Junco Sato Pollack, the daughter of Northern Japanese dyers, is one of the few people who still practice the centuries-old craft of spinning and weaving silk by hand. Pollack must raise her own silkworms to get the kind of thread she needs, and must use an antique reeling frame to spin her silk.
In Japan, she said, where silk making has been industrialized, her craft is no longer appreciated. "To the Japanese this is very old-fashioned, not good. But the Americans really appreciate folk art," she said.
About 40 Washington-area craftsmen attended two workshops last weekend in Annandale to hear Pollack explain her complex worm-raising and silk-spinning techniques. The Potomac Craft Guild, a metropolitan Washington association of fiber artists, sponsored the workshops, at which Pollack also modeled some of her homemade silk kimonos.
Pollack was trained by a disciple of Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the folk art movement in Japan. She said she raises silkworms herself because "what they are doing to your chickens and your pork is also happening to silkworms. Sericulture (raising of silkworms) tries to increase the weight of the cocoons, not the quality of the silk."
She nurtured 4,000 silkworms this summer in her upper New York state home, where she moved after marrying an American. It was, at times, a frustrating job. It takes roughly 30 mulberry trees to feed each thousand worms. Pollack spent much of the summer scouting out homes with the trees and then asking for leaves to feed her hungry flock.
"It became really disgusting," she said. "I would bring two big garbage bags of branches and lay them across the table (where the worms were held) in the morning, and by 2 in the afternoon the leaves would all be gone and the worms would be standing up, looking for more."
Eventually the worms stopped eating and started spinning cocoons, attaching a silk thread to a branch and spinning the thread around themselves in figure eights.
Pollack harvested two pounds of silk cocoons after her summer's work -- a good yield, she feels. The moths inside the cocoons were killed by baking them in the oven so the cocoons could be unraveled into thread.
Pollack spins some of the cocoons exactly as she finds them, and that produces a waxy, hard thread called "raw silk." The plastic quality comes from sericin, a gummy substance the worm uses to attach two silk fibers together. The amount of this glue-like covering removed by the spinner determines the softness of the silk.
To get a softer silk, Pollack removes the sericin either by heating the cocoons for 20 minutes in plain water or by adding a tablespoon of baking soda to the simmering pot.
Once the cocoons are fairly saturated, Pollack stabs at them with a straw brush and pulls out a thread. This is wound through three widely spaced eye hooks and onto an old black box with a reel and a crank to turn it.
This last item is a reeling frame Pollack bought from an antique dealer in Japan. "This is a dead industry. No one makes reeling frames anymore."
Not all of Pollack's cocoons are reeled into threads. Some are pulled apart to make a fuzzy rectangle called a "mawata," which Pollack uses like down to line her kimonos. "Silk expands and contracts, so it is as warm as down but it is much, much lighter," she explained.
Many of Pollack's kimonos, the traditional Japanese wrapped coats, are made with the hand-woven silk, a craft that she said "requires much fatter silk than the industrial-produced thread you can get, so that is why I must raise my own."
The two dozen kimonos she showed to the Guild varied widely from a sleeveless vest to a long, posh gown with hanging sleeves ("The longer the sleeves, the more elegant the kimono, like your Western dress length"). She doesn't sell her homemade kimonos.
Pollack showed her audiences the basic steps and snips, holding the fabric in the air and clipping with her right hand, without a second of study. "You fold this lengthwise in thirds . . ." she explained.
"How many inches?" shouted a slightly desperate voice.
"Oh, I don't know. In thirds. I never measure," she answered lightly.
By following her quick clips, a fully lined, padded kimono takes about an hour to make. That's assuming you know what you are doing and don't have to weave the fabric. Or raise the silkworms.