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[Kimono Style] Weaving in Tokorozawa and Iruma: An Almost Forgotten History

A symposium on Tokorozawa and Iruma's rich weaving history was held in a former factory, honored in 1925 for its contribution to Japan's textile industry.

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The venue of the symposium, Amigo, was once an important weaving factory. (©Sheila Cliffe)

The Tokorozawa weaving union has about 35 companies still registered. However, Tokorozawa weaving is almost a forgotten legacy. On November 11, a small symposium was held at Amigo, a community center about 10 minutes from Bushi Station in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture. At the center, NPOs conduct activities, and a small cafe serves the community. 

The symposium was entitled "The Story of Thread: Pass the Baton." Bushi is a quiet little backwater, more country than town. But the venue, Amigo, was once an important weaving factory. The saw-edged roof, with all the windows facing north, is a giveaway as to the original purpose of the building. Many small groups and NPOs use Amigo, and the head, Masahiro Mizumura, was happy to host this symposium. And he was looking fine and dandy in his kimono. Farmers' markets and craft fairs are held here as well as concerts and other events.

Sheila Cliffe (left) with Masahiro Mizumura. (©Sheila Cliffe)

Weaving Since Ancient Times

Kumiko Miura from the Iruma City Museum ALIT started off the symposium with a presentation detailing the ancient history of the Iruma river valley. Settlers grew tea on the flatter areas around the river and built their housing just under the hills. Around the tea bushes they planted mulberries, which indicates that there was a silk weaving culture here from ancient times. Sayama is still famous for tea production but the area including Tokorozawa, Iruma, and Hanno was successful for its weaving culture in days gone by.

This talk was followed by Tamura Hitoshi, professor Emeritus of Saitama University, who is an expert on the weaving culture of Saitama. He told us about the more recent history of Tokorozawa weaving, including the history of the building we were in. 

A Pioneer in the Textiles Industry

Although we tend to think of weaving as a traditional culture, in the Taisho and early Showa periods, Iruma Senkou (Iruma dyeing company), who owned this building, was one of the most forward-looking textile businesses in Japan. Until the 1910s, the processes before the weaving of cotton fabrics were mainly performed in individual homes: the cleaning, bleaching, and dyeing of threads. But in Iruma in 1897, a place was made to do all these processes under one roof. 

Iruma Senkou was founded in 1900. By 1907, it was involved not only in the preparation and the weaving of cotton and wool fabrics but also in the mercerization and finishing of the fabrics. They were mainly making menswear. However, the designs became a little old-fashioned with many vertical stripes, so a design research committee was set up in Kawagoe

After 1910, Iruma Senkou became famous for silket, a cotton that has a silk-like finish. It is treated with caustic soda and is softer, stronger, and takes dyes better than regular cotton. Tokorozawa weaving became famous for both quality and design. 

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Hand-woven scarves and other items on display at the symposium. (©Sheila Cliffe)

A Booming Industry

In 1925, when the government wanted to encourage domestic industry, it awarded the Bushi factory with the latest weaving looms from Germany. This further enabled their competitiveness and also necessitated the construction of a new building. 

Amigo, the venue of the symposium, used to be a weaving factory. (©Sheila Cliffe)

The weaving industry in the Kanto area had workers' unions. These unions set up research committees, which would teach in Kiryu, Hachioji, Ome, Urawa, and other towns around Tokyo that had weaving industries. It was especially important to them to understand the use of chemical dyes which began to be imported from Europe at the end of the 19th century. By the 1920s, the textiles were not only for menswear but also for womenswear. They also included fashionable light summer fabrics. 

It was fascinating to hear about the history of textile-making in the Tokorozawa area. The Iruma factory was also used for lace-making in the mid-20th century. This lace-making factory was so important that the Showa Emperor visited it twice to encourage the workers in lace production.

Continuing the Legacy

Some displays were on at the same time as the symposium. One was a display of lace that had been made at the Iruma factory and collected from local people. A lace wedding kimono was the most stunning piece there, but there was a huge variety of machine-made lace on display. 

Kawagoe Futago Touzan fabric. (©Sheila Cliffe)

Another display was of Kawagoe Futago Touzan, which is hand-woven cotton striped fabric. The weavers were taught by master weaver Nishimura Yoshiaki. They still continue to weave kimono and other items from plant-dyed threads which they dye themselves. 

Towels and scarves from local businesses were also on display, evidence that the industry still exists. Groups supporting disabled people who sew, embroider, and hand-weave also had their small items on display. Everyone gained new insight into the local history and the textile industry through this small symposium.

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Author: Sheila Cliffe

Read other columns on kimono by the author.

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