Kyoto’s textile heritage: Kawashima textile museum & kasuri in Nishijin

Kawashima textile museumkawashima textile schoolKawashima textile museum

One reason I love Kyoto is that it is full of hidden gems, and there are always pleasant surprises whenever I visit. One of the least touristy museums in Kyoto has to be the Kawashima textile museum partly due to its distance from the centre, but also down to the fact that prebooking necessary for the visit. After our 2 week course, we were granted a guided tour of the Kawashima textile factory followed by a museum tour near the school. It was a real privilege to visit the factory to see how the large-scale tapestries were designed and produced. I was particularly impressed by a room full of vintage and Jacquard looms, even though they are now dormant.

The Kawashima Selkon Textiles company was founded in 1843, and The Kawashima Textile Museum opened in 1889 is the oldest company museum in Japan. One of the missions that Kawashima Selkon Textile company aimed to achieve was to continue to contribute to development of textile culture by preserving and educating the public on the history of textile crafts and techniques. In order to achieve this goal, the company constructed the Ichihara plant in 1964 handled by 4th Jimbei Kawashima, which includes the factory, office, museum and school with dormitory.

kawashima textile schoolKawashima textile museumKawashima textile museum

Opened under the name Museum of Art Specimens, the museum exhibits masterfully-woven textiles produced by the company over the last 170 years, as well as historic textile artifacts and exhibits. There are over 150,000 items in the museum, ranging from dyed and woven textiles, 7th Century textile artworks (jodai-gire), historically notable works (meibutsu-gire), Chinese fabrics, Coptic fabrics, traditional costumes, books and drawings. In recent years, the company has also collaborated with renowned international designers to produce new home furnishings and furniture. During our visit, there was an exhibition on the new collaboration, which were exhibited at the Milan design week.

The following day, we headed to Nishijin, Kyoto’s famed historic textile district to visit Kasai kasuri atelier specialising in kasuri (). Kasuri is a form of double ikat dyeing, which creates splashed patterns characterised by their blurred edges ( ‘kasuri’ means blurring) on the textiles. Originated in ancient India, the history of kasuri dates back to 5th century Kyoto in the Nishijin district where local weavers worked.

Currently, double ikat is practised in only three countries in the world: India, Indonesia and Japan. Unlike single ikat, the warp and weft are both resist-tied according to a specific design and, when woven, intermesh seamlessly to reveal the pattern. Hence, the process of preparing the warp and weft yarns for dyeing demands the same degree of mathematical precision as the process of weaving the textile on the loom. In 2019, I visited Patan in Gujarat, which is famous for Patola, a double ikat woven sari, usually made from silk. At the Patan Patola museum, aside from demonstrations and exhibits on the locally made textiles, there were also double ikat textiles from Indonesia and kasuri textiles on display. This shows that the curators at the museums view kasuri and Indonesian ikat textiles on par with their intricate Patola textiles.

nishijin  nishijinkasai kasuri nishijinThe kasai kasuri atelier is located in the historic Nishijin textile district

Sadly, like many traditional crafts around the globe, the craftsmandship of kasuri is under threatened due to less demands for kimono and obi, aging artisans and fewer young people wanting to learn a craft that is time-consuming and requires meticulous care as well as precision. Now one of the ‘youngest’ (middle-aged) artisan working in Nishijin is Ikuko Kasai, who is determined to preserve and pass on the invaluable craftsmanship that has been passed on for centuries.

We felt very grateful to have spent the afternoon at the atelier learning about the process of kasuri. In Nishijin, each artisan specialises in only one task, hence they all have to collaborate together to create the kimono or obi piece. Usually a custom-made kimono would take around 6 months and 20 artisans to complete, which explains the high price tag. At her atelier, Kasai san is responsible for the marking and wrapping of the yarn to be resist-dyed at a differenet dye studio. After the initial dyeing process, the dyed yarn returns to her studio again for a second wrapping, and this process can be repeated multiple times depending on the colours on the design. After the dyeing process, the dyed threads are spunned around a drum-like machine called Taiko (see below). The next stage is called ‘hamekomi’ when the threads are counted and arranged according to the design. The last stage involves the threads are hung on a machine called ‘hashigo’ (meaning ladder – see below), and passing through metal rods at various height, so that the horizontal lines are shifted vertially to create the unique kasuri patterns. The finished yarn is then ready to be shipped to the weavers to be woven.

kasai kasuri kasai kasuri  kasai kasurikasai kasurikasai kasuri  kasai kasurikasai kasurikasai kasuri  kasai kasuri

One thing really struck me during and after the visit, and it was Kasai san’s immense passion for her craft and her determination to pass on the craftsmanship. She was always smiling while explaing her work and techniques, but I am sure her road has not been easy so far. With dwindling orders for custom-made kimono and obi, the presevation of the heritage and craftsmanship is crucial for the Nishijin craftsmen/ artisans. Undoubtedly, they have a tough road ahead of them, but I think with the resurgence of traditional crafts like shibori, natural dyeing and weaving etc in recent years, there is hope for things to change.


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