Japanese Textiles: A handcrafted history

Japanese textiles have played a long and important role throughout Japanese culture for many years. The creation of Japanese textiles is highly intricate and needs an abundance of skill and talent that only a few Japanese weavers and dyers have. Commonly, Japanese textiles use a range of materials including silk, hemp, ramie and cotton, the majority of which are given a range of weaves and decorative treatments to produce textiles of distinctive design and exceptional aesthetic merit.

Woven Textiles

When it comes to Japanese textiles, an inordinate amount of skill goes into each and every piece. Japanese textiles most commonly use plain twill weave, satin weave and brocade to create unique pieces, with the wide variety of techniques possessed by textile workers across Japan reflecting the true attention to detail found in each and every piece. Commonly, patterned twill and twisted warp-gauze have been used together since the Nara Period to achieve feminine styles such as loose trousers known as hakama and stiff jackets known as kamishimo.

Embroidery

Embroidery has always played a fundamental part in Japanese textiles, providing the detail in many of the beautifully intricate pieces that are found across the country today. Embroidery came into popularity in connection with Buddhism and was originally used to create mesmerising wall hangings in temples that usually depicted pictorial scenes and landscapes.

Japanese textiles that feature embroidery use only a small selection of stitches including French knots, chain stitch, satin stitch and couched satin stitch. In garments, particularly the well-known kimono, embroidery is applied to a variety of already dyed fabrics such as vat-dyed plain weave silk textiles and silk stains that are dyed using techniques that include the shibori and katazome. The embellishment is used on these dyed textiles to decorate them and enhance their look for a exquisite finished piece.

Dyeing

The unique beauty that you often find in Japanese textiles is a result of extensively developed dyeing techniques that have evolved over centuries by ancient textile makers. These textile dying techniques include paste-resist, shape-resist, ikat, the binding of pre-arranged warp or weft yarns and combinations of different methods, all to achieve bold and unique styles. Since the Japanese textiles industry began, many methods have come and gone from fashion. These included wax-resist dyeing known as batik, which was replaced by paste-resist methods such as stencils known as katazome and freehand dying known as tsutsugaki,  the finished result of which is highly intricate.

Shaped resist dyeing is often referred to as shibori, which in Japanese literally means tie-dyed and is one of the more popular methods of dying Japanese textiles. Generally, 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 Japanese textiles such as kimonos.

Decorative Stitching

Many years ago, Japanese farm women developed a technique for salvaging and reusing worn cotton textiles by stitching them together in varying layers for use in jackets, aprons and other protective garments. This practice of remaking Japanese textiles quickly caught on. The technique of quilting and stitching the textiles is known as sashiko and developed from a practical way of using cloth to create a unique craft of decorative stitching. Sashiko is almost always carried out using white cotton and thread on indigo-dyed cotton cloth, where stitches run parallel to the wrap to create an elaborate geometric pattern.

Contemporary Japanese Textiles

When it comes to contemporary Japanese textiles, there are four main categories in which textiles can be considered. Firstly commercial textiles. Commercial textile production of man-made fibres and materials once played an important part in Japan’s post-war recovery, however, recent times have seen a decline in production with this being moved to countries with lower labour costs. Traditional Japanese textiles, on the other hand, continue to flourish. The Japanese government continuously encourages the preservation of traditional arts and crafts through its subsidies so as not to leave ancient and cultural textile traditions behind.

Alongside traditional Japanese textiles, fashion textiles have also seen significant support and interest over the last few years. Fashion textiles are being used by some of Japan’s international fashion designers. Lastly, art textiles or fibre arts are another form of Japanese textiles and are thriving in Japan’s contemporary art scene with a number of pieces receiving international recognition through exhibitions.

Looking to explore more traditional Japanese crafts and art? Why not browse the rest of the Atelier Japan website where you can discover our bespoke collections of traditional fans, silverware, pottery and tea that have all been handcrafted by some of Japan’s most skilled artisans.