Japanese Vionnet book

[This post has been amended at close]
Those Japanese books I ordered came in. People who ordered are expecting theirs in the mail soon. The one I was hot and bothered to get was the Japanese version of the Vionnet book -and it didn’t disappoint.

If like me, you have the original Vionnet book by Betty Kirke and managed to traverse the instructions to recreate some styles, I have little doubt you were frustrated. Kirke’s instructions are -in comparison- awful. Not that I liked them before without the comparison. Kirke strikes me as a word person, not a spatial, can think in pictures and explain it, person, which you really need for drafts this complex (why didn’t she hire someone to help her?). The Japanese book is much better. You won’t even have to speak Japanese to understand what’s going on. Try doing that with the Kirke book -which you can barely follow in English.

The differences go beyond language and instructions. The Japanese book includes photos of styles made from the drafts. The Kirke book used a combination of illustrations (that I didn’t like either, too loosey-goosey technical wise) and original garments. Purists won’t want to hear this but the photos of the Japanese garments look better. And why wouldn’t they? They should; they’re new, crisp, never worn and haven’t been schlepped around like the originals. You be the judge, compare the exact same styles, first Kirke and then the Japanese book:

I liked the above style very much based on the Kirke version but the Japanese version piques my interest even more. Regarding instruction, this particular style -in the Kirke book- was a real thorn in my side. One shouldn’t have to endlessly ponder the significance of prepositions among other things, just to make the darn thing. The instructions were downright cryptic, beyond minimalist. Kirke’s instructions amounted to less than one half of one column on a three column page!

The Japanese version, while not singularly enlightening, were a far cry better. There was a much greater attempt to explain the process with text (not that I can read it of course) and copious illustration.

Another thing that’s always annoyed me about the Kirke book, was that she made it nigh impossible to trace off the drafts. If she didn’t want anyone to copy the styles, why did she bother to write it? It doesn’t look bad in the photo below, but just try tracing white lines on black background. It’s nuts! The Japanese book is crisp black and white lines with text. Thankyouverymuch!

Regarding the patterns themselves, the Kirke book had no scale indicated. I have banged my head endlessly wondering just what she could have been thinking. One needed to scale drawings by hook or crook. I used a combination of methods. One was using selvage edge to selvage edge as a guide to fabric width but that didn’t always work because Vionnet had some goods woven to her specs. The Japanese book imprints the scale in the background, making it much simpler.

One last thing sure to upset the apple cart. The drafts between books, while similar, are not identical. Someone who wishes to remain nameless but who was intimately involved in the Kirke book project, told me that the Kirke patterns are not exact copies. That in spite of the author’s claims to the contrary, the patterns were illustrated, not copied as drafts. Supposedly, a Japanese artist was hired to draw the pattern shapes. The actual shapes themselves were not transcribed and reduced for the print publication. After comparing drafts between texts (in addition to having to have redrawn lines from Kirke myself), I’m inclined to believe it. Perhaps this accounts for the differences between drafts. For what it’s worth, the Japanese lines look cleaner. Furthermore, they’re proven with the style rendition. Besides, anytime you take a garment apart to pull the draft from it, the lines are never quite the same. In proving the style, the Japanese author had to go through several iterations before ending up with her final pattern. At least, I’m assuming so. The Japanese author strikes me as diligent and dedicated to the task, plying her hand directly.

In summary, if you can work from the Kirke book without problems, that’s great, but there’s no denying that the Japanese version of Vionnet is a cheat sheet. If one could describe it as that anyway. I’m interested in whatever the Japanese author says but I can’t read her intro. I sent it to Teijo who (knowing his generosity) will translate it for us.

And not to suggest the Japanese version is perfect either. Sewing the mobius scarf the way it’s illustrated is a great way to drive yourself nuts, guaranteed. Don’t close it through the neck opening. Do it through one of the scarf end darts. You have more room to work.
Amended 1/31/08
Teijo has generously provided translations as follows:

Notes: The author of the VIONNET Companion volume – as listed on its cover and in the introduction – is (the) “Vionnet Research Group”. The book was compiled by a group of tutors at the Bunka Fukuso Gakuin (whose official English name is “Bunka Fashion College”, although a more literal translation might be “Cultural Apparel Institute”).

The term “rittaika” is used extensively in the original text (and Japanese sewing texts in general) to refer to the process of sewing a garment from a flat pattern. The literal translation is simply “to make three-dimensional”. In this translation I favored “construct” over “sew” while trying to keep some of the “three-dimensional” flavor of the original text…

In 1991 Betty Kirke published “VIONNET” – a book about the artist Madeleine Vionnet, who left an indelible mark on the history of fashion. It told us her story, and provided commentary, patterns and structural details for thirty-eight key designs chosen from the over 12000 Vionnet is said to have produced in her lifetime.

Upon acquiring this book, struck by Vionnet’s revolutionary cuts, we were driven to reconstruct her designs in actual size, and began as a group to investigate ways to achieve this goal.

Since it proved impossible to source the materials that Vionnet used from modern suppliers we concentrated on examining the structure of the garments themselves, constructing three-dimensional pieces from the patterns with just the explanations provided in the book as our guide. The labor of conjecturing scale from the drawings, calculator in one hand, resulted time and time again in a beautiful silhouette and a moment of enlightenment, and we began to gradually unravel the mysteries of Vionnet’s dressmaking technique. As we exchanged information on the pieces we had chosen to work on, we began to see what Vionnet had looked for, and this understanding provided additional motivation for each subsequent reconstruction. We realized that the process of actually piecing the designs together in three dimensions was essential to understanding her technique, and that it was the way that their structure (design lines) took into account the movement of the human anatomy, combined with a cut (geometric shaping) that took into account the nature (grain and drape characteristics) of the fabric that resulted in their beautiful silhouette and movement.

As we completed one reconstruction after another we saw that each one of Vionnet’s designs had much potential for adaptation in terms of both pattern shaping and fabric handling. Thinking this would be useful for learning design expression we incorporated the exercise into the school curriculum.

We were convinced that exposing students to Vionnet’s technique by letting them sew the flat patterns into their three-dimensional shapes would prove a very effective way to expand their design ideas.

We also felt that actual scale drawings and illustrated sewing instructions would help inexperienced pupils learning to sew the designs in a school environment to gain a deeper understanding of the subject – and thus compiled the results of our own reconstruction work into a “research manual”.

In May 2001 our reconstructed pieces were displayed at the Culture Academy gallery under the title “Madeleine Vionnet Research Exhibition.” The response from both apparel school and industry personnel was much greater than expected. We were very pleased that this exhibition allowed us to show the young students and other industry people some of the work by the great artist Madeleine Vionnet.

The actual size patterns and sewing instructions for the pieces were also displayed at the exhibition, and many of the visitors asked for copies. Hoping to fulfill their wish we contacted Tokai Harumi, the editor of “Vionnet”, and after receiving permission from Betty Kirke, the author, proceeded in April 2002 to publish this companion volume. The research group hereby expresses its gratitude to Betty Kirke and Tokai Harumi for understanding our motive for writing this book.

It is our sincere wish that this companion volume will be of use to readers of “VIONNET” who endeavor to study Vionnet’s ideas and way of thinking.

September 2002
Bunka Fashion College
Vionnet Research Group

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