Nishijin Woven Textiles

Iconic luxury woven silks of Kyoto

By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University

Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin-ori product, obi material (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

What are Nishijin Textiles?

Woven textiles produced in the Nishijin area of Kyoto are known as Nishijin-ori, or Nishijin textiles. They typically feature brilliantly dyed silk interwoven with lavish  gold and silver threads into complex and skilful patterns. In addition to obi (wide sashes worn with kimono) and kimono themselves, Nishijin-ori products include decorations for festival floats and costumes for the Noh theater.

Weaving in a pattern, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin Itoya-cho,Kamigyo-ku,Kyoto, Nishijin-ori (1912) by Kyoto Prefectural Library and ArchivesOriginal Source: Kyoto Prefectural Library and Archives  

Kyoto's Textile Industry before
Nishijin

 

The weaving industry in Kyoto is said to have started even before the capital was moved to Kyoto in 794. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the Hata clan and others from the Asian continent brought with them techniques of sericulture and silk weaving. When the capital moved to Kyoto (then called Heian kyō) in 794, the Bureau of Textiles (Oribe no Tsukasa) was in charge of producing luxury fabrics for the court. By the end of Heian period (794–1185) the court-run textile production based on the ritsu-ryō system had declined, but weavers congregated their operations in the area of Kyoto's Ōtoneri-machi (now near Inokuma-dori Shimochōja-machi) and continued to weave kara-aya fabrics based the twill weaving techniques of Song dynasty, China. This is the start of Nishijin textiles as a private industry.

Nishijin Monument, Nishijin-ori (1928)Original Source: Kyoto City Archaeological Museum

The Nishijin area and Nishijin textiles

The name Nishijin (literally, "West Encampment") comes from this area having been the base camp of the “Western troops” under General Yamana Sōzen during the the Ōnin / Bunmei Wars (1467–1477). The parameters of Nishijin district area are roughly marked by Marutamachi and Kuramaguchi streets to the south and north, and Nishiōji and Karasuma streets to the west and east. Nishijin is not actually an administrative district, however, so its boundries have changed over time. After the outbreak of the Ōnin War, many weavers fled to the port city of Sakai, south of Osaka, to avoid the battle conflagrations; there they encountered the new weaving techniques of Ming-dynasty China, which in turn inspired new innovations in their own textiles. After the war disturbances ended, these weavers returned to the Nishijin area, forming the basis for the production of the finest and most exquisite woven textiles ever made in Nishijin. The Edo period was the golden age of Nishijin weaving. When it was under the sponsorship of the shogunal government, the area produced what was called “extravagant Kyoto garb.” However, major fires in the Nishijin area, the sudden rise of rural textile industries, famine and recession, as well as the frequent promulgation of sumptuary laws often hurt Nishijin's luxury textile businesses.

A man weaving at a loom with a jacquard mechanism above, Nishijin-ori by Nishijin Textile CenterOriginal Source: Nishijin Textile Center

Modern Nishijin Textiles

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Nishijin textile companies lost their shogunal and samurai patrons. Nishijin then took steps towards a more modernized textile production, reaching out to incorporating the leading Western textile technologies. In 1872, Nishijin sent students to study the new technology in Lyon, France. Around ten different types of looms including the French jacquard loom and English flying shuttle loom were imported to Japan. Also the forth Date Yasuke (1813–76) brought back an Austrian jacquard loom and fabric samples to Kyoto. 

Silk threads for Nishijin-ori (2015) by Photo by Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textiles today

Great efforts at technological improvements and the incorporation of jacquard looms made possible the mass production of pattern weaves for Japanese garments. After the Second World War, mechanization advanced, along with better technology. At the same time, a need for manpower and for greater space led to expansions out of Nishijin and into neighboring regions. Many auxiliary factories, called “dehata,” were established, particularly in the Tango area, a peninsula on the northern edge of Kyoto prefecture. They still remain an indispensable resource for Nishijin. Today, new high-quality products are being made, not only for use in traditional Japanese garments but also for markets such as fashion and interior design. 

A kimono show at Nishijin Textile Center by Nishijin Textile CenterOriginal Source: Nishijin Textile Center

graphed pattern sketches, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textile production processes: Design sketches and graphed pattern sketches 

The first step in creating a textile is to create design sketches of the weave. In the case of patterned textiles, which comprise most of the textiles woven in Nishijin, the design sketches are then copied onto graph paper to make pattern sketches with scaled indications of the individual warps and wefts. Then the pattern sketches are digitally scanned into pattern data. This used to be done by hand onto punch cards. Now, computers do the processing of patterns and the data is stored on floppy disks. When the punch cards or the floppy disks are configured to a jacquard loom, they manipulate the raising and lowering of the warps so as to create the pattern.

A jacquard loom with punch cards, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

The raw silk and the degummed silk, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textile production processes:  Silk reeling, adding
twist, and degumming of raw silk threads 

A number of fine silk filaments from cocoons are reeled together to produce prescribed denier (thickness) thread and then given a twist. This twist makes the thread easier to handle and stronger. In this condition, the thread is called “raw silk” (kiito). Next the raw silk is degummed. By removing the colloidal substance known as sericin from the outside of the raw silk, the fibroin is exposed and the silk threads gain the characteristic soft, flossy texture associated with silk. After that the necessary warp and weft threads for the piece are dyed. Fabrics needing a stiffer texture, as for summer wear, often use the raw silk threads as is, without degumming. 

Dyeing the threads, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textile production processes:  Dyeing the thread

Through the Edo period (1615–1868), the silk was dyed with natural dyes extracted from fruits, roots, and barks of plants. After the Meiji period (1868–1912), they imported Western synthetic dyes and technology. Nowadays, dyeing is often done using the many recently invented automatic dye machines adapted to different fiber materials. The threads are dyed to match the weaver’s request referencing the sample colors. Threads with precious metals are made by affixing thinly beaten gold, or silver, or platinum leaf to Japanese paper and cutting the paper into thin strips. Alternatively this paper-backed metallic leaf can be wrapped around a core thread to add volume.  

Dyeing the threads, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Injection dyeing machine, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Many colored threads, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Paper-backed Metallic Leaf, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Photo by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Gold thread and Silver thread, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Photo by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Winding threads from skeins onto large rectangular bobbins, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textile production processes:   Winding the threads and
measuring the weft

The dyed skeins of thread are wound onto large rectangular bobbins and then the warp and weft threads are prepared. The setting up of the warp involves measuring out the lengths of all the warps, their number being based on their density per centimeter times the width of the fabric, and then winding them onto a cylindrical warp beam (chikiri). When the pattern or color of the warp is changed, a new warp beam is set in place and the new warps knotted to the old warps. The wefts of set thickness are wound onto thin shuttle quills. For magnificently patterned textiles dozens of colored threads must be prepared. 

Warping, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Photo by Nakayama Seikei TenArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Warping, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Photo by Nakayama Seikei TenArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Tyeing new warps to old warps, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Weft thread being wound onto a tube bobbin, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Photo by Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Weaving with gold and silver thread, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Photo by Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textile production processes:  Weaving

People tend to think of weaving as a two-dimensional process, but textiles with patterned weaves use various different twists and thicknesses of warp and weft to create complex three-dimensional structures. Heddles (sōkō) are used to raise and lower the warp threads according to the pattern fed into the jacquard punch cards or the data on the floppy disk. Different heddle tie-ups are necessary for each of the basic weave structures – plain weave, twill weave, satin weave, and gauze weave—and, in Nishijin, this preparation is done by in heddle tie-up specialists. 

“fingernail tapestry” (tsumetsuzure), Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textile production processes:  Tapestry weave

Tapestry (tsuzure ori) is one of the more basic weaving techniques and has been produced since ancient times in many parts of the world. Even in Japan, tapestry weave was imported from the continent during the Nara period (710–794). Although it died out for a while, tapestry weave was reintroduced in the late 18th century. When weaving “fingernail tapestry” (tsumetsuzure), the design sketch is set under tightly strung warps and after the weft threads are placed in the open shed, the weaver uses her fingernails to pack them in. In order to facilitate this work, the weaver files four or five grooves into the tips of her middle and ring fingers. At times the detailed fine work advances only a few centimeters a day. 

Filing grooves into the end of the nail, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

A hair comb-like hand reed is used to pack in the weft tightly, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

The weft being passed through the warp shed, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

A shuttle, Nishijin-ori (2015) by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

《The making process of Nishijin-ori》 Mojiri weaving (2015) by Photo by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Nishijin textile production processes: Gauze weaves (mojiri-ori)

The majority of weave structures are based on parallel warps intersecting with wefts at right angles. For gauze weaves (mojiri ori) the warps are shifted so they cross each other. The crossed warps create spaces between the weft shots, resulting in a more diaphanous fabric. Gauze weave textiles might be woven in plain gauze weave (sha), ribbed gauze weave (ro), or complex gauze weave (ra) and are generally used for summer garments. The weft is woven in wet to compress it, and create a crisp, gossamer textile.

《The making process of Nishijin-ori》Mojiri weaving (2015) by Photo by Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Credits: Story

Text written by Yamamoto Masako(Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS))

Supervised by Akashi Fumio
Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.

Information provided by Nishijin Textile Industrial Association
Nishijin Textile Center

Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.
Tatsumura Textiles Co., Ltd.

Supported by Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Fureaikan

English Translation by Miyo Kurosaki Bethe

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Photo & Movie by Takayama Kengo, A-PROJECTS

Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako(Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS))
and Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's 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.
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