Ancient Crafts: Explore the Art of Silk in Tochigi Prefecture

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Photo by Lori Ono

Through the window, the weavers are silhouetted as they lean slightly forward into the frames of their looms. Inside, I hear the rattle of the shuttles moving back and forth before I see them: four women concentrating on their work. A belt fastened around their lower back connects to the loom, creating the tension that holds the warp, or vertical threads, straight. Another strap, looped around their right foot, moves the heddles that hold the strings up and down after each pass of the shuttle. Thread by thread, cloth emerges.

“Many kimono lovers long for yuki tsumugi (hand-woven silk) understated colors,” says Kazuhiko Soutome, the director of the Tochigi Prefectural Industrial Technology Center.

Established by Tochigi’s prefectural government 50 years ago, the center teaches new generations a craft practiced here for more than 1,000 years. On a raised tatami platform, Hitomi Oota, a teacher at the center, demonstrates how to pull a single strand of silk from the flossy fibre and apply the slightest bit of saliva to the new section before letting it fall into the bucket in front of her.

Local farmers originally fashioned work clothes from damaged silk worm cocoons — something that would otherwise be considered waste — and found the lightweight material to be surprisingly sturdy and insulating. “It lasts for three generations,” Takeji Okuzawa, the director of the Tsumugi Fabric Museum, tells me during a visit. None of the buildings surrounding us are older than the Meiji period and all are dedicated in some way to the local craft.

During lunch at Ichinokura, I watch the café’s manager, Kimiko Suzuki, measure out bocchi (flossy silk) for the spinners. Each bag contains about seven bocchi, or enough for one kimono. Yuki tsumugi tends to be slightly rough to the touch as it is made from a single untwisted thread. Regular silk, made from five separate strands, is by contrast very smooth and shiny.

“After three generations, the roughness disappears,” says Naoyuki Akaishi, a staff member at Omoigawazakura, a weaving house famous for its pale pink silk made from the bark of a local cherry tree.

Later at the Gallery of Traditional Arts & Crafts in Yuki City, Akemi Nomura attaches me to a jibata (back-tension loom) before teaching me the basics. An intricate dance of arms and legs, it feels miraculous when the first strip of color silk emerges. It’s no wonder each part of the process requires three to eight years of study before beginning to practice. “Complex patterns can take more than a year from start to finish,” says Nobuko Suto, owner of another yuki tsumugi workshop, another local weaving house. “As each one is crafted by hand and often made to order.”

They can also be expensive. A single color kimono costs roughly ¥1,000,000 (roughly US$8,800), while a complicated pattern in multiple colors runs upwards of ¥4,000,000.

At the Oyama Honba Yuki Tsumugi Craft Museum, experienced kitsuke (kimono dressing) staff wrap a rented kimono around me in preparation for a stroll about town. I finger the shiny obijime (silk rope) tied around the center of my obi that holds everything in place. Handmade at nearby Mamada Himo, it is another practical — yet inspiringly beautiful — art form. The multi-colored bracelet I made there yesterday shines on my wrist as I head out.

I stroll up the zelkova and gingko tree-lined road to Suga Shrine feeling cozy despite a brisk wind. The cloth is indeed lightweight and warm. Even as I settle in at the soba shop Syourin to carefully enjoy another local specialty, kaiun (lucky road) udon, I feel like a work of art.

(All photographs by Lori Ono)

Getting There

From Tokyo: Take the Tohoku shinkansen to Oyama station and then call ahead for workshops at Mamada Himo, the Gallery of Traditional Arts & Crafts in Yuki City and the Tsumugi Fabric Museum (Japanese). Reservations are recommended for kimono rental from the Oyama Honba Yuki Tsumugi Craft Museum (Japanese).

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