Passionate about Linen: An Interview with Mayumi Maeda
You know that you like the look of a nice, crisp cotton, or maybe the way a smooth, slippery silk feels against your skin. A thick, scratchy wool on the other hand may be something you avoid at all costs. For many of us that’s the beginning and the end of any thought on what our clothes are made of. But there's more to the fabrics we wear than meets the eye, and an unassuming, understated textile would demand closer inspection if the work of one designer is anything to go by.
When it comes to linen, Japanese designer and artist Mayumi Maeda can’t get enough of writing about it, talking about it, and creating with it. She’s even published books on the subject and one in particular, Every Day with Linen, served as a passionate plea to her then linenless country to the embrace the virtues of this natural, versatile, finely textured textile. And it worked.
I was introduced to the wonderful Mayumi through couture feltmaker and textile artist Liz Clay, who brought together four English and Japanese artists, inclulding Mayumi, for the Connections II exhibit at her Sommerset, UK studio as part of Somerset Art Weeks last month.Here Mayumi describes what it is about linen that endears her so and how she singlehandedly created a new market within Japan’s textile industry:
which is the raw material of linen, was initially one of my favourite
plants as a flower motif to illustrate. It is not native in Japan, so
it had been categorized as 'herbs and spices from overseas'. Actually
it is easy to raise, so I grew it from seeds. However, at the time I
did not have much knowledge about linen and how flax becomes linen. But
one day I fell in love with flax and linen; the charm was 'doubled'.
That was when I began working with linen.
How does linen compare to cotton - what makes them different?
As a fabric, I love linen's elegant texture while I also adore the softness of cotton. For me, linen is reassuring because of its durability. When we use high quality linen it will last decades which decreases excessive consumption. In this modern age, many things are changing so rapidly. But with linen, I feel I can have something that will stay long in my life and is not easily changed. That gives me peace.
Your 2002 book, Every Day with Linen, raised the profile of linen in Japan by exploring its virtues as a natural fabric, which then lead to the creation of a new market for linen in the country. Why do you think linen was overlooked before your book made its impact; and how has the introduction of linen changed Japan's textile industry?
As I mentioned previously, in Japan, there had been little knowledge about linen. In Japanese, we have a term called 'asa' which covers all fibers and fabrics made from plant stalks. Hemp, ramie and linen are all categorized as 'asa'. So my project for the book was to clarify what linen really is and to distinguish it from the other 'asa', and also to highlight its environmental virtues. The chapter about linen being a durable and sustainable material has been embraced by the readers; it has garnered very enthusiastic reactions.I also talk about the holy image that linen has in western culture and the role it plays in religious rituals, and the culture of white house linens with monograms which is something that appealed to the readers. Actually, in the past hemp was regarded as a divine fabric in Japanese traditional religion, but now production is now strictly limited to licensees (mainly shrines) by regulation of 'Cannabis control law'. So, linen could be regarded as a suitable substitute for the divine fabric, hemp.
Once the public was given a new context for linen through my book, it became an icon of pure, natural and sustainable lifestyle. Linen is now featured heavily in magazines and I play a big part in that. Due to public demand, we began supplying linen products through our company LINNET in 2002. Until then there was no distribution of linen in Japan.
Following this, many small stores began to carry linen fabrics and linen products which activated the market for linen and brought innovation to the country’s textile industry. Now, linen is a very popular and indispensible fabric in Japan.
Your husband and partner in LINNET is an architect. Can you describe how his architectural view influences the direction of your company?
When I expressed my special interest toward linen to my husband Satoshi Maeda, he shared it from the very beginning because he was also fond of fabrics for furnishing. Currently he is charge of planning fabrics as well as managing the company. I think his approach is very constructive, especially in the way we work with yarns, such as creating processes for how to finish the woven fabric. He also designs top dyed simple checks and stripes, using some geometric ideas. This kind of approach is quite different from mine which is more emotional. Satoshi is now leading a project focussing on the creation of a special soft and light linen yarn.
Through LINNET you are releasing patterns - do you design clothes yourself? If so, do you have plans to develop a special line of linen clothing?
Yes, I am also designing all the patterns for LINNET. We are mainly focusing on releasing the patterns for sewing but we’re also trying to establish some lines of simple clothes as well.
I had not been a design professional. I just learned how to pattern from my mother, who was a seamstress and the owner of a dressmaking boutique. For me, the clothes are also a kind of "container of one's mentality". I make the patterns which I like to wear, to be comfortable, natural, healthy and relaxed, both physically and mentally. For me, designing clothes is not my 'art', but the work that's indispensable in my life, like cooking, gardening, cleaning etc.
In that way, I would like to introduce how it can be fulfilling and enriching to spend time sewing the clothes ourselves, quietly with nice music in the background, rather than being worn out and tired after long walks searching for clothes around the shops located in tthe city center, on some occasions. However I know, too, that simple and good quality ready-made clothes can be also very inspiring and refueling for our mind. So, I would like to continue producing small collections of ready-made linen garments from my patterns for LINNET. We would like to take a long-term approach to the production of our designs, rather than introducing new designs every season like the fashion industry.
The tactile nature of making clothes, especially for ourselves and our family is indeed good for the soul. Do you see yourself working with linen indefinitely? And what do you think of the newer innovations in natural textiles such as bamboo, hemp and soy blends?I am sure that we will work with linen forever, but also we are seeking a way to work with hemp in future, together with linen. Hemp is a traditional, holy plant in our culture, and is said to be very ecological. It has a number of uses including making fabric, paper, building materials, etc. In Japan, there are techniques to make hemp as soft as linen. When it is as soft as linen, hemp feels slightly lighter and more airy than linen. I adore the quality as well.
What's next for you and LINNET?
LINNET will soon release the new collection of linen fabrics dyed with complete natural dye stuffs (such as madder plants, etc) and I am working on a new picture book of Japanese wildflowers in autumn and winter.We aim to remain a small, independent company. We appreciate production based on the necessity. The happiest future for us is to continue as we are doing today. Loving linen, plants, arts and working with nice people!
How refreshing is that for a company mission? You can visit Mayumi's shop LINNET and read her blog at www.lin-net.com
A hand crocheted scarf of organic linen
Crocus painting by Mayumi Maeda
Mayumi was asked to design and produced uniforms for Kurosaka Pediatric Clinic in Himeji, Japan. She was delighted to receive the lovely request, especially as they asked to put some small bunnies or birds among the large flower patterns for the children. In Japan cheerful uniforms are not the norm. But when Dr.Kurosaka was working in Britain he saw in a hospital a beautiful curtain with a large flower pattern and wanted something similar to create happy atmosphere in his own clinic. So, this apron which we made is already 3rd generation of what they adopted.
"I am just so happy to have been involved in this work, and also very honored that my artwork is used for a place where people can be ‘cured’," says Mayumi.
Isn't she something special?
And my favourite piece of hers, a gorgeous linen corsage that was part of the Connections II exhibit: