It’s no secret that a country as culturally rich and beautiful as Japan has an equally detailed textile history to match, so we’ve put a short history together for you to get a taste for these mesmerising textiles! Japanese textiles are world-famous for their intricate design and beautiful colour pallets, which have been evolving for centuries, yet still retain much of their original style and technique.
Japanese textile designers and weavers have always used a variety of materials including silk, hemp, ramie, cotton and other fibres coupled with an array of weaves and decorative treatments. Read on to find out more about what an important role textiles have played for this stunning country, just waiting for you to discover.
Textile History of Japan – A Brief Outline
Japan’s textile culture began to emerge during the Yamato Period (c. 300-710 C.E.), when the monarchy increased a desire for beautifully crafted materials and designs. Silk swiftly became the material of choice for many of these designs, and when Buddhism started to take shape in the mid-sixth century, even more textiles were required for religious uses, though the best designs were still produced in imperial workshops.
Early techniques included appliqué, embroidery, and braiding with an abundance of silk fabrics woven in plain and twill weave. Detailed brocades were used as a symbol of wealth for aristocrats and for decorating temples. When Buddhist temples started to multiply in numbers during the Nara Period (710-785), importation and industry began to grow too. After this the Heian Period (795-1185) was a period of increased domestic production where brocade and embroidery emerged as the most popular forms of design.
Military rule during the Kamakura (1185-1233) and Muromachi (1338- 1477) periods saw an increase in international trade, which meant a wave of new materials and designs flowed into Japan. Innovations in multi-harness looms and better draw looms meant complex silk fabrics were now the norm, which you’ll see in the incredible examples of damask and satin artefacts.
The Tokugawa Shogunate (1601-1868) brought with it peace and prosperity after a civil war which had ravaged the country. This allowed textile design to take the fore again with the basic garment of Japanese dress, the kosode, and kimono designs becoming a focus for textile arts. Laws against commoners wearing complex designs sparked a trend for surface designs that did not incorporate forbidden aristocratic brocade, but still looked visually stunning. A trend for plush obi (kimono sashes) were one subtle way in which those of lower class could enjoy sumptuous textiles.
The restoration of imperial rule in 1868 ushered in a wave of modernisation in Japan that was quick to revolutionise almost every industry in touched. Trends for Western clothing in the 19th century saw a reduction of traditional textile craft, though this briefly declined as kimonos came back in fashion the following century. Though WW2 and industrialisation pushed kimono wearing and traditional textiles further into the realm of national costume and craft, where it now finds itself rooted today.
There’s nothing like seeing Japanese textiles up close with your very own eyes, as this is when you’ll really get a sense of just how much skill goes in to each piece. Regardless of the fibre of material, Japanese textiles mostly commonly use plain (tabby) Twill Weave Satin Weave and brocade. Photographs really don’t do these examples of their skill justice, you simply have to see them for yourself.
The wide variety of techniques employed by textile workers across the centuries reflects the attention to detail found in each and every piece. Coloured damasks (donsu) used dyed silk warp threads and weft threads in contrasting colour to achieve their detail. This is in contrast to floating-weft or floating-warp satin (shusu) which was more commonly embroidered and used for aristocratic textiles.
Patterned twill (aya) and twisted-warp gauze have been used together since the Nara period to achieve the inimitable style often observed in loose trousers (hakama) and stiff jackets (kamishimo).
Lots of the beauty that you can observe in Japanese textiles is the result of extensively developed dyeing techniques, which have evolved over centuries and created some incredible textile history! These techniques include paste-resist, shaped-resisted, ikat, and combinations of different methods to achieve bold and unique styles.
Since the textile industry began in Japan, many methods have come in and gone out of fashion. These include wax-resist dyeing (batik), which was quickly replaced with paste-resist methods such as stencil (katazome) and freehand dyeing (tsutsugaki).
Shaped resist dyeing is often referred to as shibori, which in Japanese literally means tie-dyed, although this doesn’t begin to cover the huge range of shibori techniques that exist! Generally speaking, the term refers to dyeing the cloth and creating a unique design by binding, twisting, folding, stitching or compressing the fabric. These binding methods are often known as bound resist, and are regarded as a very refined and precise way to achieve the stunning colours used in textiles such as kimonos. The first example of shibori textiles have been dated to around the 8th Century, its continued use today giving you an idea of just how important this method has been in Japanese culture. If you visit Japan you will able to experience just how diverse and effective this method is, and what remarkable results it can have.
Other methods include ikat (kasuri), the binding of pre-arranged warp or weft yarns, and yuzen the freehand or stencilled paste-resist work and hand-application of dyes – both of which result in striking textiles you simply must see for yourself.
Embroidery has always played a fundamental part in Japanese textiles, providing the detail many of the beautifully intricate pieces that are found in the country today. It came to popularity in connection with Buddhism, and was originally used to create mesmerising wall-hangings in temples, depicting pictorial scenes and landscapes.
A relatively small stock of stitches has traditionally been used to achieve the level of detail required for Japanese textiles such as: French knots, chain stitch, satin stitch, and couched satin stitch.
This rural technique is locally known as sashiko, a brilliant method of rejuvenating old garments first started by Japanese farm women. They salvaged old cotton textiles and re-stitched them into jackets, creating some stunning examples of Japanese textiles along the way. This is very close to our concept of quilting, and when observed up close – will no doubt inspire your own stitches for years to come.
With so much to learn and see, why not appreciate Japanese textiles in all of the glory that they deserve? Nothing will compare to seeing some sakiori weaves with your very own eyes, or feeling the love and dedication that goes into each boro patchwork. Perhaps you’d even like try your hand at creating your own Japanese motif-inspired-piece uniquely dyed using shibori. So, what are you waiting for?
Want To Find Out More?
With so much to learn and see, why not appreciate Japanese textiles in all of the glory that they deserve? Nothing will compare to seeing some sakiori weaves with your very own eyes, or feeling the love and dedication that goes into each boro patchwork. Perhaps you’d even like try your hand at creating your own Japanese motif-inspired-piece uniquely dyed using shibori. So, what are you waiting for? Book yourself onto a Japanese Texile Holiday!