Embroidery has a long history in Japan. Since ancient times, it has been popularly used for decorating garments of clothing and even for embellishing textiles used in temples and shrines. Even within this long history, the lavish embroidery on these screens, which were made in Japan's modern period, demonstrates an astounding and rare level of craftsmanship. The silk threads exemplify the vibrant colors and brilliance characteristic of silk.
Embroidery, one of the world’s oldest decorative techniques, was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, about 1,500 years ago. It first arrived in Japan in the form of embroidered Buddha images when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. The oldest surviving embroidery work in Japan is the famous Tenjūkoku shūchō (Embroidery of Long Life in Heaven, owned by Chūgū-ji Temple) commissioned by Prince Shōtoku’s wife Tachibana no Ōiratsume in memory of the Prince after his passing. Embroidery techniques were brought to Kyoto when the capital was transferred there in 794, thereby establishing the foundation of Kyoto embroidery tradition, which continues to today. During the Heian period when native Japanese culture flourished, embroidery was widely used as to decorate clothing such as elements of the jūnihitoe (twelve-layered ceremonial robes worn by female aristocrats). From the end of the Heian period to the Kamakura period (1100s and 1200s) the Japanese were preoccupied with the coming of mappō (the end of the era of Buddhist law), and embroidered Buddha images were popularly made as an act of Buddhist virtue in hopes of going to Paradise after death. During the Muromachi period (around the fourteenth century) embroidery was added to garments used in folk entertainment, such as Noh theater costumes, and later used as designs that adorned beautiful kosode kimonos from the Azuchi-Momoyama period (around the sixteenth century) to the Edo period (from the seventeenth century to mid-nineteenth century). As a traditional technique, Kyoto embroidery has thus been continually employed to accommodate different purposes throughout history.
Kyoto embroidery well developed in the pre-modern era of Japanese history thanks to the great demands from feudal households, temples and shrines. However, during the Meiji period (from 1868), this traditional craft began experiencing great drawbacks as artisans lost patrons due to the abolishment of the feudal system and the weakened position of Buddhist temples as a result of the anti-Buddhist movement at the time. Consequently, the embroidery industry in Japan looked to foreign markets for business. In doing so, the extent of embroidery application suddenly widened, leading to the creation of not only embroidered paintings for pure appreciation, but also embroidered items such as folding screens, tapestries, curtains, and table cloths that would befit western interior.
How embroidered painting was born in Japan has to do with the embroidery design made by Kyoto artist, who, like embroidery artisans, also lost their patrons in the Meiji period. Designs by top-ranking artists like Kishi Kikudō (1826-1897), Imao Keinen (1845-1924), and Takeuchi Seihō (1864-1942) were combined with the master embroidery skills cultivated since the Edo period. Thus, pre-modern Japanese embroidery fabulously made with great mastery was born. On the left is a Japanese painting by Takeuchi Seihō and on the right is the embroidered version. While the design is faithfully kept unchanged, we can see differences in the way the design is presented through brushwork and by threads. New motifs also began to be used for Japanese painting, including Japanese native flora and fauna as well as landscapes, while animals, portraits and other motifs found in western painting were also being used.
This development is attributed to merchants who acted as producers in the production of embroidered items. Thanks to people like Tanaka Rishichi who initiated embroidery trading at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, Nishimura Sōzai’emon (whose business became present-day Chisō, yūzen manufacturer) who introduced designs by painters into the world of embroidery, and Iida Shinshichi (whose business became present-day Takashimaya department store) who facilitated the mass exportation of Japanese embroidery, Japanese embroidery flourished as trading commodity between the Meiji and Taishō eras, and became an artistic craft that represented Japan, going on to win great awards at the World Exposition and valued as trading products and diplomatic gifts. The Japonisme that spread across Europe like wild fire during the nineteenth century also meant that Japanese embroidery was in demand by royal families for their collections, while nobilities decorated their mansions with embroidered folding screens and tapestries. Examples of such Japanese embroidery can still be found today in the collections of renowned museums overseas, such as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musées des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs de Lyon, and the Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna. In fact, over 90% of such embroidery pieces produced for trading during the Meiji and Taishō periods were made in Kyoto.
To create such beautiful embroidery, the best equipment is necessary. For instance, the embroidery frame for keeping the fabric in place, the needle, the spools of silk, gold and twisted threads, implements for twisting threads, and so forth; each item being carefully handmade by artisans. These tools that have made embroidery possible have remained much the same as the tools made and used in the Edo period. Tokuda Shōten continues to make embroidery tools today. The traditional shop is full of embroidery frames (assembling type), needles, spools, and thread-twisting machines, among others.
It is nothing rare to see an artisan making all these tools by himself, either. Several years ago, the distribution of embroidery needles came to a temporary halt as a result of an artisan making them having come down with the influenza.
Tools are made and distributed by tool artisans, while threads are made and distributed by thread artisans. Omoto Shōten is probably Japan’s only embroidery thread shop that sells silk threads. The shop has an overflowing variety of silk threads, from fresh threads waiting to be dyed to those dyed in various colors. Today, orders not only come from around Japan, but also from faraway countries such as Arab and European countries. Silk threads continue to be sold by the weight using a scale, as was done in the past. These tools and materials are vital in the continuation of Kyoto embroidery as a skill.
It is said that there are over one hundred different embroidery techniques, of which about thirty are commonly used. Apart from these techniques, artisans also pay great attention to how threads are twisted, a step that is vital to bring out various textures.
Kyoto embroidery was designated National Traditional Craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in 1976. Currently, there are thirty-eight artisans designated as artisans of traditional crafts, with one artisan being the holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property (Living National Treasure). Beautiful embroidery: how it adorns the kimono and small accessories so adorable one simply wants to have them. Today, artisans continue to create a wide range of products using Kyoto embroidery which present the unique expressions and three-dimensional forms only possible through embroidery.
"Maple leaves floating on a stream", Kyoto embroidery (2012) by Kyoto embroidery workshop SugishitaArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
"Morning glory", Kyoto embroidery (2012) by Kyoto embroidery workshop SugishitaArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
"Chestnuts in burrs", Kyoto embroidery (2012) by Kyoto embroidery workshop SugishitaArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
Information provided by Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum
Supported by Omoto Itosho & Kyoto embroidery workshop Sugishita & Tokuda Shoten
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Fureaikan
Text written by Matsubara Fumi, Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum
English Translation by Eddy Y. L. Chang
Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako (Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS))
and Murata Ai, Watanabe Aoi, Tomita Fukuko Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University