Summer Kimono Born in the Snow

Land of Snow and Water
Echigo jōfu is a hand-woven Japanese textile woven in the mountain-lined valley of Minamiuonuma, in Niigata prefecture. The geographical location of Minamiuonuma between mountains running along the Sea of Japan to the west and the Japanese Alps to the east gives the entire region a unique climate. The summers are hot and muggy, but the long winters—though relatively mild in temperature—are extremely humid, often accumulating two to three meters of snow at a time. The melted snow insures an abundance of water that makes this the most famous region in Japan for rice—especially the koshihikari variety, considered to be the best in the country—and also for excellent sake.
Giving New Meaning to the Term “Handmade”
Echigo jōfu cloth is named after the ancient province of Echigo (present day Niigata) and the word for finely woven ramie cloth, jōfu. One of the most important distinguishing factors of Echigo jōfu is its use of extraordinarily delicate hand-plied ramie threads in both the warp and weft.

It also might incorporate patterns in warp and weft ikat, or kasuri (tie-dyed thread—made by meticulously binding threads and dyeing before weaving).

These extraordinarily difficult technical characteristics make Echigo jōfu one of the most sophisticated bast fiber textile traditions in the world.

Ramie, a Bast Fiber
Echigo jōfu is made from ramie (Boehmeria nivea), a bast fiber similar to flax (the source for linen) and hemp. Bast fibers are long vegetable fibers taken from the inner ski or bark of plants or trees. A member of the nettle family, ramie grows as a perennial. It is distinguished by its fine, white fibers, which have pliability and strength. The ramie used for Echigo jōfu has for hundreds of years been grown in an area known today as Showa Village, in neighboring Fukushima prefecture. The geographic environment and the special cultivation techniques used in that region made it perfectly suited to ramie production. 
A Snow Country Textile with an Ancient History
Ramie textiles have been made in Echigo (present-day Niigata) for centuries. The Shōsō-in Repository in Nara holds bast fiber tax cloth from Echigo dating to the mid-700s, and it continued to be an important local product in the centuries to follow. The ramie textile industry for kimono really took off during the Edo period (1603–1868), when Echigo chijimi (ramie crepe) textiles became renowned across Japan for their puckered texture, considered to be cool to the skin in summer.

Crepe ramie textiles called Ojiya chijimi is still being woven today in the city of Ojiya, north of Minamiuonuma. At the same time, fine ramie textiles with smooth surfaces remained in high demand for use in samurai vest and trouser sets and summer kimono.

In his 1835 book Hokuetsu seppu (Snow Country Tales), local cultural maven and essayist Suzuki Bokushi (1770 –1842) describes the inherent relationship between the cloth and the snow.

The snowy humid winters of Echigo were ideally suited to weaving this delicate fiber. Dealers would carry the raw material of dried ramie fibers over the mountains from Aizu (including present day Showa Village, Fukushima) to Echigo (including present day Minamiuonuma, Uonuma, Ojiya, Tokamachi, and other regions) where they would be plied into thread by women often living in mountainous villages. Other women then wove this thread into cloth. The finished cloth would then be washed and bleached on the snow.
The Snow Country and Echigo Jofu
The snows of this region of Niigata are legendary, known to pile up two or three meters at a time to the extent that residents sometimes had to exit the house from their second floor windows. 

Children walking to school often had to navigate and elaborate set of tunnels through the snow. The hearty character of the people of this region, along with the sight of this delicate summer fabric bleaching in the sun over some of the deepest snow in Japan made such a strong impression on novelist Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) that he took it up in his 1937 novel Yukiguni (Snow Country), for which he later received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Gossamer Threads
To make thread from ramie (a process called oumi, literally, “giving birth to ramie”), the thread maker divides the dried fibers into smaller bundles and then with her fingers splits one thick strand of fiber into numerous hair-like strands. She then joins these strands together end-to-end into one long thread, which she feeds into a special thread bucket called an oboke. 

The ends of these fibers are not knotted but instead twisted end-to-end into a plied joint. As in twisting a rope, the counteraction of a z-twist in the individual elements of the joint and an s-twist twining these two elements together are used to create a joint that does not pull apart.

A skilled thread maker can produce joints that are smooth and even, without causing bumps. Nevertheless, it is the subtle irregularities caused by these plied joints in both the warp and weft that gives Echigo jōfu an entirely different feel from textiles made with machine-spun thread.

Putting a Twist in the Thread (Yorikake)
The accumulated thread in the oboke thread bucket must be given an overall twist in order to be useable Twisting helps smooth down the loose ends coming off the plied joints, incorporating them into the length of the thread. In premodern Japan, this twisting step was done by hand, originally with a spindle and later a spinning wheel, but since the postwar period, it has mostly been done with a custom made twisting machine. 
In order to twist thread on the twisting machine, the thread from the oboke bucket must first be wound into small, hollow balls called heso (“belly buttons”), which are placed into the metal cylinders below. The thread comes out of the center of the heso and is twisted as it is reeled into skeins above.
Complex Warp and Weft Kasuri Patterns
Intricate patterns made with warp and weft ikat (kasuri) are another distinguishing characteristic of Echigo jofu.  
Transferring the Kasuri Pattern from Graph Paper to a Paper Tape
The kasuri pattern is first drawn on graph paper. In order to transfer this design to the threads, the kasuri binder marks the pattern areas across each width of the cloth onto a paper tape—duplicating the path of the weft thread. He may go back and forth up to ten times within each row of cells in the graph paper. This tape can then be used as a guide to mark off pattern areas on actual weft threads.  

After the patterns on the tape are transferred one by one to the threads, the kasuri binder ties off the pattern areas.

One by one, the kasuri binder ties off thousands of intricate kasuri pattern areas with cotton thread. The bound areas will resist the color in the dye vat and remain white.

Fine cross-patterned kasuri on graph paper and a similar pattern in a woven fragment.
The finer the pattern, the more difficult it is to weave. Each tiny pattern point on the warp much intersect with its corresponding pattern in the weft. Even one thread out of alignment can can cause a glaring flaw in the textile. 

The thread is carefuly dyed. In premodern Japan, indigo was the most common dye for ramie textiles. Today Echigo jōfu threads might be colored with synthetic dyes or with indigo or other natural dyes.

Kasuri threads after dyeing
When skillfully done, the tie-resist pattern sections remain cleanly delineated from the background. One downside of dyeing is the wear and tear it causes on the delicate threads, leading to numerous tiny snags in the fibers. These snags will be detangled and smoothed down during the many thread processing steps to follow, each of which is performed on one thread at a time.
Preparing the Dyed Thread for Weaving 
In order to remove the various snags and bumps in the dyed thread, the newly dyed skein is placed on a revolving swift and the single strand of delicate thread is wound slowly and carefully onto a cylindrical spool, a step known as itozukuri (literally, “making the thread”). The artisan carrying out this task holds the strand lightly between her fingers as it passes from her left to her right. Any time she feels any irregularities or snags, she stops winding and repairs the thread.
Application of Paste (Noritsuke)
The newly wound spool of thread is next rewound carefully into a skein. This time, the thread runs through a pan of warm seaweed paste (funori), which serves to smooth down all remaining snags and uneven areas. Here too, the processing is done end to end over a single thread, and numerous repairs are made along the way.

A single thread running through the pan of warm funori seaweed paste.

Winding the Warp
After winding the thread once more onto spools, it is time for warping. Each bolt of Echigo jōfu is wound separately to the twelve meter length needed for one kimono. The warp is wound two threads at a time. To prevent tangling and unnecessary handling, the delicate ramie threads are run through two long bamboo tubes, which are used like chopsticks at one end to make the cross. This warp is then chained off the warping board.
Sleying the Reed
The warp is then sleyed two ends per dent into a bamboo reed. 
Making String Heddles
The harness used for this delicate thread is made from string heddles wound on a dowel. The string is much less abrasive than steel, minimizing breakage to the fragile threads. This harness is made from scratch for each bolt of Echigo jōfu by two artisans. One of them hands off alternating threads, and the other catches the threads up into string heddles. 
Weavers typically work out of their homes during the humid winter months, usually on commission from a weaving company. The loom that they use to weave Echigo jōfu is a semi-frame backstrap loom (jibata). The weaver controls the tension of the warp with her body, sitting upright when inserting the shuttle through the main shed or when beating in the weft and leaning forward slightly when opening the countershed. She opens the countershed by bending her knee and pulling the strap on her foot, which is attached to an arched beam that lifts the harness with its string heddles. She beats in the wefts with both a large, sword-shaped shuttle and a free-moving reed inserted into a sturdy frame.
After the weaver straps herself into the loom, she tries to remain there for as long as possible to avoid irregularities in the woven surface, so she keeps everything she might need close at hand. She uses a separate sword-shaped shuttle for each type of weft thread in a pattern. A small chamber in the center of each shuttle holds a small bamboo quill upon which the weft is wound. Other implements she uses are a small sponge on a stick for dampening the threads, pins, and scissors.
The fine ramie threads are brittle and fragile, especially when the humidity goes down. The weaver sometimes spends considerable time throughout her day repairing broken warps. She does this by tying on additional lengths and pinning the thread to the woven textile until it is incorporated into the fabric. Leaving a broken warp un-mended will create a flaw in the finished product, so this work is essential.

The weaver must adjust each pattern weft with her fingers to insure that the kasuri (ikat) is woven into just the right place.

Washing with the Feet
After the completed bolt of Echigo jōfu is taken off the loom, it is washed with the feet in a wooden boat-shaped basin. This process helps to clean and soften the textile, removing the paste (nori) applied to the threads before and sometimes during weaving.
One of the iconic scenes of late winter in Minamiuonuma is the bleaching of ramie textiles on the snow. In late February and March, the days become sunny, while at least a meter of snow still remains on the ground. The washed textiles are laid out on the snowy rice paddies for several days at a time (taken in each night). The combination of the bright sunshine above and the melting snow below creates a natural reaction that bleaches or brightens the textiles while softening and integrating the woven fibers. Not all the bleaching bolts of cloth are new. Stained, tired, decades-old Echigo jōfu kimonos can be revitalized through a process called satogaeri (return to the home village), in which they are sent back to the snow country, dismantled, basted back into twelve-meter lengths of cloth, and snow bleached.
In acknowledgment of its long history and significance as a living art form, Echigo jōfu and Ojiya chijimi were jointly named an Intangible Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government in 1955. Then, in 2009, Echigo jōfu and Ojiya chijimi were inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Despite the prestige and support that comes with such recognition, these textile industries, like many other Japanese craft traditions today, are at risk amidst a diminishing market, an aging workforce, and a unique system of specialized division of labor—in which a loss of one link can affect the chain of an entire industry. One way in which the government of Japan has tried to preserve this industry is through training courses to teaching weaving, thread making, and sometimes other aspects of the production process to members of the next generation. Most of the weavers of Echigo jōfu today undergo the One Hundred Day Echigo Jōfu Technical Training Course held each year. It takes five years of training to graduate from the course. 
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

Supported by:
Echigo Jōfu and Ojiya Chijimi Technical Preservation Association
Tokamachi City Museum
Suzuki Bokushi Memorial Museum
Honda Textiles (Takiemon)
Ogawa Textiles
Koto Masao
Ogawa Nobuhisa Kasuri
Shimizu Shoten
Arakawa Setsuko
Takanami Akemi
Otani Tokuko

Images provided by:
Echigo Jōfu and Ojiya Chijimi Technical Preservation Association
Tokamachi City Museum
Suzuki Nokushi Memorial Museum
Yamauchi Kageyuki

Video provided by: Sano Masaki,
Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties

Text by:
Melissa M. Rinne

Photography by:
Melissa M. Rinne
Maezaki Shinya
Sano Masaki

This exhibition was created by:
Sugishima Tsubasa, Kyoto Women's University

Project Directors:
Dr. Maezaki Shinya, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University
Dr. Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.