Silk may be the best known Japanese textile because of its contribution and value for fashioning luxurious kimonos, but in pre-industrial Japan only the nobility and upper classes were permitted to wear silk clothing. In contrast to courtly silk garments, commoners dressed in humble clothing made from homespun coarse hemp and cotton fabrics. These same unrefined, handmade textiles were also employed to create utilitarian articles for the home.
This narrative sets aside the examination of refined Japanese aristocratic silk. Rather, it will focus attention on natural early homespun cotton and hemp indigo textiles of the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Often called Japanese folk art textiles, or arts and crafts textiles, these fabrics are associated with the once impoverished Japanese rural population. Such utilitarian fabrics became Japanese peasant clothing and common household textiles. As in the manner of other Japanese folk crafts ( mingei e.g., pottery, lacquerwork etc.) what was considered a basic necessity by the Japanese who created and made use of these textiles, subsequently became collectable textile art for modern-day Japanophiles.
The Historical Importance of Hemp and Cotton Textiles
From very ancient times until the 1600s, Japanese peasants wore clothing made from common hemp, a locally grown and processed bast fiber. Rural Japanese craftswomen spun the hemp and handloomed the fiber threads into usable fabric which was turned into everyday farm field clothing and household articles. The Japanese did not distinguish between linen and hemp, the two have similar fibers and appearance and are referred to by the same Japanese word, asa. Hemp fabric was the only material available for general use in Japan until the introduction of cotton. The Japanese imported raw cotton and finished cotton goods from China from the 15th century and also from India somewhat later. This situation lasted until 16th century when the Japanese adopted Chinese cotton cultivation methods and began to produce cotton domestically. Cotton farming quickly became established in the warmer western regions of the Japanese archipelago where the moderate climate and fertile land were well-suited for growing cotton plants.
Spurred on by the ruling classes, spinning became a fast-growing cottage industry for Japanese peasants with central production hubs developing initially in rural Kyushu Island, then spreading to other warmer regions. These home industries sold expensive and limited amounts of homemade cotton fabric throughout the country.
Gradually production increased with the introduction of more efficient home-based spinning wheels and weaving looms. Cotton fabric manufacturing became geographically more widespread which resulted in a significantly reduced cost for cotton cloth. Domestic cotton fabrication produced comfortable cotton cloth as a replacement for the ubiquitous coarse hemp fabric.
Japanese rural females assumed most of the cotton spinning and weaving duties in their homes. This work was done for personal consumption and as a means of earning a primary or secondary income for their families.
By the 1870s, the Japanese had imported modern cotton milling equipment from Europe. This was done rather late when compared to the West where factory style milling was already well estabished. A few large commercial cotton spinning and weaving mills operated near Osaka. The initial production of milled cotton fabric was priced at a premium. This was due to the material's excellent quality and high manufacturing expense. The price of cotton fabric was too costly for most ordinary Japanese who depened upon less costly homespun fabric. As a result, the large Japanese textile mills did not turn out the bulk of the cotton threads and fabric for the gerneral marketplace of the period. That task remained firmly in the hands of the rural Japanese textile cottage industry, in the homes of the rural peasants.
1500s: Recycled Cotton Goes North
Cotton was a precious commodity in the Northern Japanese provinces, where the climate was too cold to permit the cotton plant to thrive. The people living in these provinces, who could afford the high cost of cotton, were forced to seek suppliers outside their region in order to purchase the much desired cotton fabric. Beginning in the Edo Period, seafaring Japanese traders sailed up and down the coastal waters trading in used, discarded indigo cotton cloth. This cloth was acquired in Western Japan and then sold into the poorer Northern rural and seaboard communities. Japanese farm women purchased these used fabrics and gave them new life by remaking them into boro field clothing (noragi), futon covers (futongawa) and other useful household textiles.
Japanese Sewing and Weaving Techniques
Recycling of cotton textiles has a long history in Japan, going back at least to the early 1600s. In the Northern Japanese islands industrious Japanese women worked with used cotton indigo dyed fabrics to perfect several sewing techniques in order to give renewed life to the secondhand cloth. They created new uses for these discarded materials by layering several pieces of cloth, attaching each together with sashiko stitching and then, if needed, boro patching them. Subsequently, these patchwork textiles could then be reassembled into warm clothing, futon covers and other common household items for the family's use. The resulting soft cotton textiles were a welcome relief from the harsh textured hemp fabrics native to the region.
Sashiko is a traditional form of Japanese hand sewing that uses a simple running stitch sewn in repeating or interlocking patterns, usually piercing through several layers of fabric. From the 17th century onward, creative rural Japanese seamstresses discovered an important feature of sashiko stitching. If the layers of fabric were held together with sashiko stitching, home made hemp and cotton clothing provided much better protection from the elements, lasted longer and even added a creative and individual flare to the textile. As a result, sashiko grew into a widely favored sewing technique and quickly became established throughout Japan for use as a utilitarian and dramatic embroidery. Thrifty Japanese farm women also employed the sashiko stitch to boro repair common household items like futon covers, garments and pillows. Sashiko stitching is commonly found on boro futon covers, noragi clothing (jackets and vests), aprons, zokin dusting cloths and other Japanese folk textiles. Sashiko thread colors range from white to a deep blue-black. White sashiko thread was used most often with contrasting indigo-dyed cotton fabric. Kogin sashiko is the extreme esthetic example of sashiko white thread stitching.
Zanshi Weaving (zanshi orimono)
Zanshi is a Japanese word which means “vestige,” or “leftover”. Zanshi textiles were woven from the extra threads which remained after looming fixed pattern weavings. These limited quantities of leftover zanshi threads were unable to be utilized, because there were not enough of them to make another weaving of the same pattern. Thus, these vestige threads were used to weave wonderful one-of-a-kind mixed threads Japanese Zanshi folk textiles. At the time they were made, these zanshi folk textiles were regarded as seconds, or items that were not up to standard quality.
Zanshi weaving is often recognized and characterized by slubs (lumps or thick places in the yarn or thread), uneven looming, and random color threads woven together to create a unique textile. At rural textile cooperatives, home spun threads were handloomed into casual zanshi designs. These designs provide today's collector with an excellent illustration of the depth and variety of Japanese folk textiles.
Sakiori is a method of looming together strips of old cloth. Sakiori comes from the words "saki," which means to tear or rip up, and "ori," which means weave. "Saki" relates to preparing the fabric by striping it into pieces and "ori" refers to weaving it together. The process is similar to American rag weaving but different in a single respect: rag weaving uses only fabric to make the woven pieces. Japanese sakiori employs pieces of cloth along with threads to weave the sakiori. With sakiori, the torn cloth pieces are rolled into 13 to 16 inch lengths and loomed together in weft (width) rows with cotton or hemp as the warp threads (length). Sakiori weavings were often used to make casual kimono obi, but sometimes they were also used to make other useful textiles, such as jackets, vests, and rugs. From time to time, we carry several very unusual, difficult to find Japanese fishermen and field workers' sakiori with sashiko stitching jackets and vests.
Keeping Traditional Sakiori Weaving Alive in Aomori Prefecture, Northern Japan
Farmer's Clothing Jackets & Vests (noragi)
Japanese farm women spun and loomed cotton fabric so that they could make clothing for their family. Fabric that they did not use at home was often sold for supplemental income. This homemade, hand-stitched rural work clothing is called noragi in Japanese. Jackets, vests and monpe pants were the three most common noragi garments. The noragi tradition was passed down from each generation to the next, from mother to daughter, and became part of the basic homemaking repertoire of every Japanese farm woman. These women not only made clothing but also created other household items from the cotton fabric: futon (mattress) covers, curtains, furniture covers, aprons, and other workaday articles. Indigo was the primary textile color. Kasuri, katazome and shibori patterns were popular and were often incorporated into the fabrics’ design. These patterns enriched the fabrics, evoking a feeling of joy and sometimes mythical significance, thereby helping to alleviate the routine drudgery of farm life. The vintage/antique farm clothing we catalog and sell on this site were actually used by Japanese farm women, who wore the garments while working in the house or in the fields. In addition to their household workload, Japanese women spent as much time laboring in the fields as their men. Their clothing might have been made from scraps or new fabric, or a combination of the two.
Boro is a Japanese word meaning “tattered rags” and it’s the term frequently used to describe lovingly patched and repaired cotton bedding and clothing, used much longer than the normal expected life cycle. Like early North American patchwork quilts, boro textiles revealed much about the Japanese family's living standards and the nature of the economy of their time.
The penny-wise Japanese rural wife repaired the family’s sleeping futon covers again and again by “boro” patching fabric scraps over thin areas and holes in the fabric. Adding sashiko sewing to the repair gave greater strength to the material. Today international collectors regard boro textiles as uniquely Japanese and striking examples of a bygone and lost folk craft.
The same sewing technique that was used to repair boro futon covers was also put into practice when repairing noragi (farm clothing). This was done in order to increase the lifespan of the clothing and add extra layers of fabric thickness for warmth.
At the time when Japan was struggling to recover from the devastation of the Second World War, the Japanese regarded boro textiles with great shame in that these utilitarian textiles served as an open reminder of Japan's impoverished past. Currrently, these same textiles are cherished and collected for the stories they tell and the windows they open into Japanese folk culture and history.
Kaya Mosquito Netting
From the early 1800s to the 1950s, the Japanese depended on mosquito netting (kaya) made from hemp fibers for protection from the ubiquitous summer mosquito. Very large kaya mosquito nets might surround the family's entire sleeping area while smaller kaya were hung around individual futons. These very porous hand made textiles allowed the free flow of air and generally discouraged flying insects.
The colors of hemp kaya varied from beige, green, indigo, brown and some had small stripes running the length of the fabric panel. All hemp fabric colors fade over time into charming variegated muted tones. Homespun and handloomed hemp was a common fiber used to make kaya but not the only material. Cotton and less common fibers from tree bark were also employed for making Japanese mosquito netting. Mosquito net hemp fibers came in both thick and thin diameters. The kaya with large hemp fibers were bulky, heavy, and somewhat difficult to hang but once positioned remained in place for the season. The thinner fiber kaya were lighter, simple to set up and easily relocated from place to place, and were especially popular with people who traveled. As mentioned, kaya was used to protect people from mosquitos. However, Japanese poet and Zen Buddhist monk Ryokan (1758 - 1831) slept under mosquito netting in the summer, not to prevent being bitten by an insect, but to avoid squashing one inadvertently while he slept, or so the legend goes. Buddhist tenets prohibit monks from killing any creatures, even insects, and the kaya served well those devoted monks who solemnly adhered to that principle. Numerous contemporary Japanese artists and clothing designers work kaya into their creations. like the vest garment pictured here. The designer incorporated several different colors of mosquito netting and some cotton indigo to fashion this one-of-a-kind boro folk art vest.
Cotton Sakabukuro Sake Bags
Sakaburkuo sake bags possess a captivating appearance and evoke properties of strength and character. These characteristics are suggestive of the dedication and tradition that Japanese sake brewers have for their craft. During the 1800s and early 1900s, Japanese sake brewers filled sakabukuros with nigori-sake (unrefined sake) which was then hung, so that the pure seishu (refined sake) could drip out into collection vats. This process filtered out the remaining sediment in the fermented rice sake brew.
Shizuku is the Japanese term for the drip method of pressing unrefined sake through a sakabukuro. Thrifty sake brewers would make sure that any bag which was damaged regained a longer, useful life by sewing meticulously stitched mukatenui (hand sewn) patches on the bags, using thick cotton threads. Once repaired the bag was again ready to use to press the sake. Every summer, skilled sakabukuro specialists repeatedly applied persimmon juice (kakishibu) onto the sturdy sakabukuro to infuse the bags with its natural strengthening agents and antibacterial properties. Repeating this process many times over the years caused the sakabukuro cotton fabric to gradually transform in appearance and texture into something that resembled variegated brown leather.
Komebukuro Rice Bags
Komebukuro were traditionally used in Japan society to carry rice offerings to the temple during important religious ceremonies, and at other times to hold a gift destined for a dear friend or relative connected to a significant personal event. Like many other Japanese historical traditions, this age-old custom is no longer practiced and currently komebukuro bags are only rarely made.
Komebukuro bags were hand sewn in patchwork style and individually designed with a variety of fabrics at hand. The typical komebukuro employs cotton drawstring cords to close it securely.
The Japanese discovered that cotton was a difficult fabric to dye except with indigo. Consequently, organic indigo dye was widely used throughout Japan as a coloring and designing agent for cotton textiles. Indigo dye became especially popular in the Edo period (1603 - 1867). The indigo fabric dyeing process lasted a week or more and required individual cotton pieces to be immersed and removed from the indigo dye vat more than twenty times. This process assured the dark blue color was firmly fixed in the material. Over time, use and washing, the dark blue appearance gradually faded, producing a visually striking variegated indigo coloring, a unique feature of indigo favored among collectors. In addition Japanese peasants preferred indigo blue shades for their textiles because they felt the color mirrored the hue of the oceans surrounding the Japanese islands, a symbol that was both culturally and economically important. The Japanese made indigo dye through a natural organic process by fermenting the native indigo weed which transformed the plant material into liquid indigo dye. This pre-industrial method of making indigo dye required that the indigo plants remain in a vat where a culture soup of heat loving bacteria disintegrated the plant material, while drawing out the dark indigo dye. Interestingly, Japanese believe that indigo dyes contains properties that naturally repel insects and snakes. This belief is the primary reason why Japanese farm women prefer wearing indigo clothing when working in the fields.
Kakishibu is a natural reddish-brown dye prepared organically by fermenting the juice of unripened green persimmons. Japanese have utilized kakishibu, not only as a dye for textiles, but also as a preservative and weather-proofing agent for wood and washi (a type of paper traditionally made by hand) since the Heian Period (782 – 1182 AD).
The Japanese technique of combining reddish-brown kakishibu color with indigo produced exceptionally interesting color pattern variations as seen in some cotton katazome fabrics. Making a textile with multiple dyed colors required more skill than dyeing solely with a single color; as a result, these fabrics became more desirable and subsequently more expensive. Both indigo and kakishibu are colors that are derived from the natural pigments of plants and botanical products. The Japanese did not use chemicals to manufacture these dyes, but rather applied a variety of organic occurring fermenting processes. Other organic dye colors were extracted from plants, animals, and minerals found in the local regions. These colors had limited applications while indigo and kakishibu were the most popular dyes for cotton folk textiles.
Cotton Textile Design Techniques:
Shibori is a Japanese term for dyeing cloth with a unique design by binding, stitching, folding, twisting, or compressing the fabric. Shibori in the West is associated with what is commonly called tie-dyeing. Shibori includes binding methods of dyeing, known as bound resist. For the Japanese, shibori is a highly refined and precise dyeing method. Kasuri fabric is woven with fibers dyed indigo specifically to create patterns (splash) and images (e-gasuri) in the fabric. It is an ikat technique, meaning that during the dyeing process, threads are bundled together in a predetermined way so that when loomed, a geometric pattern or picture design is revealed in the weaving. The Japanese are credited with originating the picture design technique. Kasuri designs appear slightly fuzzy, an idiosyncratic feature of this weaving technique.
Katazome is a Japanese originated method of dyeing textiles with a resistant rice paste applied through a paper stencil (katagami). A sticky paste mixture made from rice flour and rice bran is forced through a katagami paper stencil onto a piece of fabric; the stencil is then removed and the paste on the fabric is allowed to dry. Next, the fabric is coated by brushing on a sizing solution of soybean liquid. When the fabric is completely dry, the dyeing color is applied by brush. Next, the sticky paste is washed away and what remains is the stencil pattern in the fabric's original color; the surrounding area has absorbed the dye color. Japan is credited with developing this dyeing technique to a level of unparalleled sophistication.
Katagami is the Japanese word for a handmade katazome paper stencil. The word is comprised of 2 words. The first word “kata” means “pattern or template” and the second “gami” represents paper. Therefore the Japanese word denotes paper template or in English, stencil. The katagami was made of “washi”, handmade traditional Japanese paper. The paper was infused with kakishibu (dye) which enhanced its strength and stiffness. A skilled pattern craftsman hand cuts a design into the sheet of katagami paper. Because of the delicate paper patterns, a fine silk thread lattice is overlaid on the katagami so that the stencil is held in place on the fabric while the fabric goes through the dyeing process.ss.
Tsutsugaki is a Japanese term for the practice of drawing designs with rice paste on cloth, dyeing the cloth, and then washing the paste off. The paste is applied through a tube (the tsutsu, similar to the tubes which are used by bakers to decorate cakes). The rice paste is composed of glutinous rice powder, rice bran, and lime. This mixture is then steamed., It is then very sticky and adheres easily to fabric because of its high starch content. White cotton is normally the fabric of choice with indigo dye applied, resulting in a white on blue design. Often designs are patterned after a family crest, or a name in kanji, flowers and trees, or creatures from Japanese mythology, such as the tortoise or the crane.
Japanese Sarasa had its origins in the 16th century and the term is derived from the Portuguese word for calico. During the Edo Period, Portuguese traders introduced cotton calicos from India into Japan where these beautiful, exotic fabrics quickly became enormously popular among wealthy samurai and merchant classes. These calicos, with vivid colors and striking abstract geometrics, were very distinctive to the Japanese eye when compared with traditional cotton and hemp indigo fabrics. Indian calicos were expensive and therefore small pieces were used to make valuable and colorful items like bags for tea ceremonies, tobacco cases and pouches. Already skillful at making distinctive textiles, the Japanese easily replicated the hitherto expensive Indian calicos into their own style and production techniques. While maintaining the eye-catching floral and scallop Indian fabric patterns, Japanese textile makers applied their indigenous katazome (rice paste resist dyeing and stencils) textile printing skills to making domestic sarasa, characterized by shades of kakishibu (madder, reds and browns) with distinctive Japanese floral designs and geometric shapes. As domestic sarasa became widely produced, less expensive, and more common than the imported calico, sarasa became a standard for wider use among the Japanese population. Sarasa was used in ordinary domestic applications like futon covers and wrapping cloths.
Traditional Symbols in Japanese Textiles
Both the turtle and crane are symbols of long life and good luck in traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies because of the auspicious traditional meaning associated with these animals. The origami crane is a well known worldwide symbol of peace. According to Japanese tradition, if one folds 1,000 origami cranes, their wish for good health will be granted. Both the turtle and crane motifs are frequently seen in Japanese katazome and kasuri cotton textile patterns. Another less frequently seen image in these textiles is the sea bream fish (tai) which symbolizes happiness. Sometimes other symbols like monkeys or castles appear on fabric. Arabesque or scrollwork filigree of Indian origin was another popular symbol found on cotton textiles, usually katazome. The chrysanthemum flower, introduced into Japan in the 8th century, became another common design for Japanese textiles. The chrysanthemum crest is a general term for the flower's blossom design; there are more than 150 different patterns. A version of the chrysanthemum pattern was adopted by the emperor in the 14th century for the family's exclusive use as the imperial crest. It has been in contiual use over the centuries, still displayed today by the Japanese Imperial family.
Additional Sources of Study:
NYT Article: A Culture Invested in Indigo, From Plant to Kimono
Wikipedia Indigo Dye
More About Japanese Kaya Mosquito Netting
Mingeikan, Japanese Folk Crafts Museum
Jeff Krauss' Fabulous Kasuri Collection
Collection of Meiji Period Photographs
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