This summer I spent several weeks in Japan. The first week was spent on the island of Amami where I learned about the fabric traditions of the island as part of a Japanese television show. Amami Oshima is located in Kagoshima prefecture and is 2.5 hours by plane from Tokyo. Amami, like Okinawa, was once part of the Ryukyu kingdom and developed its own unique culture and textile tradition.
This fabric in the process of being woven is Amami Oshima Tsumugi. It has been woven on Amami for generations and its production is extremely technical and time consuming, but the final product is a strong and durable silk fabric. Many people told me that the fabric can often be worn by three generations being passed from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter.
Amami Oshima Tsumugi is a tabby woven, double ikat fabric. In this technique both the warp and weft threads are dyed before being placed on the loom. The designs are first sketched, the sketch helps the first set of weavers know where to bind the threads so that the final product will create the desired design. This binding is done on a large sturdy loom and the warp and weft threads are sent to the dyers in dense panels of bound silk threads measuring from between 2″x 14″ to 20″x 20″. Subsequently the threads will be dyed before being picked loose from their panels and placed on the loom for their final weaving.
Above you can see a weaver adjusting individual threads with a sturdy needle. The design becomes obscured by the weaving process and needs to be lined up after every inch of weaving.
Below you can see that these looms have two warps. One solid black warp is fixed on the loom by being wound around the warp beam, but the second warp is tied as it needs to be tensioned and adjusted after the weaver completes about 20cm of fabric. Due to the complexity of its weaving it takes a weaver at least 6 months of full time weaving to produce one bolt of fabric. This accounts for its cost of $15,000-$30,000 per bolt.
I also spent several days with the Kanai family at their dye workshop.
Yukihito Kanai stands between two of his friends who also work at the dye shop. Yukihito learned the traditional process of dyeing from his father.
The silk treads are first soaked in a dye made from boiling wood chips from sharimbai, or Japanese hawthorne, which is a native evergreen shrub. After the chips have been soaked and boiled for several days the resulting liquid produces a dark maroon dye.
The thread is washed in the sharimbai dye mixed with lime many times to produce the desired color. When the threads are washed in the iron rich mud of the island a chemical reaction turns the maroon thread a deep lustrous black.
Above you can see the deep black warp threads. Below you can see the panels of bound silk threads which after dying, picking loose, and weaving will produce the desired design. These panels have been dyed with indigo.
Yukihito continues the tradition of dying silk for Amami Oshima Tsumugi, but he also expands the dying and traditional patters to create new products. This tenugui has been screen printed with a traditional pattern representing the village where the Kanai family live. He dyes these with indigo, sharimbai, and mud.
The Kanai family was extremely hospitable and welcomed me to a huge family dinner. A family friend and local fisherman brought amazing fish which was used to make sashimi. Okasan is an exceptional cook, who must have made 20 dishes for dinner. She also used the fish bones to make rich miso soup the next day.
I also had the opportunity to visit a woman who manages and runs a beautiful museum dedicated to Amami Oshima Tsumugi. The museum takes up the top floor of the lovely ocean side Thida Moon Hotel. Her collection is amazing and it is easy to see her passion for teaching others about Amami Oshima Tsumugi. She was a phenomenal host and treated me to an extraordinary dinner made by her and some of the other weavers from the island.
Above is an image from the TV show, and below is a piece of Amami Oshima Tsumugi I was given by the members of a small weaving workshop I visited.