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From Silkworm Cocoons to Nishijin-ori Fabric

See & Do

art_craft

From Silkworm Cocoons to Nishijin-ori Fabric

Actually, I didn’t know that there were neckties made from luxurious Nishijin-ori silk fabric.
I’d thought surely this material was only used for kimono-related items like obi (kimono belts) or kesa (Buddhist robes).
I’d like to introduce how the traditional production of Nishijin-ori fabric has been passed down over the years in Japan and the pride taken in that work.
It’s fascinating to see that even traditional culture is influenced by modernization these days. 

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Kyoto Love. Kyoto is an online magazine that has all you need to know to call yourself a Kyoto expert! Kyoto culture in both historical and modern contexts. Get to know Kyoto, get to love Kyoto.

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Kyoto Love. Kyoto is an online magazine that has all you need to know to call yourself a Kyoto expert! Kyoto culture in both historical and modern contexts. Get to know Kyoto, get to love Kyoto.

Why is Nishijin-ori fabric called a luxury fabric?

Woven cloth is created by interlacing warp and weft threads together into a flat surface, and specific fabric names vary according to where the cloth is made or from what materials.

The area around Imadegawa Omiya was the site of the western army headquarters controlled by Yamana Sozen during the Onin War approximately 550 years ago, leading that area to be called “Nishijin” (“Western Camp”). Thus, the cloth woven there is known as “Nishijin-ori (ori, meaning ‘weaving’).”

Renowned for its variety of colors and three-dimensional appearance, Nishijin-ori fabric is silk fabric woven from dyed threads. Silk threads spun from silkworm cocoons are first dyed, then used for both the warp and weft threads. The final fabric is woven on various looms which are unique to each production company. 

Threads being spun from silkworm cocoons. The threads are wound carefully as the silkworm cocoons. simmer in hot water. Without proper care, these threads will get entangled and lump together or break, so masterful skill is required.
The weaving process. In the Japanese folktale “Tsuru no Ongaeshi” (“The Crane Returns a Favor”), the crane weaves fabric in this manner.

There are many products made from Nishijin-ori fabric, but the most common items that people would think of are obi, kimono fabric, kesa and neckties. Other products include hyosogire (cloths for mounting scrolls and paintings) and ningyogire (cloths for traditional Hina doll clothing).

A photo of an obi

While being woven from silk is one reason why Nishijin-ori fabric is deemed a luxury fabric, I personally think the loom equipment used to create it is another major reason. Some examples of key loom equipment components include the boto and fumise which control the warp threads; the hibako shuttle box, the hikibaku device for incorporating gold leaf and the tsukidashi tool which all control the weft threads; and the furue, tarume and tasuke required for weaving summer clothing. There are various kinds of looms around the world, but surely no others have such ingenious and complex components.

Woven textiles have an extensive history, having been brought from China and then uniquely transformed in Japan to reach their present state. I think that Japanese people have a talent for creatively adapting items from other countries to better suit their own tastes. Not to mention, Kyoto was the ancient capital and artisans competed earnestly amongst themselves, constantly striving to create better products, while weaving luxury silks in an organization managed by the Heian royal court—leading to extraordinary innovations. This spirit still lives on in present-day Kyoto. I think this applies not just to Nishijin-ori fabric, but to all traditional production in Kyoto. 

Where the name “Tama-no-Koshi Shrine” originates and the pattern design process

My work, exclusively drafting pattern designs, was first conceived roughly 360 years ago by Sonko Okamoto. A monument to him stands at the northern edge of Imamiya-jinja Shrine in front of the Orihime-sha sub-shrine in Kyoto’s Kita-ku. I’m going a bit off topic now, but Imamiya-jinja Shrine is also called “Tama-no-Koshi Shrine,” named after Otama, the daughter of a fruit-and-vegetable store owner, who was shogun general Tokugawa Iemitsu’s favorite concubine, and who would later be called Keishoin as the birth mother of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, becoming an icon of climbing the social ladder through marriage.

Nishijin-ori fabric production entails numerous processes and is created by dividing the work up amongst their business community, each business entity or freelance artisan specializing in different production processes. First, the textile store draws up an initial product proposal. Next, the designer creates a suitable design, and the pattern designer then produces a design template. Meanwhile, the dyer dyes the warp and weft threads that will be used, a warping specialist warps the loom, and a weaver prepares the loom for the weft threads and does the weaving. The woven material is processed according to its purpose, and the final product is created.

The benefit of this division of labor is the expertise in each of the various fields as well as ensuring the preservation of advanced techniques. The downside is that the product can’t be completed if any one step is missing. 

One of the many roles is that of pattern designer, which involves creating a template for the final woven fabric design. Based on a full-scale proposed design, the pattern designer selects special lined paper (similar to graph paper) that matches the specifications of the loom, and then copies an enlarged version of the pattern onto the paper in pencil before adding color to match the envisioned final product. Finally, the pattern designer carefully marks fine lines along the paper, completing the final design template.

 

The design template
A close-up view of the design template
A completed obi for a formal furisode kimono
After that, the template is scanned and the pattern data projected as a picture on a computer, additional attachments showing the texture of the woven fabric, and directions for moving the weft threads are combined, and data is input according to CGS pattern data standards. The final woven product can then be created using automatic looms. Today, although the work is primarily done on computers, it’s typical for the data to be stored on 3.5-inch floppy disks. Artisans continue to age and they are unable to use newer media comfortably. 
The design template
The proposed design

What my work means to me

My grandfather originally started the family business after the war. It was then passed down from my grandfather to my father, from my father to my mother, and is now carried on by myself and my sister. When demonstrating this work, I often hear people say, “It’s such detailed work, isn’t it?” But since I’ve observed it since my childhood, and I suppose I’m the type to just keep at things, I didn’t particularly think about that but only wanted to help my busy mother. Back then during Japan’s bubble economy era, I felt embarrassed to explain that my work involved creating traditional Japanese products. But now, I often get comments like “Wow, that’s amazing!” and so I think times have changed. These days, I can really feel that continuity has a certain power.

People often say that you can’t do this work unless you can draw well. And yes, in order to create beautiful woven products, you do need some artistic ability to complete them according to the proposed design concept. But other factors are also important, such as the programmer-like considerations of quantifying and combining in order not to waste any threads or put an excessive burden on the movements of the loom.

I feel joy and a sense of accomplishment when the weaver manages to weave something so complex and difficult without any mistakes. I’m always careful since anyone making a mistake may cause difficulties for all the other related steps in the production process, but there are of course times when my part doesn’t go well. I feel very down about it when this happens, but I tell myself that “people in the olden days could do this, so I can do it too,” and try to shift my frame of mind. And one more thing, it’s important to apologize sincerely and fix any mistakes. Sometimes it can be surprisingly difficult to do this seemingly commonsense thing after we become adults, but I try to deal with any errors quickly and sincerely. Without solid communication, trouble can occur easily with so many steps divided between different people. This is why I think one of my jobs is to keep in close contact with the entire team. I feel like this is something true in both work and life itself.

And in the world of Nishijin-ori fabric too, we face a serious shortage of successors to carry on our craft as opportunities to wear kimono decrease and current artisans grow older. But I try my best to help connect the next generation to these techniques distinct to the thousand-year capital of Kyoto and to the spirit of our predecessors in this craft. 

Nishijin monument
Sonko Okamoto monument
TEXT BY :Aki Igarashi, Nishijin Design Pattern Industry Cooperative  Director
 
 

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Kyoto Love. Kyoto is an online magazine that has all you need to know to call yourself a Kyoto expert! Kyoto culture in both historical and modern contexts. Get to know Kyoto, get to love Kyoto.