Japanese textile designer, Junichi Arai (b.1932), said that the crucial problem for contemporary textile makers is choosing and blending the myriad of available materials, tools, and technologies. He explains that history should be the maker’s guide, as there have been passionate efforts dedicated to making better fibers, textiles, and garments.
Arai has lived by this credo of history. Born to a sixth generation mill-owning family and living in Kiryu, an important center for textile production in Japan for more than 400 years, Arai was surrounded by textiles being woven for kimonos and obis. His deep reverence for traditional weaving techniques, and the capabilities that only the hand (and mind) can provide in the craft of making textiles, has made Arai the maker of the most technically innovative fabrics in the last 30 years.
Crocodile represents his more recent work and 20-year experimentation with the material polyphenylene sulfide, a highly flame-resistant cloth that is used to make filters for coal boilers as well as electrical insulation. Arai chooses it because, like polyester, it can be molded and shaped; when combined with wool, the textile achieves a highly-textured surface akin to crocodile skin. Selection of the material, however, is only half of the story as Arai subjects the cloth to a “melt-off” technique (a term he originated), which refers to the removal of the metal in a fabric leaving behind a transparent filmy cloth. But he takes this a step further: before the “melt-off” wraps certain areas—the ancient art of tie-dying or shibori in Japan—in order to retain some metallic areas.
Arai achieves the magical sweet spot in his textiles, utilizing the technology of the day while building upon the traditions of his revered textile ancestors. Arai shares his solution for textile-making:
“We must learn the essence of textiles and garments; that which makes them more than mere cloth and clothes, and elevates them to the level of cultural expression. Questions of tools and techniques become meaningless if we do not understand the essence of the medium. What use is high technology if we do not know the soul of the craft?”
(From “Weaving the Ancient and Contemporary” in Hand and Technology: Textiles by Junichi Arai, 1992 : Japan)