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Japanese Textiles: History & Artists

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Japan is home to several distinct and long-preserved cultural traditions. One that has defined Japan for centuries is textile production. In this lesson, we'll talk about textiles in Japanese history and explore this art form across Japanese society.

Textiles of Japan

When you think of traditional Japanese culture, what comes to mind? No, manga doesn't count. A lot of people may picture things like the samurai, or perhaps tea ceremonies and gardens, but almost everyone can recognize the Japanese garment called the kimono. As with many cultures throughout the world, many Japanese traditions have been defined by their textiles; their fabrics and cloths. However, the kimono is just one form of the variety of Japanese textiles, an art practiced since the first inhabitants settled on the islands roughly 14,000 years ago. That's a long tradition.

Japanese kimono
Kimono

Peasant Clothing

Before we can go any further, it's important to note that textile arts in Japan were deeply divided by social class. The wealthy and the poor relied on different materials, techniques, and fashions which could only be used by that class. While the textiles of the wealthy have been studied extensively, rural textiles of the commoners have also been gaining more attention as unique art forms refined over centuries of continual practice.

Materials

When we think of textiles in East Asia, the most common material to come to mind is silk. However, the ancient Japanese did not have silkworms, and imported the knowledge from continental Asia. So, silk was only accessible to the rich. The common people made textiles from plant fibers, predominantly cotton or hemp, spun and woven into wearable garments, bags, or rugs and blankets.

Styles

Just because these people belonged to the rural peasantry doesn't mean they weren't great artists and innovators. Thanks to their economic need to conserve material, many of these techniques are highly practical as well. For example, sakiori weaving involved tearing old pieces of cloth into strips and re-weaving them together into a new product.

A similar, practical, textile is boro, which is basically a Japanese form of patchwork quilting, in which fabrics scraps were sewn together to create blankets or jackets. But perhaps the most distinctive folk style involved sashiko. Sashiko is a form of sewing in which a distinctive interlocking stitching pattern is used to hold pieces of fabric together. Not only did sashiko stitching make a textile longer-lasting and stronger, it provided sewers with an artistic opportunity to add a little flair through the use of alternating colors of threads used to make the interlocking stitch pattern. Japanese rural garments, or noragi, could be made using a variety of these different techniques at once, making folk textiles unique, functional and highly individualized pieces of art.

Peasant jacket made with a variety of techniques
Jacket

Upper Class Textiles

The wealthy landowners, scholars, and warriors of Japanese society had an entirely different set of artistic expectations with their textiles. The Japanese upper class was traditionally governed by very strict social rules regarding behavior, attitudes, and dress. While these rules changed over time, the role of textiles in demonstrating one's right to belong in upper class society was a constant feature of Japanese history.

Materials

Upper-class textiles in Japan were defined by a single material: silk. Japan's first exposure to silk came in the 2nd century CE, when Chinese ambassadors sent silkworms to Japan and Korean ambassadors brought woven silk cloths. The Japanese courts, desperate to demonstrate a noble tradition as refined as those of China and Korea, took quickly to silk. In fact, from the 4th to 5th centuries CE, the Japanese imperial court offered land and noble titles to silk weavers who were willing to relocate from China and Korea.

Styles

Textiles were a major part of upper-class society, which demonstrated the wearer's refinement and sophistication. As thus, the styles changed constantly in respect to various political, social, and economic attitudes of East Asia. So, there were literally dozens of styles, far too many for us to get into today, but we can talk about some general traditions.

After silk arrived in Japan, Japanese weavers started developing their own styles. The first really distinct Japanese styles of silk weaving emerged in the Yamato period (300-710 CE). It was in this era that the kimono first appeared. Originally, this was an undergarment; it wasn't worn as an outer layer and tied by a belt for roughly another 700 years.

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