Connect with us


[Kimono Style] From the Winter to the Summer

The prized Echigo Joufu cloth for summer kimono — a beautiful collaboration between craftsmen and nature — actually hails from one of Japan's snowiest regions.



Echigo Joufu cloth bleaching in the snow. (© Sheila Cliffe)

The Minami Uonuma area of Niigata is famous for Echigo Joufu weaving. Echigo Joufu is a very delicate linen-like cloth that is used for making summer kimono as it is cool and breathable in the hot summer months. 

However, its origin is in the snow country of Japan. The Echigo or Niigata region is renowned for its heavy snowfall in the winter. It is an area famous for ski resorts, hot springs and delicious rice and sake. It is also an area which has a long history of weaving and textile production. Those who farm in the summer months may be involved in the production of fabric during the long, snowy winters.

I recently visited the area to learn about the production of Echigo Joufu. Joufu literally means high-ranking cloth, and the labor that goes into its production is what makes it so desirable. 

Nobuhisa Ogawa prepares the threads. (© Sheila Cliffe)
Thread making. (© Sheila Cliffe)

Cultural Treasures

The finest kimono woven of Echigo Joufu are important cultural treasures. Not all of Echigo Joufu fulfil the strict requirements for such registration, but about 20 kimono lengths a year are produced to the exacting standard that enables them to be registered as important cultural treasures.

The cloth is produced with a kind of ramie called choma. It is a linen-like fibre. This fibre is also used in other areas of Japan, and was a staple for working people before the production and importation of cotton. The fibres from the plant stems are split and split again by hand until they are almost as fine as hairs, and the lengths are twisted together by hand. This is painstaking work and there are only a few people who do this.

Choma, a kind of ramie used to make the cloth. (© Sheila Cliffe)

After a large amount of thread is produced the threads are stretched out and grouped in order to prepare them for dyeing. The sections that are to be resisted have a small length of cotton wound around them, to protect them from the dye. This produces the kasuri or ikat pattern on the threads. It is painstaking work, just like the production of the threads. After the threads are tied up, they are dyed and the protective cotton bindings are removed.

Akemi Takanami weaving. (© Sheila Cliffe)

Work of a Master Craftsman

The threads are then prepared for weaving. In order to qualify as a cultural treasure, the fabric must be woven on a backstrap loom. The movement of the body controls the tension in the warp threads, which are attached to a strap which goes around the back of the weaver. 

It is important for the weaver to keep the cloth under the same tension as she weaves, to produce an even pattern on the cloth. The weaver uses her whole body while the weaving takes place. Gradually the splashed patterns of the ikat design appear on the cloth.

After weaving, the fabric is sent to be washed. Each length of fabric is put in a trough and is turned and kneaded by one man's feet. This too is a skilled craft and the washer must make sure that all areas of the cloth are trampled evenly so that all impurities are removed from the whole length of the cloth. This takes place in the winter season before the bleaching of the cloth.

Masao Koto washes the fabric. (© Sheila Cliffe)

Nature's Magic

One of the final stages of production creates a scene that is so beautiful that the area is famous for it. After the cloth has been washed it must be laid out on the fresh snow in the sunshine. This process can only be performed on sunny days in February and early March. 

As the sun melts the top layer of snow, it produces water vapour and ozone. This combination has a bleaching effect on the white threads and it also fixes the dyes in the cloth. The kimono lengths are stretched out with loving care and are laid onto the sparkling snow. They lie there for several hours while nature performs her magic on this beautiful cloth. 

Echigo Joufu cloth bleaching in the snow. (© Sheila Cliffe)
(© Sheila Cliffe)

These processes remain unchanged over the years and are a part of the rich heritage of the Niigata region. It is a fascinating fact that the cool fabric of the summer should start its life in the deep snow of Niigata. Perhaps even thinking about the cloth lying on the snow could help to cool down the wearer in the harsh heat of the Japanese summer.


Author: Sheila Cliffe

Read other columns on kimono by the author.