Sabbatical Notes: 7 Kimono Textiles To Marvel At

I find that urban sounds are more or less similar wherever you go. There might be a new truck jingle here and there, or unusual calls from vendors walking the streets, but for the most part, one recognizes the sound of a construction vehicle, the beep of a pedestrian walking signal, or an ambulance rushing by no matter if you are in New York or Istanbul. Walking through the Nishijin neighborhood which I am living in here in Kyoto, I encountered a sound all around me that I didn’t recognize. A rhythmic, loud wooden clacking drifted out onto the streets through the open windows of homes as I walked by, like an underwater heartbeat. I soon found out that I had without knowing landed myself in a historic neighborhood for a type of weaving that originated 1,200 years ago in Kyoto, and those sounds were coming from the weaving looms being used in small factories all around me as I stand in the 21st century.

And so it felt right to begin by describing the sound, a new sensory immersion, as I continue my explorations of textiles in Kyoto. Close your eyes and listen to what this sounds like.

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the 3rd generation kimono textile company Hirota Tsumugi, under the kind and patient guidance of their representative Daisuke-san and in the setting of a beautiful machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse typified with Kyoto. I was also very lucky to visit on a day that three other kimono and obi companies were showcasing their fabrics to their clients. I was impressed by each of their knowledge, passion, and generosity in answering my many questions.  

 Tatami mat showroom with kimono fabrics on display

At Hirota Tsumugi's showroom in Kyoto

I have only admired kimono fabrics from behind glass showcases before and have limited knowledge into this world, so I was very grateful to Daisuke-san and the other representatives for teaching me so much on my visit. I feel that the highest quality kimono fabrics have their counterpart in French haute-couture (which I touched on here in my visit to Chanel’s le 19m) in that they represent the crème de la crème of craftsmanship and continue to be supported by patrons who value their unparalleled artistic quality. Both involve multi-step processes that are in danger of disappearing, as the artisans are over 65 years old and fewer and fewer want to continue these professions.

What makes a fabric a kimono fabric? As a ready-to-wear designer who usually purchases bolts of fabric 45-60” wide, which could be cut up in any which way to create any number of garments – it was interesting to learn that kimono fabrics are purchased per roll ("tanmono") which makes exactly one kimono (12 meters long at 15” wide). The making of the kimono is truly baked into the creation of this bespoke bolt of fabric. For example, directional patterns are carefully placed so that they are right side up for exactly two folded sleeves. When one unrolls the bolt of kimono fabric, there are clear placements for each part of the garment. Instead of cutting away excess fabric, the width of the seams are simply increased or decreased so that the finished garment fits the client. A child who is growing up can still wear the same kimono by letting out the seams or the hem. When the kimono is worn out, its rectangular pieces make it easier to be reused to make other things. I truly love how these elements reinforce Japanese sensibility of using and reusing textiles to their very limit. 

This is by no means comprehensive; for this post, I wanted to focus on specific techniques that I particularly enjoyed amongst the selection of fabrics I viewed.  Seeing these incredible fabrics inspired me to research as much as I could about how they were made. I hope to reveal a bit of the immense artistry, skill, and creativity involved in creating these high quality kimono fabrics. I imagine that the wearer must be moved when they wear the kimono made from these fabrics, the threads tying them to over a thousand years of history and to all of the artists involved in creating it.

As I couldn't share all of the photos from the textiles I saw, I'm providing video links to learn more and I hope you will go down your own rabbit holes as well!

#1: Combination

The most exquisite, and expensive kimono fabrics combine several decorative techniques and once I began recognizing what was involved, it was quite fun to parse out each element when studying kimonos. For example, this fabric from Chiso Kimono involves no less than five techniques. Each technique is the work of a different artisan, and the fabric passes from one artisan to another as the artwork miraculously emerges. 

Chiso Kimono fabric techniques breakdown
Check out their video here for a glimpse into the making of:

#2: Shikebiki

Shikebiki is a technique where the artisan uses a wide deer hair brush to dye very fine stripes of color.  One of the reps told me these brushes were made from an imported deer that is no longer permitted, so the artisans are taking very good care of their existing brushes! This short video shows this miraculous technique. 

#3: Zanshi

One of my favorite patterns! Zanshiori fabrics are made from kasuri yarns leftover from weaving other fabrics. When re-woven, a randomized pattern emerges that couldn’t be produced normally by piecedye. I love the spontaneity and uniqueness of these fabrics. This one is from Hirota Tsumugi, and you can take a look at their blog for other examples of their zanshi weaves!

randomized stripe pattern made from weaving leftover threads

#4: Oshima Tsumugi

This subtle fabric hides a remarkable technique. Oshima-tsumugi is considered the most sophisticated kimono fabric and is accordingly expensive. 

Oshima Tsumugi textile dyed with mud from Hirota Tsumugi

Both warp and weft threads are resist-dyed in a “loom-dyeing” method - meaning, essentially, that the fabric is woven twice. First, warp and weft threads are woven with cotton threads covering the areas that will be resist-dyed, using a shimebata binding loom. After this "fabric" is dyed, the cotton threads are picked out. With the warp and weft yarns now dyed in exact locations, they are meticulously interwoven on a handloom for the image to appear. There are 40 processes involved in this extremely laborious process. Each bolt of fabric takes a year or more to weave. Oshima-tsumugi is made in Amami Oshima Island, and the dark background shows a unique dyeing method using local mud. This fabric is from Hirota Tsumugi; read more here.

#5: Hikihaku

The shine of this brilliant fabric comes from hand-made metallic threads! Gold or silver leaf is first pasted onto Japanese washi paper, which is then cut into thin strips ( .05 mm thick!) and woven with silk thread on the loom. Washi paper is chosen for its strength and durability. 

gold foil washi and nishijin fabric from Gan Wa obi shop

Fabric from 雁和 (Kari-wa) Kyoto Nishijin Obi 

Watch this incredible technique in action in this video from Victoria and Albert Museum. For a bonus, also check out the same technique using mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli! 

#6: Kinsai

Kinsai is the application of gold or silver leaf to fabric by stenciling or by dusting. I loved this textile from Murayama Embroidery that combined dusted silver and gold leaf with hand embroidery, enhancing the shimmering effect in a dimensional way. 

Kinsai technique with hand embroidery from Murayama Embroidery company

Watch this video to see these two kinsai techniques in action:

#7: Kanoko shibori + Yuzen

Shibori is a Japanese manual resist-dyeing technique that includes tieing/binding with thread, folds clamped between wood blocks, or wax resist. Kanoko shibori is the most popular variation and its name comes from resembling the spots on the back of a baby deer. Each knot is hand tied and released.

Detail of kanoko shibori from readysetkimono

Each unit is made from a hand-threaded knot, released after dyeing. Photo sourced from Readysetkimono.

Kanoko shibori is often used as a pattern on kimonos even when it's not actually made by shibori – the pattern may be embroidered, stencil dyed, etc. For example, this stunning fabric I saw from Murayama Embroidery includes the kanoko shibori pattern but created with stencil and dye. The subtle white floral pattern is painted free-hand with a rice-resist paste called yuzen, and then, after the dyeing is completed, the inner lines of the flowers are hand-painted. Absolutely incredible!

Embroidered, dyed, and painted fabric from Murayama embroideryWatch the yuzen resist paste painting technique in action here:

#8: Tsuzure (bonus!)

Last but not least.. I wanted to keep it at seven (but thankfully, 8 is also an auspicious number in Buddhism!), I had to share about tsuzure. Tsuzure is a very old and highly refined fingernail technique where weavers cut their nails in jagged form to use as a tool for more efficiently weaving delicate patterns. The textiles woven this way appear as fluid as a painting!

jagged finger nail for weaving tsuzure Nail filed into grooves for weaving tsuzure textiles. Photo from Kiyohara Seiji. 

October 2022

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