From Kax Wilson, History of Textiles
JAPANESE TEXTILE HISTORY
Very little is
known about the history of Japan before the
eighth century. The early Japanese made cloth from hemp, ramie, mulberry, and
wisteria vine fiber. Silk was not known until the second century A.D., when the Chinese
sent silkworm eggs and
woven silk was imported from Korea. In the fourth and fifth centuries Chinese and Korean weavers emigrated
to Japan where they were
given land and titles in exchange for their knowledge.
The Nara period (710-785
a brief but golden time in Japanese history.
Close contact with T'ang China led to the
development of many weaving and dyeing techniques. In the mid-eighth
century, the Emperor Shomu commissioned a gigantic bronze
Buddha for installation in the Shosoin, the imperial
repository at Nara. Shomu died, and his widow dedicated his art treasures and
household goods to the Buddha. These articles, along with dedicatory records
giving detailed descriptions, were preserved for centuries in the sealed
building. Western scholars believe that the thousands of textile fragments came
mostly from China and Iran, because the
Japanese were not using the drawloom in the eighth
century. Some Japanese authors, however, attribute the textiles to their own
an important, if indefinite, term. It has been used as a name for several constructions,
including brocade, and has come to mean any textile with a colorful woven design.
More exactly, the Japanese use tate nishiki for the warp-patterned textiles of the
Han dynasty and nuki nishiki for weft-patterned
silks of the T'ang dynasty, Nara period, and Sassanian Persia.?
The word aya was used in the
Nara period to denote a patterned fabric made by combining plain and twill, or
warp-faced and weft-faced twill (like damask). In modern times, aya refers only to twill weave. Gauze fabrics were also
woven in the Nara period. Sha was a simple leno weave, while ra was stiffer and
had woven lozenge and
During the Nara period Japanese
dyers were adept at rokechi (wax resist dyeing) and kokechi (tie and dye). Kyokechi, called jam dyeing, reached Japan from China in the sixth century
and was well developed by the Nara period. Folded
cloth was pressed between two boards perforated with designs. The dye entered through
Heian and Kamakura Textiles
During the Heian period (785-1185 A.D.) Japan turned inward to
a life of
in ceremonies, and a flourishing textile industry. Costume was voluminous; a
lady might wear a dozen layers, with colors delicately coordinated.
There are no extant fabrics from this period, but Lady Murasaki's
The Tale of Genji
describes some of the court costumes in detail. The ladies gave up the multitudinous
layers for the kosode, the small-sleeved kimono, in the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Life became more practical; the military
controlled the government,
and resources were consumed in fending off the Mongols.
the late Heian period the first real brocade was made
in Japan after students brought
it back from China. The new fabric
was called kinran (Plate 60) after its gold threads. An overlay of
gold foil was applied to fine tough paper made from mulberry fiber, and the paper
was cut into strips for weft. In the Kamakura period, brocading, painting, and embroidery
were used to put the Mon, or
family crest, on textiles. The designs were used to identify a certain
lord, his family, and his servants. Muromachi and Momoyama Textiles
The Muromachi (Ashikaga) period (1334-1573 A.D.) was a time
of continued warfare and the
flowering of the arts. Almost contemporary with the Ming dynasty, the Muromachi period coincided with two centuries of strife and
change in Europe. The Ashikaga
moved the capital to Kyoto, a major weaving
center since the eighth century. Magnificent fabrics were woven for costumes worn in
the newly popular Noh dramas. Japan was united in the
Momoyama period (1573-1615 A.D.) and industry prospered. Each year trading ships carried Japanese goods to southeast
Asian ports, and soon Europeans were in Nagasaki seeking Japanese
Seigo, a stiff silk that made trousers
stand straight out sideways and yukata, a soft cotton crepe weave made with irregular floats, were two quite contrasting Muramachi fabrics. Cotton was also used for
warp in a silk tapestry called tsuzure nishiki. The
Japanese called it "fingernail tapestry," because the weavers
battened the weft with long,
specially grooved nails. Tsuzure nishiki
was a development of tsuzure-ori (linked weaving), copied from and nearly identical
to Chinese k'o-ssu (Plate 54).
important during the Muramachi and Momoyama periods, when Ming imports were copied. A most sumptuous gold brocade, kara-ori (Plate 61) was woven with
satin design on a twill ground and had elaborate plant, animal, and bird designs
Velvet (birodo) belongs to the
late Momoyama and early Edo periods. Several stories were told
about how the Japanese first learned to make it-one that a Chinese weaver
happened to leave in one of the wires used to hold up the pile warp. The Japanese
invented a method for resist dyeing velvets woven with delicate floral patterns.
During the Edo (Tokugawa) period
A.D.) Japan closed its doors
to the outside world and artistic extravagance was patronized in courts set up
at Edo (Tokyo) to occupy the
feudal lords. Although some trade with the Dutch continued, the quantity of
textiles that reached the West was small until Commodore Perry opened Japan to American
trade in 1854.
Thus, Edo fabrics were made for the Japanese
alone, and as the period advanced textile artists turned to age-old dyeing
techniques and used them with a perfection unrivaled
anywhere. Ikat (Kasuri),
tie-dyeing (Plate 63), jam dyeing, and block printing were well developed.
A famous fabric of the Edo period, and one
still popular for the ceremonial kimono, is Yuzen work (Plate 64). A seventeenth century fan painter,
Miyazaki Yuzen, perfected an old method for applying resist
paste with sharpened sticks in order
to retain very precise design outlines. He was also adept at "twilight dyeing"-one color shaded off into an entirely
different one. Yuzen published a catalog of kimono designs for which his dealers
took orders. Many individual designs
were available, bamboo and plum blossoms ranking highest. Ideographs
telling messages such as
"I like a fight" remind us of the screen-printed T-shirts of the 1970s. The
beautiful stencils used to apply resist paste have been collected as art objects. Very thin
paper layers are reinforced with webs of hair, so fine as not to hinder the
Japanese design is a combination of
native and Chinese motifs. Stories of filial affection, Chinese legend,
Japanese mythology, tales of chivalry, fantastic creatures, plants
both naturalistic and symbolic have all been represented on Japanese textiles.
During the second half of the nineteenth century Japanese design had a
particularly strong influence on Western art and
interior decoration, giving rise to a style called Japonaiserie.
1. Romila Thapar,
"State Weaving-Shops of the Mauryan
Period," Journal of Indian
Textile History 5 (1960):51.
2. Luther Hooper, Hand-Loom Weaving: Plain and Ornamental (London: Sir
Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1910), pp.
3. Mita K. Parekh, "Identification of
Nineteen Shawls from the Drexel Historic Costume Collection" (Master's
thesis, Drexel Institute of Technology, 1961),
4. John Vollmer, "Textile Pseudomorphs on Chinese Bronzes," in Irene Emery
Roundtable on Museum Textiles 1974 Proceedings:
Archaeological Textiles, ed. Patricia L. Fiske (Washington, D.
C.: The Textile Museum, 1975), pp.
5. Marc Aurel
Stein wrote several books including Serinda (Oxford: Clarendon
1921); Innermost Asia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928); and On
Ancient Central-Asian Tracks (London: Macmillan, 1933).
6. Krishna Riboud, "Techniques and Problems Encountered in
Certain Han and T'ang
Specimens," in Irene
Emery Roundtable. p. 156.
7. Shosoin Office, ed., Treasures of the Shosoin (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publishing Co.,