An Ode to Japanese Fabric

I started buying and selling new and vintage traditional Japanese fabric soon after I made Kyoto my home in 1998 and I’m still just as enthralled by the city in general and textiles in particular all these years later.

I hadn’t planned on making fabric my focus before I got here, but it didn’t take long for me to get hooked on Kyoto’s famed monthly temple markets, rousing myself before dawn on market days to go treasure hunting and practice some Japanese in the process.

I had a second hand expandable camping backpack that I’d bought with outdoor adventuring in mind that I instead requisitioned for use on market mornings.

Though I never have gotten around to the camping, that pack has more than earned its keep, stuffed full like a fisherman’s creel by mid-morning on so many occasions with kimono and other finds!

There are many angles from which we can look at this fascinating world-material and how it’s woven, dyeing techniques, motifs, and the way in which a given fabric was used by its owner.

Here, rather than try to write an encyclopedic overview, I’d like to explore the world of Japanese fabric in more general terms that put it in a larger context and give a sense of the dynamism that makes it such a rewarding and sometimes addictive pursuit.


Japanese fabric: regional variation in textiles and culture

There’s a tendency at times to see the culture of Japan and attitudes of its people as fairly uniform constructs, and this isn’t just true of those who see Japan from the outside. I noticed early on in my life here that some Japanese people, especially those of a certain age, were fond of uttering the words ‘We Japanese…’ before making an observation about a way of thinking or seeing things.  Coming from an individualistic society like the US, I was struck by the collective consciousness that comments like this seemed to mirror.

But over time I noted that these feelings of oneness tilt more toward the general than specific. I soon realized from personal experience and the (sometimes entertainingly disapproving) comments of Japanese friends about their compatriots in other places that there is actually a significant amount of regional difference within Japan in such things as language, manners, cuisine, dress and attitudes.

In this light, it’s not surprising that traditional Japanese fabrics of the same general type have developed distinct characteristics depending on the locality where they were made. – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts


Gaining even a little awareness of these differences can be a wonderful window onto the incredible variation on themes that runs through life in general in Japan on myriad levels. As homogeneous as Japan was and still is when compared to most other nations distinctions can often be subtle, which makes it all the more rewarding when they’re discovered.

When distinct cultures within Japan are discussed, the islands of Okinawa and Hokkaido on opposite ends of the archipelago are often referenced. And in the fabric realm the bright bingata of Okinawa and the northern island of Hokkaido’s Ainu textiles made by its native people are indeed substantively different than fabric found anywhere else.

But with a bit of investigating, you’ll find that the whole of Japan, including many towns on the main island of Honshu itself, have developed their own unique interpretations of widely spread techniques. While they might not immediately stand out in the way that crafts from the more geographically isolated and ethnically distinct part of Japan do, once you become aware of them they will call out to you like old friends when they’re near!


Innovations in Japanese fabric

In addition to this lack of geographical homogeneity, Japanese fabric traditions of course, like all customs, have evolved over time.

It can be easy to overlook this though, because so many aspects of Japanese culture have such deep roots and the incremental changes that have taken place along the way sometimes go unnoticed. This is especially true when we look at iconic aspects of Japan from the outside.

Before the 1820’s for example, if you had sushi it would have featured fermented rather than raw fish.  And before the end of the 1600’s, if you were a commoner you slept on a mat covered dirt floor rather than the tatami rice straw mats that subsequently became so widespread.  What is considered to be quintessentially Japanese wasn’t always as we experience it now, and might not have even existed until relatively recently.

Japan has long been influenced by China, and many aspects of its culture can be traced to the country that is known as ‘chuugoku’ in Japanese. The name, based on the kanji characters 中国, carries the meaning ‘middle kingdom’ and itself reveals quite a bit about Japan’s relationship to China over the centuries, the silk road being just one aspect of this.



Over the centuries Japan has borrowed liberally from Korea and many other neighbors in Asia as well.  But I’d like to highlight an appropriation that is especially compelling because it happened relatively recently, had a profound impact on the development of Japan’s textile industry, and demonstrates, literally, just how far Japan’s fabric craftsmen have gone in their efforts to keep their craft commercially viable.

It’s a story that also happens to have special significance for me because I live in the district of Kyoto that first adopted this innovation. That district is Nishijin, often thought of as the cradle of Japanese woven silk fabric production for kimono and obi.

And intriguingly, rather than confining their focus to Asia, in 1872 an intrepid, inquisitive group from Kyoto made the long journey to Europe to learn about a modern French invention that would soon revolutionize their industry back home-the Jacquard loom attachment.

Nishijin woven fabrics have such a long history that they pre-date the classical Heian Period, which began in 794.

Over the centuries the fabric producers have had to contend with a plethora of challenges, and one especially adverse period coincided with the Onin War, a civil war which raged from 1467 to 1477.

During this time, the craftsmen who produced textiles for the imperial court were forced to flee to other areas of Japan. In this time of turbulence, they honed their skills and embellished them by incorporating various techniques that had been recently introduced from China.

It was when they returned to Kyoto after the hostilities ended that the name Nishijin became attached to their fine fabrics.  In fact, the district now known as Nishijin only came to be called that during the Onin War.  In Japanese, Nishijin literally means ‘western camp’, with camp referring to a camp in the military sense. The area was the headquarters of Yamana Sozen and his troops, and near the busy intersection of Imadegawa and Horikawa Street there are markers commemorating that chaotic period.

It seems somehow poetic in an incongruous sort of way that a name that has come to be synonymous with beauty and a dedication to a delicate art has its roots in a destructive, warring period. – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts


Nishijin thrived as the center of Japan’s woven fabric trade for four hundred years, and the name became known throughout Japan for its fine woven fabrics.  Then another cataclysmic event occurred. In 1868 the Meiji Restoration ushered in a new openness to the west and as demand from abroad for Japanese silk rose, kimono and obi producers suffered as many Japanese gravitated toward newly fashionable western attire and the cosmopolitan sophistication that it represented.

Against this backdrop, I can’t help but wonder how those pragmatic and proactive representatives of Nishijin felt as they planned for their long journey with the hope that it would bear fruit, all the while knowing at least on some level that they were taking a great leap of faith.  It must have taken great courage and clarity to come to terms with the reality that the downturn they were experiencing was an existential threat to their livelihoods and that doing nothing was the riskiest course of all.

The infusion of this new technology did indeed buoy the fortunes of the Nishijin weavers, and also served as inspiration for other districts across Japan that were struggling to find their footing in a new world where new fashion trends from faraway places made survival far from certain.


Declining Demand

In the years since the second world war, fabric production in Japan has dropped precipitously as fewer and fewer people wear kimono. It’s rare even in Kyoto to see someone who wears kimono as daily attire.  Those who study traditional arts like tea ceremony wear Kimono as part of their practice, and in at summer festivals casual cotton yukata kimono are often seen.

Japanese fabric production has always relied on a number of highly specialized shops, often family units, that contribute to the finished work.  These links in the production chain are all essential, and so when one aspect of the work can no longer be done due to a lack of artisans with that particular focus and skill, the chain is broken and the craft is no longer viable.  This somewhat extreme segmentation of the workforce perhaps once served to foster interdependence and cooperation among neighbors.

When we talk about silk fabrics, before we even start to consider the various specialists who handle the silk from thread to finished fabric we should take a moment to remember that sericulture, silk production itself, was once a significant force in the Japanese economy. Today, in contrast, not quite 1% of the silk used in Japan is domestically produced.


Japanese cotton fabric

Japanese cotton fabrics haven’t had the cachet of silk in Japan, and that seems to be a simple matter of class and economics-silk was once exclusively used by the aristocracy, and commoners in centuries past wore cotton kimono. In addition, Japanese folk textiles such as kasuri futon covers, sashiko hanten jackets and other Japanese indigo fabrics were prized for their utility over appearance.  That said, certain features like sashiko stitching eventually went far beyond their basic forms and became decorative as well.

And in recent years it’s been more than a little surprising to older Japanese who remember the years of deprivation during and after the war to learn that old, well used, often threadbare fabrics that have survived in storage often bring high prices at auctions and are bought and sold by dealers in the same way as fine vintage silk kimono!

What’s especially interesting about these ‘boro’ fabrics is that the numerous patches on them that can make them all the more valuable to collectors from within and outside Japan were often sewn on with little or no regard for aesthetics-whatever happened to be at hand got used.  It’s this ‘accidental art’ aspect of the these countryside textiles, along with the poignancy of holding something that served its owners so well that attracts me when I come across old aizome indigo cottons.

I’ve bought some very well worn cotton indigo fabrics at the temple markets here at prices I considered almost a steal, and when I showed them to older Japanese friends, they laughed and were stunned that I’d paid anything for such rags! Sometimes when we talk, in their faces and words I can feel the struggles they endured when they were young, when thrift was not only a virtue but a necessity. In that light, their incredulity is no surprise at all.

This era that we live in is one of great comfort for many and extreme convenience that can often in fact come at significant cost. Part of my attraction to these fabrics in particular and Japanese textiles in general is that they serve as concrete reminders of what makes us human beneath all of the artifice-our instinctive love of beauty and our innate, if often untapped reserves of resilience and resourcefulness.

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