Submitted by Kathy Colt
I recently joined Junco Sato Pollack in Lakemont, Georgia, not far from Lake Rabun and the Tallulah River, to learn more about the Kudzu plant and its many fiber applications. To have been able to observe and participate in this process was a great honor. As an initiate, my understanding of Kudzu is incomplete, although I learned much during my brief time with Junco. Many individuals are exploring this plant and its uses, particularly as it relates to textile process. If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to peruse this blog for accounts of their experience and work. For my prosaic step-by-step reflections on the process itself (with images), please also see the “Processing Kudzu” page of this blog.
First, a bit of history: The sustainable use of this East Asian native vine (known as kuzu in Japan) has a long history. Archaeology suggests that the Kudzu vine was processed for a variety of domestic uses beginning with the Neolithic period in what are now China, Japan and Korea. Refinements in processing, along with the emergence of weaving technology, increased its range of application over time. Eventually, widespread use of Kudzu, which to this day is harvested only in nature, was eclipsed by other cultivated plant fibers such as cotton, hemp and ramie. Arguably, Kudzu cloth might have faded into history had it not been for its favor among the ruling elite in early Japanese society (thus rendering it of value to contemporary scholars). Remarkably, the vine continues to be harvested and processed for cloth production, although this archaic technology is in danger of being lost to perpetuity, despite the best efforts of Folk Craft proponents in Japan to keep it buoyant. (For a more detailed description of the history of Kudzu use in Japan, see “The Changing Fortunes of Three Archaic Japanese Textiles” by Louise Allison Cort, on the “Recommended Reading” page of this blog.)
One potential bright spot in Kudzu’s ongoing chronicle may be found in the Southeastern United States. Here, the vine is the epitome of “wild and abundant,” as efforts to subdue since its introduction in the late 19th century it will attest. In our current context, Kudzu has much to teach us about sustainability and the laws of nature. While there are legitimate reasons to eradicate Kudzu in some areas (mostly relating to its impact on native habitats), there have been no successful attempts, thus far, to do so. Rather than struggle (through the use of biological, chemical and physical force) to remove Kudzu from the landscape for which it clearly has an affinity, we might endeavor to find a more appropriate relationship with it. This is not a new idea: the Japanese have known this for millennia, as have mountain dwellers of Southern Appalachia in more recent times. To live a sustainable life is to be in complete harmony with our environment - taking only what is needed, supporting renewal, creating little or no waste and leaving little or no impact. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to limit the impact of Kudzu on our environment in the future; however, it is possible to work with its presence in a more skillful manner now. In my own case, by taking the time to slow down and appreciate the vine’s subtler qualities, my relationship to it has been permanently altered. I can imagine a time when, with mindfulness and acquired skill, the harvesting and preparation of Kudzu fiber for cloth production could represent a vibrant facet of the sustainable textile movement.
My weekend immersion with Junco introduced me to the art of Kudzu fiber preparation for cloth production, along with a survey of the plant’s ecology, its human history, and uses. This was an invaluable learning experience. Kudzu harvest is a late-spring/summer activity. If you are interested in information on current or future workshop opportunities on the art of Kudzu fiber harvest and preparation with Junco Sato Pollack, please periodically check this blog for updates or use the "comments" section below to make contact.