From Kax Wilson, History of Textiles


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.

Nara Textiles

The Nara period (710-785 A.D.) was 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 weavers.

Nishiki is 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 floral patterns.

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 the holes.

Heian and Kamakura Textiles

During the Heian period (785-1185 A.D.) Japan turned inward to a life of

luxury, overrefinement 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.

         During 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 and embroidery 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 silks.

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).

Brocades were 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 (Plate 62).

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.

Edo Dyeing

During the Edo (Tokugawa) period (1615-1867 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 work.

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. 157-158.

3. Mita K. Parekh, "Identification of Nineteen Shawls from the Drexel Historic Costume Collection" (Master's thesis, Drexel Institute of Technology, 1961), p. 28.

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. 170-174.

5. Marc Aurel Stein wrote several books including Serinda (Oxford: Clarendon Press,

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.,

1965), p. 90.