FUKUSHIMA – A producer of luxury silk is helping revitalize the traditional textile industry — and inspire the local community — in a town devastated by the 3/11 disasters of 2011.
The ultra-fine “fairy feather” silk threads made by Saiei-Orimono Co. were recognized as the world’s thinnest in 2012 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and are now drawing attention from global buyers and illustrious designers.
“It has provided a spark for the whole town to revive,” said Kazuichi Fujiwara, secretary-general of a woven fabric industry body in Fukushima Prefecture.
Based in the town of Kawamata, Saiei-Orimono produces yarn-dyed fabric using silk threads as thin as one-sixth of the diameter of a human hair.
The company has received orders from Japanese and foreign luxury brands for the lustrous light fabric, , which has been used to make scarves and an ultralight wedding gown.
The popularity heralds the revival of a centuries-old industry in the town. Kawamata thrived on silk production in the Edo Period (1603-1868), with the number of manufacturing plants reaching around 240 at its peak. But the spread of foreign silk and chemical fibers led to a decline and there are now just over a dozen factories in the town.
To help revive the industry, Eita Saito, the 37-year-old managing director of Saiei-Orimono, wanted to create an eye-catching product. Kawamata was already known for its fine filaments, so he focused on refining the thinness of silk and began developing the fairy feather fabric in 2009.
Saito drew his idea from medical silk threads that are produced by silkworms, which undergo molting three times instead of four, producing thin and smooth threads. No other firms in the industry handled such products as they are so delicate that they easily snap and can be melted by heat in the dying process.
While upgrading his firm’s weaving machines, Saito asked a twine maker and a dyer to develop technologies to keep his product as thin as possible.
As the company conducted trials, the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster hit the area on March 11, 2011, damaging the firm’s factory and machines. Some of its employees were unable to come to work as part of the town was designated an evacuation zone.
But the company managed to continue product development by allowing workers to return to check on their homes and family members during working hours.
In September 2011, Saiei-Orimono finally completed the fairy feather product using eight denier silk threads, compared with the 14 denier threads that had been the thinnest available at the time.
The silk was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize at the Monodzukuri Nippon Grand Awards, which recognize goods that have supported Japanese culture and industry.
It was used in a wedding dress by renowned designer Yumi Katsura that weighed only 600 grams and the silk’s profile was raised further when it was exhibited in Tokyo department stores.
“Despite the earthquake and nuclear accident, all of us forged ahead toward the same goal,” Saito said. “I hope to produce even thinner silk going forward.”