Washi fabric is attracting attention from all over the world because of its excellent breathability, durability, and sustainability.
Furukawa Yosuke Shoten, a company with deep roots in the textile industry in Otsu City, a town 30 kilometers from Kyoto, sells custom-made jackets woven from twisted Japanese washi threads. With these jackets, the company is introducing a new concept of fashion using environmentally friendly washi.
Cool in the Summer, Warm in the Winter
The fibers of washi, traditionally made of fibers from the inner bark of gampi, a shrub, and mulberry trees, is a material that has been indispensable to Japanese life from ancient times.
Furukawa Yosuke Shoten’s washi jackets feel smooth to the touch. The colors are also attractive, light yellow, dark green or a stunning shade of blue, with about 120 shades offered in all.
“The fabric is soft, resistant to water, and it is even washable,” said 61-year-old company president and granddaughter of the founder, Akemi Kawamura, describing the characteristics of washi jackets.
Japanese paper is cut thin and twisted into threads before being woven into fabrics with special machines. “It’s light and airy, so it’s warm in winter, but breathable and comfortable in the summer,” she said.
Washi is commonly used for fusuma and shoji (paper sliding doors) in Japanese houses. Due to its excellent breathability and humidity control, it serves as a natural air conditioner that stays cool in the hot humid summers but warm in the dry winters.
These characteristics have been also woven into the washi jackets, and now the company is also exploring the idea of making washi T-shirts and shoes. “We want to expand the use of the washi threads,” said Kawamura enthusiastically.
A Tradition in Special Threads
The company’s factory is set up in a village where a river flows between hills, close to the Kiryu district of Otsu City and the Kusatsu-Tagami Interchange on the Shin-Meijin Expressway (about 30 kilometers from Kyoto).
Since the Edo period, the area has been known for producing thin washi paper, which has been the source for gold and silver threads used in Nishijin-ori, a traditional textile produced in the Nishijin district of Kyoto.
Originally, Furukawa Yosuke Shoten was founded in 1935 as a manufacturer of gold and silver thread. The gold leaf (kinpaku) was pressed on the washi paper and then cut to be used in the finest gold thread.
Later the company shifted to making washi cloth products because of competition from cheaper overseas factories, which were taking away jobs.
But business was tough. As Kawamura said, “We needed to appeal by creating something from our own company’s threads.” Taking advantage of her experience weaving and working in the apparel industry in her twenties, she started selling finished products, such as blouses and towels.
One day in 2011, Kawamura made an unexpected breakthrough when she wore a blouse made of washi fabric to a meeting with local business owners. One of the participants who saw it asked, “Is this washi? Then make me a jacket!”
The first washi jacket, completed after trial and error for a men’s clothing store, attracted attention because of its unusual material and its elegant coloring.
“I was impressed by the technology of using traditional washi as fabric,” said Yukiko Kada, a member of the House of Councillors. The governor of Shiga Prefecture, Taizo Mikazuki, too, became a fan, and Furukawa’s main thread manufacturing business has been improving.
The fact that washi is a natural, renewable resource is becoming the company’s new selling point.
The raw material is Manila hemp produced overseas. A perennial plant that grows quickly and can be cultivated throughout the year, it is considered sustainable because it can be recycled and returned to the soil. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the washi fabric has been popular when exhibited at overseas fairs.
“I was even asked to open a store in New York,” Kawamura said.
What’s more, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which push for sustainable agriculture, are also proving to be a tailwind for the company.
“The trend is to value the use of natural and raw materials. It’s a big opportunity for us,” she said. But, for the moment, Japan is still importing the raw materials.
“If we could make them from local mountain trees, it would also help maintenance of mountains in the region,” Kawamura added.
Will we see washi jackets made from local products available soon in Kiryu? Only time will tell.
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Author: Takanori Hanawa