Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tubu - one quilt begets another

My September 2012 trip to Shanghai, began in this bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa...  

...where I bought an exhibit catalog containing this image:

"Sea of Japan in Winter" (1983)

It is a quilt by Shizuko Kuroha, which appears to made largely of indigo fabrics from Japan.  This quilt inspired me to to make my own version of this pattern (Arabic Lattice block), which I would title "Portmanteau."

"Portmanteau" (2011)

"Portmanteau" would travel to China in the early part of 2012 as part of an exhibit "The Sum of Many Parts," and I followed thereafter in September.  I attended the opening of the exhibit at Shanghai Museum of Textile and Costume, and was fortunate to meet Naomi McCallus (see photo below).  She commented on my fabric choices for "Portmanteau" and suggested that I would probably like a somewhat hard-to-find fabric that is unique to China and no longer made, simply called "lao bu" (old fabric).  It is hand-dyed (indigo), hand-woven fabric which was made on small in-home looms primarily for utilitarian purposes.  Naomi is a friend of Laurel Menser, who'd come to Shanghai from the US Embassy in Beijing to serve as tour-guide extraordinaire for Louisiana Bendolph and me during the first few days of our stay.  

Naomi McCallus, Louisiana Bendolph, Erika Kuenne, Laurel Menser
at the opening of "The Sum of Many Parts," Shanghai, China 2012

Erick Wolfmeyer, Hui Feng, Laurel Menser

So the next day, Laurel, my undaunted Chinese-speaking guide, and I, the wary tourist in a city the scale of which is beyond comparison, set out on our shared mission to locate the shop.  With the address scribbled on a scrap of paper in-hand, several cell phone calls to Naomi for clarification of the directions, two taxi rides across the river and back from two lost taxi drivers, and a short walk later, we finally found the obscure shop that sold lao bu. The shop owner was very soft-spoken and kind.  I had no concept of how much RMB to USD the fabric was going to cost, even with Laurel's uber-patient, exacting exchange rate calculations.  She finally advised: if you want it, buy it.  It was great advice, and I did.  I have no idea how much the fabric finally cost or exactly how much yardage I brought home.  As I walked away with a large IKEA bag full of my lao bu, the shop keeper in the adjacent shop (pictured below on the right) would hardly let us advance without getting us to buy more at his shop.  Thankfully, fearless, savvy Laurel fended him off and we were on our way back to the Portman Ritz-Carlton.  We made a quick replenishment stop at the ATM, only to find my card didn't work, and if I remember correctly, I ended up exchanging my last bit of US dollars into RMB at the "Bank of Laurel." We then made our way to the European style grocery, which was fortunately only an escalator ride below the main floor of the hotel lobby.

Hui Feng, owner
Hui Feng Cloth Art Shop
34 Liuhekou Lu, Shanghai, China

The fabric smelled of mildew and so I decided to buy some detergent in the hotel store and wash the fabric in the tub of my room.  I panicked when I saw how much indigo was bleeding from the fabric and fearing I would stain the tub, I quickly drained the water and started frantically wringing out the fabric.  Only later did I learn that the indigo would not have stuck to or stained the porcelain tub, but nevertheless!

I was then left with the task of drying all this fabric in the midst of a very humid, rainy climate.  The hotel room was air-conditioned, but not like we are used to in the US.  It was more like someone breathing a modestly cool sigh through a puny vent in the ceiling.  As I hung the fabric around the room, I was very careful not to let the fabric drip onto anything that might stain.

Cover: Courier, Shanghai Expatriate Association, September 2013, Vol 26, No 1

Article below: "Tubu: Revival of an Old Shanghai Fabric" by Naomi McCallus
used with permission from author - click on image to see larger version 

Fast-forward to the winter of 2013.  I finally figured out the quilt I wanted to make with my lao bu.  I combined three blocks (#'s 16, 17 and 44) detailed in Susan Briscoe's book "Japanese Quilt Blocks."

The result is a quilt I am calling "Blue Horizon."  It is made with a combination of the lao bu fabric as well as new tea-dyed muslin and other woven neutrals.  At present, I don't have a photo of the entire completed top as it is slightly too large to fit on my 8'x8' design board.  The final photo (see below) is the quilt top folded on my ironing board, awaiting shipment to my hand-quilter.


And then, it all comes full circle...

So, the excuse for not getting back to the the Laobu/Tubu man, Hui Feng, is that I have not been in Shanghai!  I finally had the opportunity to go today - I printed off your blog which featured the tubu and all of the beautiful pictures of your quilt.  Hui Feng was there, and he was delighted to see what you had done with the fabric.  He is somewhat of a quilter himself and marveled at all the little pieces that you put together in the design.  I think he was truly pleased to see that you had made a quilt out of the fabric. 
The picture attached is of me with Hui Feng holding your has all come full circle! What an incredible journey this has been!  It has been such a delight to be in the midst of it all.  I continue to get new arrivals to Shanghai eager to find his shop and have found that my article has wound its way to many people who did not know about the fabric and are now devotees.
-Naomi McCallus, May 24, 2014, Shanghai, China

On April 17, 2016, Naomi wrote to update me:

"Erick - just FYI, Dong tai lu, which is the street market where Laurel took you to buy the fabric has suffered urbanization as so many old sections of Shanghai and Beijing have.  He still sells the fabric, but you must call him and he will take you to his warehouse where all the fabric still remains...for now.  So your quilt is even more meaningful in terms of Shanghai's past."