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Traditional Materials Find New Application in Clothing

May 23, 2000

These shirts are all made of natural material, such as washi and hemp. (Isetan)

The fashion world is constantly seeking and latching onto new materials. The folk fashion craze spurred demand for natural, handmade-looking textiles that exude warmth, while synthetic fabrics with a sleek look have also recently been popular. For spring 2000, the hot item is fabrics made from traditional Japanese materials, such as bamboo and washi (handmade Japanese paper).

Bamboo, Paper, and Charcoal Too
A spotlight grabber at the Tokyo Spring and Summer 2000 collection, presented in fall 1999, was a series of coats and pants made of fabric containing bamboo fibers designed by Yu Honma. In spring 2000, bamboo fiber clothes have actually been showing up in department stores and women's boutiques. An exclusive manufacturing process makes it possible to create a highly breathable, absorbent fabric entirely from bamboo fiber. Clothes made of this fabric sell for around the same price as ordinary clothes--59,000 yen (562 U.S. dollars at 105 yen to the dollar) for a coat, 53,000 yen (505 dollars) for a jacket, 27,000 yen (257 dollars) for a skirt, and 42,000 yen (400 dollars) for a dress--and have a distinctive softness and cool, light texture. The fabric is highly versatile; other garments, such as blouses and tank tops, are also available.

Paper clothing is also coming out. Apparel makers began offering sweaters knit from fibers made of washi in March 2000, and they plan to expand their lineups of washi clothing in the fall. Jackets, sweaters, and pants for men are also available. The 100% washi fabric is light and breathable and feels a lot like linen. Garments made from it are priced on the high side, at 60,000 yen (571 dollars) for jackets and 25,000 yen (238 dollars) for pants. This fabric also absorbs dust and odors, as evidenced by the fact that it is used as filters in air-purifying devices.

Washi and bamboo are not the only traditional materials being used in clothing. Jackets and pants made of a new material that is 70% polyester and 30% charcoal have also come up. The charcoal is pulverized, then mixed into a polyester solution to produce an exceptionally resilient, lustrous fabric that also reportedly has deodorizing properties.

Other natural materials that have garnered attention over the past few years include kenaf--a grass of the mallow family that can grow three or four meters in six months--and hemp. The trend toward the use of natural materials in the fashion world is picking up momentum, and a variety of exhibitions and contests are taking place, providing venues for the display of these materials.

The Road to Paper Clothes
Research toward creating paper clothing has been under way in Japan for a long time now, though it has never before reached the practical application stage. In February 2000, 10 artisans and designers who belong to a washi research group held an exhibition exploring the possibilities of washi at a gallery in Kagoshima Prefecture. The articles on display included clothing, such as jackets colored with dyes made from paper mulberry (one of the raw materials commonly used to make washi). The clothing, which appears stiff but feels soft and warm, got high marks. In March 1999 a fashion show featuring clothing made of washi was held in Kochi Prefecture. Washi jeans were among the articles that appeared in the show, which was titled "The Body of Washi." One would never know, just by looking at these clothes, that they are made of paper.

The merits of paper and bamboo for use in textile fibers are their breathability (ideal for Japan's humid summers), the ease of processing them into fabric, their high functionality, and their beauty. The fashion world's fascination with all things Oriental and Japanese continues unabated, and washi and bamboo are attracting the interest of a growing number of designers. More and more of these materials are expected to find their way onto store shelves as time goes by.

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.