These days, kasuri, indigo kimono with splashes of sober white patterns, can only be seen in TV samurai dramas, yet until the beginning of the 20th century they were the most popular and common of daily clothing.
Although many Japanese believe the art of kasuri is unique to Japan, it is in fact one of the oldest and most widespread dyeing and weaving techniques in the world, known internationally as ikat. Though its origin is unclear, ikat can be found in many regions around the world including Egypt, India, Persia, Europe, China and South America.
The term ikat denotes any type of cloth with hazed patterns created by interweaving predyed yarns. The word ikat comes from the Malayan mengikat, which literally means “to tie,” because thread-resist is the most common dyeing method used.
Ikat was introduced to Ryukyu, now Okinawa, in the 14th century. The motifs and techniques developed in Ryukyu were brought to Kagoshima in Kyushu in the 17th century, and became the basis of Japanese kasuri weaving. The word kasuri comes from kasumu, meaning to look blurry, due to the fuzziness of the edges in the woven patterns.
By the middle of the Edo Period kasuri-making had spread all around the country. Niigata Prefecture was one of the earliest kasuri-making districts in Japan, and to this day Ojiya and Tokamachi cities continue to produce exceptional textile products.
In Tokamachi, where kasuri made of ramie fiber had been produced since the 1660s, silk began to replace hemp, ramie and cotton in the Meiji Era. The products of Tokamachi are now officially recognized by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry as traditional crafts. The artisans involved in manufacturing them can take an examination of their knowledge and skills. If they pass, they are given the title of “traditional craftsman” by the government.
Koichi Watanabe, a weaver of Tokamachi kasuri, was designated a traditional craftsman in 1988. Both of his parents have the same title, and it is considered rare for three members of a family to have the status.
The manufacturing process, Watanabe explains, is complex. First of all, artisans divide a design into warp and weft, and make special design boards called kasuri jogi (jogi means ruler), which indicate what part of the yarn should be dyed.
Then they wind hanks of roughly 100 silk yarns onto a wooden warping board. Holding the design board behind the yarns, they mark the parts they want to remain white, using black ink and a spatula. This is called sumitsuke (ink marking), and is probably “the most important part of the entire manufacturing process,” says Watanabe, “because if you don’t mark them accurately, you don’t get the desired pattern.”
After that, artisans tightly coil cotton threads around the parts to be reserved white. In Tokamachi, this process is called kubiri, from the local dialect for kukuri (to tie).
Artisans then dye the hanks of yarn, remove the resist thread and weave the fabric with the designed pattern. As in many other districts, Tokamachi weavers now mainly use automatic looms. Still, hand weaving is necessary when delicate floss silk is used or the patterns are very fine or complicated and artisans have to adjust weft to meet warp correctly. “The finer the patterns, the more difficult weaving becomes,” Watanabe says.
Unlike many artisans who start their working career in their teens, Watanabe got involved in weaving after graduating from college. (He chose chemistry as a major, thinking the knowledge might help. “I eventually found that what I learned had nothing to do with my work, though,” he says.) He felt he had to carry on the family business because he was the only son. His grandfather had started the kasuri-weaving business, and both of his parents are weavers. As a child, he had helped with the less challenging parts of the manufacturing process.
After graduating college in 1977, he worked at a kimono wholesaler in Kyoto for two years and learned marketing. He then came back to his hometown and started working at his parents’ studio while studying dyeing technique at a vocational school.
It was rather a late start for an artisan, but proved to be no handicap for Watanabe. He won the “traditional craftsman” title at the age of 40, making him the youngest title-holder in the history of the Tokamachi kasuri industry.
Today Tokamachi artisans are trying to create new designs targeting young customers who seldom wear kimono in their daily lives, proving that young artisans like him are the hope of the industry’s future.