A 50-square-meter patch of field and 100 cotton trees. That’s all that Jin Shirai needs to make his living.

Shirai is a weaver, though the term only represents part of what he actually does. As a craftsperson who creates from scratch, his work starts in spring when he plants wamen (Japanese cotton) seeds. Throughout summer he personally takes care of the field and in autumn he harvests the cotton, removes the seeds and hand spins it into yarn. After countless other small procedures and, when necessary, dyeing the yarn, he finally starts weaving.

In Japan’s textile industry, there are weavers who specialize in and only weave for a living, while most dyers only dye and spinners spin. For large-scale production, it’s more efficient, especially since each process demands high levels of skill, training and expertise. Shirai’s approach to fabric making, however, is unusually holistic.

During his final year studying textiles at the Kuwasawa Design School, one of the top vocational schools in Japan for designers and creators, Shirai made an unusual decision. While his peers were looking into finding positions in creative companies, he decided he wanted to deepen his knowledge and techniques further in Okinawa. The island, which served as an international trading hub more than 500 years ago and continues to nurture unique styles of handicrafts, appealed as an ideal training ground.

An example of one of Shirai's woven designs made from his cotton. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI
An example of one of Shirai’s woven designs made from his cotton. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI

Shirai found a government-funded program to learn about Okinawan textiles and culture. Feeling confident, he moved to the island straight after graduation, and sent in an application form. “But I got rejected,” he says, laughing, during a recent interview at his studio in Chiba Prefecture. He sheepishly attributes the rejection to his own arrogance and assumption that he would be accepted.

“I re-read the application form after and the reason was obvious,” he says. “There was no passion, nor aspiration for study.”

Not one to give up, Shirai tried applying for another training course but, again, he was rejected. Left on the island with no plan, he found a part-time job in a cafe and studied local textiles on his own in a library. Luckily, the owner of the cafe turned out to be friends with one of the key figures in Okinawa’s textile community. Living on the island, Shirai says, allowed him to make connections and build trust within the local handicrafts community.

“If there is anything that I’m blessed with, it’s being fortunate with people I meet,” he says, going to explain that he also met one of the staff from the program he originally wanted to enroll in. That person encouraged Shirai to apply again and, in his second year in Okinawa, he was accepted.

Once part of the program, he began studying Ryukyu kasuri, one of the native Okinawan styles of textile that involves creating patterns by adjusting pre-dyed wefts and warps, sometimes by as little as a few millimeters.

It was during his third year in Okinawa, when Shirai was working on perfecting his kasuri technique by making more and more meticulous patterns, that he was suddenly struck by the beauty of sozai (“raw material”).

“Just a piece of plain woven cloth had an overwhelming presence next to my work,” he says. “I was just blown away.”

His fascination with sozai led Shirai to the work he chooses to do today — self-producing textiles.

Shirai holds up a germinated cotton seed. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI
Shirai holds up a germinated cotton seed. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI

Though he stayed in Okinawa for another seven years, offers to exhibit Shirai’s work on the mainland encouraged him to move back. By then he had experimented with different fibers — silk, cotton and ramie — and eventually started growing his own wamen from seeds he received from his friends.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I suppose I like to grow plants,” he says when asked why he settled on cotton. “Also with cotton, I can take on the entire process — from growing it to delivering work to my customers.”

Now living in Chiba Prefecture, Shirai spends most of his day sitting in front of his spinning wheel, taking a break every 30 minutes to ensure he doesn’t get too tired and that the consistency of the yarn doesn’t change. He has kept a record of his cotton spinning since 2012, noting the amount of cotton used and number of times the wheel was spun in each session. Using that information, he says he can estimate the fineness of each yarn, and how to arrange them when weaving in such a way to achieve a consistent texture and look to his fabrics.

A range of dyed yarns. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI
A range of dyed yarns. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI

“There are still many aspects of my work that I don’t really know or have control over,: he says. “For example, the indigo dye from India and the aluminum acetate and wood acetate used as dying mediums — in truth, I don’t actually know what is in them. Of course I can research using the internet or books, but that’s not the same as the experience of growing the actual material.”

He adds, “For me to really gain the full understanding, I would need to grow my own indigo, and replace aluminum acetate with ashes, which I am contemplating right now.”

For Shirai, the unknown aspects of his work make him uneasy.

“I really need to know why a certain process has to be handled in a particular way,” he says. “I can only feel confident (that I have the level of knowledge needed) after repeated trial and error, and by facing what I don’t know. It is time-consuming work, but I need it.”

With fast fashion offering convenient cheap factory-made garments, this philosophy of single-handedly perfecting every process of textile making may seem counterintuitive to contemporary needs. But it is the uniqueness of every woven piece, something that can only be achieved by hand, that has made Shirai’s work desirable.

Old-school techniques: A display of raw cotton, a cotton gin and a basket of the seeds removed from bolls. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI
Old-school techniques: A display of raw cotton, a cotton gin and a basket of the seeds removed from bolls. | COURTESY OF JIN SHIRAI

“Thanks to mass-production we are lucky to have a choice of clothing at really affordable prices,” he says. “So I have to increase the value of my work rather than chase ways to produce it more cheaply.”

This value is the luxury of knowing the provenance and techniques behind products. Not knowing about things we consume, that uncertainty of how safe or ethical they really are, is now a common concern. Together with the unique texture of Shirai’s work, something that can only be achieved by hand, such traceability has become worth paying for.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami also brought to light another aspect of Shirai’s work — its sustainability without man-made energy. The aftermath of the disaster highlighted the nation’s heavy dependence on electricity and other utilities.

“Chiba was affected, too, but I realized that I could still continue to weave,” he says, pointing out that he could still hand-spin, use the loom and sew during a power outage. Even for water, he says, “We have a common well in the corner of the community farm.”

Shirai’s old-school approach gives fresh insight into the general perception of work life balance and offers viable alternatives within an industry dominated by mass-manufacturing.

Jin Shirai’s work can be seen at two upcoming exhibitions in Tokyo: “Shirai Jin / Nakano Shiro Wa Men Sarasa 2020 exhibition” at Gallery & Space Siang, March 3-8; and at “Katakoto no kai” at Tokyo Matsuya showroom, May 23-29. For more information, check for updates at bit.ly/katakotonokai.

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