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Indo Sarasa versus Wa Sarasa: A Cloth of Two Sides

Written on January 25, 2010

Since the Edo Period, Japanese people of means were fascinated by the exotic, imported, block-printed and hand-painted trade cloth from India, which they called Indo sarasa.

IndoJapan1These wealthy Japanese collected Indo sarasa, which was traded by the Dutch East India Company, and they utilized for it very special purposes: for small, neat bags to carry tobacco or medicine, for coverings for precious tea ceremony implements, for use on their jinbaori (Samurai’s “dress” vests often worn over armor), obis and other very specialized uses that provided discrete yet ostentatious signs of refinement.IndoJapan1aThe Japanese love of Indo sarasa persists until today, and old examples are still extremely treasured and collected.   The photos above and below show a kind of Indo sarasa, albeit not the intensely dyed, resisted, mordanted tour de force cloth such as this example in the National Gallery of Australia.  The photos above and below show very finely hand spun and hand woven 19th century Indian cotton that has been block printed in something of rudimentary fashion.  Simple, but nonetheless beautiful. IndoJapan1aa

This square-shaped piece of Indo sarasa is hand stitched from several fragments.  It was intended to be a cover for a zabuton, or a traditional, Japanese seating cushion.  But there is a surprising twist on Indo sarasa: the other side of this cloth shows a Japanese version of Indo sarasa called wa sarasa or Japanese sarasa.

IndoJapan1cBelow you see the reverse side of the cloth shown above which has been stencil dyed to create an all-over pattern: at some point the Japanese started making their own version of sarasa, inspired by the Indian original: in this  case, the pattern is a lush, floral one.  Very curious why the Japanese dyer printed over the Indian print.IndoJapan1dWhat is wonderful is that the heavily block-printed Indian original can be seen on the surface of the cloth and provides a discordant, “counter pattern” to the Japanese one.  Very unusual, indeed.IndoJapan1eThe Japanese love everything about Indo sarasa, down to the threads used to weave the cloth: as many of you know, Indian cotton is some of the best in the world.  The cotton of this fragment is Indian and it its qualities of the beauty of the hand spun yarns and the tightness of the weave are spectacular to behold.IndoJapan1f

This is a really unusual textile; I bought this and several others like it, which over time I will be offering for sale on my website. Do let me know what you think.

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5 Comments

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  1. Comment by LS:

    Obviously you are much closer to that piece of fabric than I am, but it looks to me like you’ve got things a bit backward. If you look at the black elements of the red and black print, it looks like they are less distinct on the side you show in the first photos and describe as the front side of the Indian print.

    I would say that the Japanese print was made over the face of the Indian print. The black border in the 6th photo compared to the photo two places above it shows that very clearly to my eye. I also see that in the 4th photo where the turned over seam shows a more distinct image than the rest of the fabric.

    It looks like the second print was made after the pieces were stitched together into two larger pieces that were then sewn together up the middle, so maybe it was done to minimize the visual impact of the mismatched red pattern.

    I like how the blue drops out in the lower left corner. Maybe someone didn’t order enough ink?

    January 25, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

  2. Comment by admin:

    Yes, wrong choice of words which I used when I said “bleeds” through which I’ve changed to “can be seen on”: “bleeds” was a misleading word. In fact you are right to say that the wa sarasa pattern was printed over the face of the Indian cloth. Thanks for the help with verbal clarity.

    January 25, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  3. Comment by patricia:

    I know you blog very recently and i love so much.
    Everithing is nice: pictures, the way you put pieces, fabrics…
    (sorry my english)
    Kisses
    Patrícia S.

    January 26, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  4. Comment by natasha:

    I find myself distracted by the striped piece on the ladder. What is its story ?

    February 2, 2010 @ 6:55 am

  5. Comment by admin:

    To natasha: what you are referring to is a stencil-resist dyed collar for a happi coat; the red color is from an iron oxide based dye which the Japanese call bengara, which is a reference to Bengal (India) the origin of the dye.

    February 2, 2010 @ 9:18 am