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[Kimono Style] Exploring the Roots of the Prized Tango Chirimen

Tango in Kyoto prefecture recently hosted a two-day festival to celebrate Tango chirimen, a type of crepe silk that is highly valued in the kimono world.



A kimono worn by the model Yoko Tsukasa in 1956. In 2020, Sheila Cliffe wore the kimono for the 300th anniversary of Tango Chirimen (©漱石の猫 via Wikimedia Commons)

The area of Tango is located in the northern part of Kyoto prefecture. It is a part of Japan blessed with beautiful sea, amazing scenery, delicious food and drink, and a heritage of silk weaving. For over 300 years, it has provided the kimono industry with the crepe silk it needs for making all kinds of kimono with dyed patterns on them. More than 500 weaving businesses provide 60–70% of this fabric to the industry. 

They also produce obi and many other kinds of woven textiles for kimono-related goods and also for furoshiki, scarves, and other items. Once a year, this heritage is celebrated in Tango Chirimen Matsuri, a festival where people get together to celebrate this industry, which is such an important part of the local economy.

The tour group takes a photo with the sea in the background. (©Sheila Cliffe)

About 12 participants came from overseas to join in with the festival, but also to learn about silk-making and kimono production and culture, in a monitor tour. On the day before the festival, they visited Tayuh Textile Factory where many of the processes involved in making silk can be seen under one roof. 


Tayuh Textile Factory

The owner, Hayato Tamoi, explained the process of making chirimen, which is a crepe silk. First, the sericin has to be removed from the silk. Then, the thread is strongly twisted before the cloth is woven to make the bumpy crepe pattern. It was impressive to watch the complex process of preparing the warps. The threads bobbed around while being steamed and wound onto a huge barrel. These are then transferred onto smaller barrels to go on the weaving looms. 

The noise of the looms as they wove was also incredible. We could also watch the punch cards that guide the jacquard pattern in the ground of the fabric, as they slowly circle around and around. They control the raising and dropping of the warp threads to make the patterns.

After the factory tour, we visited the weaving union's scouring factory. It is the only one in Tango, so all the weaving businesses use this factory for the purification of their fabric. This process involves a lot of boiling in water for long periods, and gradually the remaining sericin is removed from the cloth. All the silk is then steamed then checked by microscope for impurities. The silk is stamped and packaged before going back to the owner.

Roots of Tango Chirimen

Following these visits to production sites, we went to Zenjoji temple, which is associated with the origins of Tango chirimen. In fact, it still holds the first piece of chirimen in its care. Legend has it that a weaver, Kinuya Saheiji, learned the technique in Nishijin and brought it back to Tango 300 years ago.

An Auspicious Start

The following day was the first day of the Tango Chirimen Matsuri. All participants in the tour chose kimono to wear, which were lent by the weaving association. These were gorgeous valuable furisode from their collection. First, we visited Kouri Shrine, a part of Amino Shrine, where the weavers have an annual ceremony to pray for success in silk weaving. 

A weaver is selected by lottery to produce a bolt of cloth to offer to the god, and then the weavers purify themselves by walking in the cold sea at night. After the finished bolt is offered to the god, it is then dyed and made into tiny bags for fortune papers. These are unique as only a limited number can be made each year. They are distributed among the people and we were lucky enough to receive them.

Kimono and Inclusivity 

The festival started with the excellent local junior high school brass band and a music and dance performance using silk cloth. By the time the fashion show started, the hall was completely full of people. Each group on stage not only wore a different kimono but also created a completely different mood by demonstrating unusual and creative ways of wearing the garment. The show was very entertaining for everyone. 

After this, people could enjoy the hand-made goods market, or come to my speech where I spoke about my kimono journey and what Tango means to me. The first day finished with a disco, and it was great fun to see so many different nationalities and ages gather together and have a great time dancing. Almost everyone was dressed in kimono. Music, like kimono, is good at crossing boundaries.

Participants dancing, many of them in kimono. (©Sheila Cliffe)

The Old and the New

On the second day of the festival, I did a talk with Nanaoh (七緒) magazine's editor, Yasuko Suzuki. We discussed dressing, Nanaoh's power as a magazine, and the importance of Tango's contribution to the kimono world. I said that my wish was for the Tango area not to be crushed by the weight of its history, but to be a place where people could play, work together, and continue to create a new kimono culture. 

Fabric and Art

After this, we were treated to a "shibuki" art performance by local artist, Kazuhiko Takakura. He dyed a garment by splattering paint onto it while it was worn, to the sound of the taiko drums and other instruments. It was exciting to feel the energy between the music, the model, and the artist as he splashed the paint on by flicking his fingers. 

Kazuhiko Takakura performs his art. (©Sheila Cliffe)

Recycling Kimono

Finally, everyone went to the used kimono market, where hundreds of kimono change hands every year, in the spirit of recycling and making things last. As Tango is a production site, there were lots of bolts of cloth for making kimono and obi, as well as the usual used kimono. Such items are rather rare in markets in the Kanto region. It was a great pleasure to be a part of the Tango Chirimen Matsuri and meet a lot of local people. If Tango is on your travel itinerary, check its tourism website for kimono events before you go. 


Author: Sheila Cliffe

Read other columns on kimono by the author.

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