Mount Tsukuba, and its beautiful lush greenery.
Mid May is the sowing season, harvested towards August. The climate is warm and rainy. It’s a battle against the rain and aphids, decisions on organic fertiliser, weeding and overweeding. Azusa studies the field as much as her brushmaking.
“This time of year almost every day is a staring contest with the weather app.”
Sorghum growing lushly before the harvest. The soil has become fluffy and nutritious. Azusa manages the field by herself and everything is done manually; she has become adept at pulling out the stalks by hand.
In her first year, Azusa grew her crop in a small rented field near her apartment. But a cold summer followed an aphid outbreak and only five brooms could be made from the harvest. Every craftsperson has stories to tell.
These brooms are “living tools”: grown in the fields, connected to the hand, stories woven in.
A 箕 winnow, a bamboo basket for threshing and winnowing. It involves throwing the mixture into the air so that the wind blows away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains fall back down. It’s about 4 feet wide: these are some serious folk tools.
Seeds are sown as the snow melts, sorghum harvested in the hot summer months, and brooms woven in the autumn and winter.
Each stalk is carefully cut by hand, sorted, boiled in hot water, and dried.
Maintaining the fields and quietly making brooms in the workshop until the Spring.
The brooms are skillfully wound using traditional techniques, and bound with cotton thread dyed naturally: balls of dark blue indigo, reddish persimmon and madder…Joyful sigh.
Azusa weaves the humble strands using unique stitching patterns. She uses not just her hands but her body-strength to tighten the threads and knit the pattern.
Her brushes are often styled in the classic clam form or ‘hamaguri-gata’ 蛤型. It was the shape in the early 20th Century, at the height of the straw broom industry.
The final shape evokes the original stalk from which it came. It’s the full cycle, from ground to crop to broom and eventually back to the earth.
Sarah learning to weave: it’s more like stitching, binding the straw stalks with a needle and thread.
Azusa’s workshop: the daily life of a craftsperson full of handicrafts.
The workbench is Azusa’s own invention, designed so that the thread can be woven tightly against her own weight. Her toolbox is made from bark by a craftsperson in Akita. She wears tsugihagi patched trousers and has started experimenting with roasting barley to make tea, playing instruments, making instruments, and making straw hats and tatami mats. Creativity abounds.
“Even the common articles made for daily use become endowed with beauty when they are loved.”
― Yanagi Sōetsu, founder of the Mingei folk art movement
Brushes are one of those ordinary things which we see so often that we no longer really ‘see’ them at all. But these brooms are too delightful to be banished into hiding under the sink. Azusa’s care and attention to detail elevates the ubiquitous sorghum straw into functional pieces of art worthy of display on the wall.
And through our Katakoto (that’s broken) Japanese and Azusa’s exemplary English, we made our way back to Tsukuba station, via her friend’s famous hanten shop (more on them later).