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Kimono Style | Exploring Asian Weaving and Its Kimono Connections

Sheila Cliffe explores Asian weaving in Indonesia and Uzbekistan, their links to Japan, and how respectful cultural exchanges lead to exciting innovations.



A weaver in Bali. (©Sheila Cliffe)

The Shosoin Repository in Nara, a part of Todaiji temple, is well-known for its Azekura-style architecture and a raised log cabin built of horizontally placed triangular logs. It is also known for its storage house of Japan’s ancient treasures. 

The treasures kept in there were from Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo and date from 701-760 AD. After this time, the treasure house was closed. This meant that these ancient treasures were able to survive intact to this day. 

The building is a national treasure and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are many kinds of items stored in the Shosoin.  Some are Buddhist images and musical instruments, and others are furniture, clothing, and armor. 

Foreign Culture Influences

Although many items are of Japanese origin, some are actually from abroad or show the influence of other countries and cultures. This had not really struck me as very significant until I realized that one tends to think of Japanese culture as being rather pure because of Japan's long period of relative isolation during the Edo period, and also because of its location in the Far East. 

However, I recently had the chance to go to two different countries in Asia. The trip sparked my interest in the similarities and differences between the textile cultures of Japan and other countries. 

Ikat Weaving in Uzbekistan

My first trip abroad was to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan lies in the center of the ancient Silk Road, south of Russia, north of Iran, east of Europe, and west of China and Japan. People traveled through it from biblical times until the 15th Century in caravans trading metals, animals, cloth, spices, paper, teas, dyes, and perfume. 

Buddhism was spread along the Silk Road as was the plague and other diseases. Not only did a mercantile class develop across the world, but ideas, cultural exchange, and new developments were enabled by this traffic. 

One of the most important items coming west was silk, from China. Silk cultivation spread from China across the world, as it is not only a beautiful fabric but is strong, lightweight, and breathes too. The Fergana valley in eastern Uzbekistan is still famous for its production of ikat weaving. The Sogdian culture based in Bukhara, Uzbekistan dominated the trading routes from the 4th to the 8th Centuries after which the Persian influence increased and the Muslim religion spread in central Asia. 

Woven fabrics in Uzbekistan. (©Sheila Cliffe)

Similarities to Japanese Meisen

The city of Samarkand was also famous for its culture and its papermaking. The paper was made from the same plant that feeds the silkworms, and it lasted some 1,500 years. The Bukhara area has a wealth of embroidery, metal thread embroidery, and silk carpet production too.

Sheila Cliffe in Uzbekistan. (©Sheila Cliffe)

I was fascinated to see the ikat made in Uzbekistan. The pattern is produced on vertical threads and woven on looms that produce a similar width, 36–38 cm as Japanese kimono fabric. The looms however are quite different. They are very long and the warp threads are held in bags. 

The threads only reach the correct width near the weaver. Japanese looms have threads wound around a drum that ensures the width is maintained from the beginning. The end result is a cloth that is similar in style to meisen, which was very popular in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Batik Wax-Resit Dyeing

I also traveled to Bali, where there is also a tradition for ikat weaving. Fabrics from the Indonesian area came to Japan in the 1500s. Some were brought during the Edo period on European ships that traded as they worked their way across the world from Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. 

The ikat in Bali is woven with the pattern on the weft threads rather than the warp threads. But the fabric is then turned 90 degrees when used as a sarong so that the pattern appears vertically. Fabric in Africa is also used in this way. 

Batik, wax-resist dyeing on cotton, also came to Japan from Java and this part of the world. It greatly impressed the Japanese as they had no cotton of their own, and it was the first time they had seen such amazing colorful patterns dyed on cotton fabric. These fabrics were often used to make men’s cotton under kimono and small bags for tea caddies or smoking goods and purses. It was far too expensive to make whole kimono from. The Japanese were so impressed by the fabric that they began to grow their own cotton and start to dye it with resist paste, leading to Edo sarasa, Edo chintz fabric. 

Batik being dyed in Indonesia. (©Sheila Cliffe)

Cultural Exchanges Sparking Innovation

In each country, local plants are used as dyes. Although the patterns are different, the basic technology for making clothing in Asian weaving is very similar. The Japanese have taken inspiration from patterns and techniques from other places for centuries. 

Cultural exchanges like these lead to developments and advancements in industry and new and exciting style innovations. It is the highest form of flattery. After seeing how much common ground there really is between the countries and their fabric industries, I really felt that we share so much, and that arguments about cultural appropriation have missed something very important. 

Uzbeks complimented me on my adras ikat kimono. They thought it was very beautiful. Respectful sharing and exchange are keys to cultural understanding. Lovers of hand-made fabrics and various ethnic or cultural clothing I am sure feel the same way. We are all bound together by the same threads and can enjoy the beauty of such hand-weaving and dyeing throughout many countries in Asia.


Author: Sheila Cliffe

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