2013 No.11


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Japanese Fabrics Have Their Global Reputation Wrapped Up


Textiles and Japan

Since ancient times the Japanese have refined their dyeing and weaving techniques, shaping and coloring their culture along the way to a bright future.

Written by Nagasaki Iwao

It is not clear when the Japanese mastered the art of making cloth, but we can assume they were using cloth for many purposes by the time they established a farming culture in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Silken fabrics woven into patterns have been unearthed from ruins of the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Beginning around that time, cultural elements and artisans are believed to have entered the country from the Korean peninsula and China, bringing new ways to make cloth.

Imported goods as teacher: The Japanese learn new techniques, and make them their own

Weaving techniques in Japan saw more refinement in the 7th and 8th centuries, when many cultural elements entered from Sui and Tang China. One prime example is nishiki, an ornate and colorful mon-orimono featuring a raised, brocade pattern. Also produced by this time were dyed goods. The most notable dyeing methods that appealed to people then include:

  • Shibori-zome tie-dyeing: Thread is used to tie parts of a fabric, so the dye that cannot reach those parts.
  • Bosen resist dyeing: Melted wax is applied to parts of the fabric so that the dye does not penetrate there, leaving a pattern.
  • Itajime-zome board dyeing: The cloth is clamped tightly between wooden boards that have a pattern carved in relief. The clamped parts of the cloth are protected from the dye, leaving a white pattern.

Embroidery also began around the same time. The abovementioned dyeing techniques and embroidery were used not only for clothing but also for floor coverings and decorated fabrics hung from the pillars and ceilings of Buddhist temples.

After diplomatic relations with China were suspended in the 10th century, clothing took on a distinctive Japanese style. Rather than fabrics being dyed after being woven, fabrics woven from dyed threads were adopted by the upper class. It became fashionable to wear multiple thin garments of different colors, each made from mon-orimono silk and showing its own hem, collar and sleeves in a beautiful layered color arrangement.

The front and reverse of fabric was adorned in different color combinations to form motifs depicting the appearance of plants, insects or other aspects of nature during a specific season. Each motif had its own name, and there were about 130 color combinations. The motif chosen would match the current season.

This is what formal feminine apparel looked like around the 12th century. The sleeves and hems of multiple mon-orimono silken garments express beauty through their bands of colors. (Property of the Kyoto National Museum)

This illustration of a woman wearing a kosode garment is called A Beauty Looking Back. By Hishikawa Moronobu (17th century). (Property of the Tokyo National Museum) Image: TNM Image Archives

The kimono leads fashion culture to new dyeing and weaving techniques

Between the 13th and 16th centuries the kosode, which evolved into today's kimono, took on a central role in Japanese fashion for all classes. And then, in the early 17th century, when the Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in what would become 300 years of peace, women's fashion quite quickly evolved toward the ornate, although the level of ornateness depended somewhat on the social class.

New dyeing techniques appeared around the end of the 17th century, among them a process still alive today: yuzenzome. In this technique, the pattern outlines are drawn like pieces of fine thread, using a starch resist paste to protect the outlines from the dye. The result is remarkably colorful, exquisite patterns, so beautiful that the process spread to various parts of the country and was used not only for women's kosode garments but for other fabric goods as well, such as cloth for wrapping presents.

Thus, by early modern times a number of dyeing techniques were being used to create patterns unique to each respective technique. But the ancient mon-orimono raised brocade techniques did not completely die out. The Noh theater, with its masked actors, grew in popularity especially among the military class, and costume production soared. The fabric used for those costumes was often woven in the mon-orimono technique.

Cotton cultivation spread in the 18th century, spurring the weaving of cotton fabric. Cheap to buy, it was quickly adopted by the common folk, and cotton dyed goods were soon being produced in many areas. It was around this time that cotton fabric became part of the culture of ordinary people, one that lives on today in various forms, including tie-dyed cloth produced throughout the country, and fabric decorated with a kasure splashed pattern effect achieved by including speckled dyed thread in the weave.

Techniques passed down through the ages, into the future

After Japan's feudal system ended in the late 19th century, the influence of Western civilization swept in. Although the nation's fabric traditions still lived on, completely new approaches to dyeing and weaving were also seen in the importation and further development of chemical dyes and weaving machines. These led to techniques prevalent in Japan's modern culture of dyeing and weaving.

Traditional clothing changed in the face of new technologies, and new buildings constructed in the Western style had some of their walls and their chairs covered in the new fabric styles. Even the traditional furoshiki cloth for wrapping objects was made with the new techniques.

Later, even more splendid chemical fibers were developed in Japan. But we cannot forget that the roots of today's fabric culture go back in an unbroken line to ancient times.

Nagasaki Iwao
After serving as Director of the Dyeing and Weaving Division of the Tokyo National Museum, became professor in the Faculty of Home Economics at Kyoritsu Women's University, a position he currently holds. Has researched many aspects of the cultural history of Japanese clothing and garment ornamentation, including dyeing, weaving, attire and patterns. Often involved in the planning of exhibitions on dyeing, weaving, clothing and garment ornamentation.