• Brian O'Callaghan

The Couture of Papermaking

Nestled in a tranquil area of Japanese countryside in Tokushima, is the Awagami papermaking factory. For eight generations the art of Washi has been lovingly preserved by the Fujimori family's skill and knowledge. The family can trace its papermaking roots back to 1825. Washi is the Japanese word for the traditional papers made from the long inner fibers of three plants, 'Wa' meaning Japanese and 'Shi' meaning paper.

Historically, the winter work of Japanese farmers, producing washi could be framed in our minds as the couture of papermaking. Steadily preserving and maintaining this culture has enabled the core vitality of this art to survive. The Awagami factory is a stellar example of the fusion of tradition and innovation.

From being declared a UNESCO intangible art to working with some of the worlds most distinguished artists and photographers, the Awagami mill has preserved a lit candle in the melting snow of Japanese washi papermakers for decades, Currently only 4 washi manufacturers produce traditional washi in Tokushima.

Originally made in China in the first century, this fragile art was introduced to Japan around 610 AD by Buddhist monks who made washi for writing sutras, Sutra is a Sanskrit term that means “discourse”. As there is no real grain to washi, the paper offers a resistance to creasing, tearing and wrinkling so it is ideal for covering boxes or books. The production of washi paper in Awa (Tokushima) began around 700 A.D for use by the aristocracy, samurai and priests. Although with time, machine made paper eventually dealt a heavy blow to the industry. Washi papermaking has survived and thrived.

Recently I spoke to artist Craig Anczelowitz who together with his wife and her family conduct many international workshops in an effort to promote washi culture, He eloquently shared with me his knowledge of Awagami. “We are open to anyone who wants to explore something unique whether its products, wallpaper or fine art, interior design, lighting projects, when you print large format digital prints on our paper, there is something about it that has soul. I've heard that over and over again, that’s exactly it, it has a soul. When you do those prints on a paper that is alive, It takes on an essence of its own.''

Awagami continues to develop its business but maintain a soul. It currently has a range of new digital papers. ‘’My father in law has been working with traditional printmakers in Europe for many years and when he went to one famous lithography studio in Paris who he knew for thirty years, he saw they were experimenting with digital printing. This is the lithography studio that printed for Picasso, Cezanne and Miro. He thought, if they are trying digital then I should see. The coding was the trickiest part, that you can get the resolution but not sacrifice the soul of the paper. ‘’

We tend to think of the use of paper in fashion as a novelty fad from the 1960's but how can paper be developed for use in contemporary fashion? Craig shares, ‘’Paper can be spun into thread, its called shifu, and then it can be woven. It can be crinkled and coded with natural starches from a type of tuber, it can drape, For years umbrellas were paper, and they were coded with kochi. We still make paper that is coded with kochi because it is water resistant and insect proof so even my sneakers are coded with kochi. We make wallets, business cards, There is a jean company that mixes the washi thread with cotton. They are called washi jeans. These days we don’t really manufacture kimono, that was a special project. Fashion is the smallest part of what we do but we do sell the paper to other fashion houses.''

Awagami intuitively responds to the needs of the creative industries and its papers are known and respected the world over. They have a wide network of global distributors. The frenetic pace is a full time job as Craig testifies ''We sell paper to lots of companies who use different kinds of coding.'' From a master printer outlet in Bangkok to printmaking conferences in Cork, Ireland, we work with lots of printmakers, photographers, painters, and sculptors.''

The Awagami Factory is a hub of activity and projects including a paper museum, an international papermaking workshops, an ongoing artist-in-residency program, a multi-disciplinary printmaking lab and the Awagami International Mini-print Exhibition, which includes a large juried prize for all works on washi. Craig puts it succinctly when he says ''We are always trying to find something to do that is different. We are trying to push it and not many companies are left. As a company we say that we have one foot in the past and one foot in the future.''

Thanks to Craig Anczelowitz

Images courtesy - Awagami Factory, Japan


2020 Brian O'Callaghan