Saturday, June 27, 2009

Basket #2: Teppachi Morikago

In early June we started our second basket: the teppachi morikago (鉄鉢盛かご), also known as teppatsu morikago. Teppachi (or teppatsu) means "iron bowl." The name comes from the iron bowl that Buddhist monks carry to receive alms of food or money. A Google image search for 鉄鉢 shows there are a variety of dimensions and materials now associated with the word, from practically spherical bowls (including glass light fixtures!), to more squat, tray-like dishes of ceramic or lacquer. Two traits they all seem to have in common are: 1) they have soft, curved edges, and 2) the bowl's lip is slightly contracted, with the bowl's maximum circumference usually located closer to the lip than the bottom. Here's a fun image of a raccoon dog (tanuki; 狸) holding a teppachi.

Rinko Ami 輪弧編み
Teppachi morikago come in numerous sizes, all of which are made to such precise dimension standards that they nest inside one another like Russian dolls. We are making one of the medium sized bowls, which consists of 80 weaving strips (編みひご), 2.5 mm wide by 0.55 mm thick--half in width and slightly thinner than the higo we used for the mutsume morikago. In the first step, 40 higo are weaved together in what's called a rinko-ami ("wheel weave"); in this weave, each strip is layered above or below the previous strip (depending on whether your eye is moving clockwise or counter-clockwise), with all the strips interlocked in such a way that they stay together once the wheel is complete. The series is started by inserting higo one-by-one into a five-prong, makeshift tool so that each strip overlaps two other higo. Once a chain of 40 is made, the last five strips are inserted in place of the five prongs, which are then removed, completing the circle. I should note that not all rinko-ami consist of 40 higo and not all use a five-prong tool; these variables seem to change greatly depending on the desired diameter of the wheel, higo size and number, etc. The completed wheel above is one we made for practice using 29 higo. In each teppachi bowl, two wheels are placed on top of each other and interlaced from the center outward, so the 29-higo wheels were important for learning the more complicated step of combining two wheels.

Ajiro-ami 網代編み
The center of the rinko-ami--what for now is just a big gaping hole--will become the bowl's bottom, so a seperate circular piece is needed to fill it and support the bowl's contents. In this case we use twill weave or plaiting called ajiro-ami. There is an infinite variety of patterns that can be made from ajiro-ami based on how strips of different widths and colors are distributed in the weave. For our teppachi, we used undyed strips that are all the same width (7.0 mm wide by 0.6 mm thick). It just so happened that some of the bamboo I was working with had a particularly strong green hue, so I was able to cross green strips with the more ordinary ivory-colored strips, making its concentric square pattern--called masu-ajiro (桝網代)--stand out even more.

Once the strips are weaved and pressed together, a circle is drawn with a compass on the back. Wood glue is smeared along the line, enough so that once the circle is cut out its end pieces don't come undone.

In the next post I'll show how the circle twill plaiting is inserted between two wheels and how the wheels are interwoven as they climb up the walls of the bowl.

Mutsume Morikago Part 3: Final Steps

It's taken me several weeks to finally put together the last post for this basket. Sorry to keep you waiting. While I've been busy showing Caitlyn's family around Oita and taking care of other odds and ends, nearly five weeks have flown by. During those weeks we managed to finish the mutsume basket, and, as of Friday, nearly bring the second basket on our agenda to completion. I have a lot of catching up to do.

So, back to the mutsume morikago. With the masa and inner and outer rims firmly fastened with wire, it was now time to secure the entire set with a long strand of thin rattan cane.

Yamato Musubi 大和結び
The rattan we tainees use is purchased by the kilogram unit and comes from Indonesia. It's expensive--about 200 dollars per kilogram when bought as a bundle of thin cane like in the picture. We processed the rattan the same way we do bamboo higo in the latter steps, first by running it between two blades to make it an even width of 2.0 mm (a process called haba-tori, 幅取り), and then running it through a plane-like tool (called urasuki-sen, うらすき銑) to bring it to an even thickness of 0.6 mm. Easier said than done. This was my first encouter with rattan as a raw, workable material rather than as a finished product, like a chair, and it was endlessly frustrating. It's so soft compared to bamboo that attempting to shave off too much at one time runs the blade entirely through the cane, severing it--a mistake I made about 10 or 15 times. When shaving bamboo higo to a certain thickness, we try to find the sharpest part on the urasuki blade; with rattan we had to search for the dullest part, and lower the cutting angle, because it's so soft.

Rattan is probably used in basket making if for no simpler reason than that it is more flexible and less prone to cracking or breaking than bamboo when wound tightly. Brought to the dimensions of 2.0 by 0.6 mm, it really feels like soft leather string, or some synthetic material--but unlike either of these, less dependable. I found this out when tying my baskets with it. The knots in this basket are called yamato-musubi (大和結び), yamato being an ancient word for "Japan." Just as with bamboo, we wet the rattan first to make it even more flexible and to keep it from snapping when tying the knots. For me, this was the most difficult step in the entire basket. Pulling too hard when finishing each knot makes the rattan snap, and not pulling it hard enough produces a loose knot, which in this case is more worrisome aesthetically than technically because there are enough knots on the entire rim to keep it in place. Hoping to make beautifully snug nots, I must have snapped the rattan about 10 or so times, each time requiring a special grafting knot that takes even more time to complete. I had to keep telling myself that it's in fact a plant.

Outer rim ↑ Inner rim ↓
About 2.5 meters of rattan was used to tie the entire circumference. When everything goes well and the rattan doesn't snap it works it's way around the basket continuously, stopping at every other hexagon to wind around the rim twice, pass through a few of it's own loops, and move on. About 10 cm of end left from the first knot is met with the last knot and looped through to give it a truly continuous appearance. When finished tying the rattan, all the metal wires are snipped off. Another challenging part worth noting: when tied well, the two strands on the inner side lie parallel to each other and don't cross (in this case, the right knot is dangerously close to crossing and not as visually pleasing).

Ikada-dake 筏竹
Now virtually finished, the only thing missing in this basket is some support for its bottom end. With the hexagonal weaving left alone, you can probably imagine it's a bit too weak to maintain a clean shape over the long-term if made to contain, say, apples or other heavy fruit. To solve this problem, ikada-dake ("raft bamboo") are used.

Top view (before) ↑ Top view (after) ↑ Bottom view (after) ↓

Technically, this step is simple and doesn't require much explanation. Bamboo strips measuring 14.5 mm wide by 1.8 mm thick are cut to form a perfect, larger hexagon and then woven into the basket's hexagonal latticework. As in many Beppu bamboo craft items, form is prioritized alongside function, so the problem of which strips go over and which go under the ikada-dake is handled with special care, and produces a series of concentric diamonds on both sides. It's this aspect of basket making that gets the wheels in my mind spinning when I think about designing my own baskets in the future.