Most people are familiar with Kyoto as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan. It is also known as a center of the kimono industry.
Kyoto has a very long history as a silk-producing town and as a center for dyeing and weaving. It is possibly the origin, and a major center of one kind of Yuzen kimono dyeing. And, the Nishijin area of Kyoto city is famous for the weaving of Nishijin obi.
What is lesser known is that a vast quantity of kimono making actually comes from outside of the main center of Kyoto: Tango Peninsula.
An Area Full of History and Beauty
Jutting out into the Sea of Japan, the city of Kyotango on the Tango Peninsula is a full two hours north from the center of Kyoto by train. The area is rich in arable land and famous for the quality of its rice, sake, and seafood, in particular delicious crab eaten in the winter months.
To many Japanese, the name evokes a dark and gloomy place. The sun shines less and the sky has more clouds on the Sea of Japan side than along the Pacific coast. The sea is colder and winters can be long and harsh.
However, the Tango Peninsula is an area of outstanding beauty. It hosts the Amanohashidate, Bridge to Heaven, a long sandbar that claims to be one of the three outstanding views in Japan. The fishing village of Ine is also a treasure, with its boathouses hugging the coastline. People live above their boats and depend on fish for their livelihoods.
Various kofun, ancient remains, teach us that the area has been inhabited since ancient times. The beaches are white, unspoiled and very clean. Driving through the hills and the paddy fields is a pleasure, as even the most rural location is kept clean and neat.
A Long Kimono History
If you stop your car in one of the villages, you may well hear the sound of looms and weaving machines. There remains between 700 and 800 workshops in this area, where silk has been woven since ancient times.
In the Nara period, silk from this area was given to the emperor. Once, sericulture must have been a large part of the agriculture here, but now most of the silk is imported as thread from China and Brazil. It is the production of cloth that is the area’s main industry.
Although silk production has an over 1,000 years of history here, 300 years ago, around 1720, some silk weavers from this area learned the technique of making chirimen (silk crepe) from Kyoto. They brought the technique back and developed it in Tango.
Silk crepe is distinguished by the weft threads being strongly twisted so that the finished cloth is slightly bumpy, rather than smooth like a satin weave.
In the late Edo period, the area became wealthy from the production of silk cloth. The main street in the Yosano neighborhood is called Chirimen Street, and the old merchant houses remain to this day.
Preserved and open to visitors, the old Bitou family house is a large merchant home built in 1863. One small wing was westernized in the 1920s and has western furniture, light fittings, and some stained glass. Business boomed, and in 1926 the Kaya railway was built to transport the goods to Kyoto. The port of Miyazu carried silk up the Sea of Japan coast.
The family continued in their successful business ventures, bringing a bank and electricity to the area, and also started a shipping company. The building of merchant homes continued through to the Showa period.
An Ever-Evolving Sector
This industry with its long history, although a shadow of its former self, remains vitally important to the kimono industry today. The area makes over 60% of kimono silks that will be dyed with yuzen, komon, and other techniques. Almost all formal and semi-formal kimono use this kind of silk.
While the industry has shrunk significantly, the weavers are not relying only on history and tradition to get them through. Tango is a place where innovation is alive and well, and the weavers take pride in the quality of their work. Some of the weavers have branched out into making materials for interiors and fashion clothing, as well as for kimono. Furoshiki and polyester chirimen for purses and other fashion goods are also produced in the area.
Most of the workshops in the area are family businesses and work on a very small scale. We introduce a couple of them below.
The Tamiya Raden Workshop
This workshop has been producing obi with inlaid shell for several generations.
The process of making the obi is extremely complex and difficult. Beautiful shells from all around the world are collected and sliced very thinly, then sold in sheets. They are attached to washi paper to stabilize them.
A design is made on washi and then the shell slices are laid onto the design. After this, the whole design is sent to be sliced into slivers, like threads. These are hung on the side of the weaving loom. The weaver takes the paper and shell threads, and one by one weaves them into the obi.
These obi shine with blue, purple, and green hues, especially in the low light of evening. The uchikake wedding gown (photo above) is an amazing achievement — it took two whole years to produce.
With new geometric designs, the workshop is now pursuing the possibility of other applications in fashion and accessories, and is looking beyond the borders of Japan.
Kobayashi has become famous for his dyeing of blue cloth, which he calls Tango Blue. Living and working a few minutes from the sea, he loves to cycle to the shore after his work is done. His work is inspired by the colors of the sea.
He used to be a ground dyer in a workshop who just took and completed orders through a middleman without ever actually seeing his customers. A few years ago, he started to go to a Kimono Salone event in Nihonbashi, then started his own Facebook page. He began to communicate directly with his customers, finding out what they wanted and how they used kimono. This, he says, completely changed his life.
He had never dreamed that he would be traveling and talking to customers rather than working alone. He is happy with the changes, and increasingly busy.
All of his dyeing is done with shading on one long strip of uncut cloth. He doesn’t measure beforehand and has no pattern, but manages to match up patterns even though everything is freehand.
Dyes, he says, are like a bunch of unruly first graders. Some of them run all over the place and don’t listen; others stay in the same place and won’t move. His job, he says, is to make them all work together in a controlled way.
Shibata undertakes all kinds of projects, but specializes in nuitori weaving, in which metallic threads are used in the wefts, and then cut from the back of the fabric.
He designs with the computer, he explains, and for some projects must adapt the looms with special shuttles and devices. He also has to repair parts that break. Managing a weaving workshop needs many skills — craftsman and designer, engineer and computer operator, too.
Many kinds of looms were introduced in the Meiji period and are no longer made, so the old ones are kept carefully for spare parts.
Shibata Orimono continues to develop. They have a line of cool menswear with patterns including snakeskin and metal sheeting, and a crocodile obi. Moreover, they have been developing a process to make silk kimono underwear washable, which will be much welcomed by many kimono wearers.
Finally, Watamasa is one of the biggest workshops in the area. The workshop is separate from the home, and several workers watch the looms constantly. The noise in the weaving room is deafening.
The workshop has been going since 1918 and specializes in the high quality jacquard woven chirimen silk that Tango is so famous for. There are 12 jacquard looms producing a variety of designs, from traditional Japanese to bottles of wine. Kimono cloth is the main product, but they also make cloth for obi, underwear, and collars. They have received many awards for their beautifully-designed and -produced cloth.
In 2020, the Tango Weavers Union is celebrating its 300th year anniversary. There will be events throughout the year to celebrate this milestone. Not only are the weavers celebrating the achievements of the past, but they are also looking forward to the future and continuing to innovate as they dedicate themselves to making quality textiles for the future.
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Author: Sheila Cliffe