When many of us imagine exquisite kimono, or formal Japanese dress, visions of multicolored and embroidery-embellished floral silks come to mind. However, one of the most prized fabrics in Japan–and one any woman wanted for a casual kimono–is a complex, mud-dyed, small-patterned weave known as Oshima tsumugi.
Developed on the island Amami Oshima off the southwest coast of Japan, the production of this textile today faces many of the same challenges traditional crafts around the world compete with–including an unwillingness by a younger generation to maintain family workshops, and a lack of government support. Taken with the beauty and the fineness of the cloth at a young age, artist and weaver Ayako Nikamoto is harnessing this traditional technique to create beautiful contemporary obi (sashes) and scarves.
Oshima tsumugi is also referred to as kasuri–a Japanese word which implies “hand-tying.” The cloth is perhaps the world’s finest double ikat: a technique of dyeing threads for a fabric with the final design before they are woven together. For Oshima tsumugi, both the warp (vertical) and the weft (horizontal) threads are resist-dyed. Even in its most simple incarnation, the ikat technique requires a great deal of skill and planning to execute. Oshima tsumugi producers replicated small patterns popular on European printed fabrics through dyeing tiny bundles of threads in a super-fine weave. As production became more sophisticated, a cloth’s quality was measured by the number of warp and weft threads.
Oshima tsumugi designs are traditionally non-figurative, and typically the patterns will incorporate small geometric elements–such as this early twentieth-century example from The Textile Museum. The fiber, which in its heyday was typically silk, is dyed with a combination of natural dyes–the trademark being iron-saturated mud found in paddies of Amami Oshima which yields a rich, dark brown color. Because of the intense craftsmanship production demands, Oshima tsumugi was popular throughout Japan by the turn of the last century and was used for non-ceremonial kimono.
Ayako Nikamoto was born on Amami Oshima, and while she currently lives in Chigasaki (near Tokyo), she weaves with yarn produced by a family workshop on the island. Ayako remembers admiring her grandmother’s Oshima tsumugi kimonos from a young age, and knew she wanted to become a weaver as soon as high school. After attending university and meeting her husband in Tokyo, Ayako returned to her birthplace to study this textile tradition. She weaves in both silk and fine bamboo fibers, and while her muted designs are more subtly patterned, the fine color changes and textures are achieved through the same intensive dyeing and weaving process used for Oshima tsumugi. Even in the absence of the production centers of the past, Ayako is doing her part to ensure its survival through continuing to present this cloth as a high-end expression of a part of Japanese culture.
Ayako Nikamoto’s work is exhibited in Gallery Gen in New York and Gallery Shun in Tokyo. Ayako is currently creating a piece for The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., to be included in the exhibition Sourcing the Museum in 2012. Curated by renowned textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, the exhibition will feature work by twelve contemporary fiber artists directly inspired by the museum’s permanent collection. Each artist will create a new artwork that will draw on textile traditions.
This article was informed through an interview with Lee Talbot, Associate Curator for Eastern Hemisphere Collections at The Textile Museum who visited Ayako Nikamoto in her studio in Japan in February 2011 and by “The Effect of Western Textile Technology on Japanese Kasuri: Development, Innovation, and Competition,” an article by Keijo Kobayashi published in The Textile Museum Journal (2001-2002).