Kyo embroidery Kyo nui
Exquisite embroidery born from Kyoto's elegant culture
Japanese culture and beauty expressed in this rich and lustrous craft
What is Kyo embroidery ?
Kyo-nui is traditional embroidery produced in Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture. This exquisite and graceful embroidery, reflecting the genteel culture of Kyoto, requires the highest level and most meticulous skills.
Kyo-nui is distinguished by its pursuit of absolute perfection and its free use of costly silk, gold, and silver threads, all worked with as many as 30 different techniques. Kyo-nui adorns mainly kimono, but a wide range of small to large items are also embroidered such as purses, bags, and shawls, and even heavy curtains and drapes. The color range is especially enormous with an array of some 2,000 shades, although a typical kimono will limit itself to a mere 20 to 30 colors depending on the design. France also has a thriving embroidery culture similar to Kyoto, but the French-style embroiderers use one predominant hand, whereas in Kyo-nui both hands are used to freely work the fabric from above and below, enabling exquisite artistic expression. In the Edo period (1603-1868), with increasing exports of Kyo-nui products, it achieved great popularity overseas and came to be known as an icon of elegant Japanese expression. Kyo-nui, with its roots in the Heian period (794-1192), still fascinates present-day people as a traditional craft, and a distillation of the essential beauty of Japanese culture.
It is considered that the origins of Japanese embroidery date back some 1,400 years to the Asuka period. At that time, embroidery was mainly found on Buddhist images, which made them extremely valuable. In the Heian period (794-1192), aristocrats in the capital city Kyoto started wearing embroidered garments, and in the Imperial Court, a department titled “Oribe no Tsukasa” was established to deal with kimono and the weaving and dying of fabrics; this encouraged the remarkable development of embroidery techniques in the Kyoto area.
Kyo-nui was applied in many different ways, such as decoration on the gorgeous layered kimono worn by court ladies or on the sumptuous costumes of Noh theater. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603), Kyo-nui appeared not only on the robes of Imperial Court nobles, but also the samurai and their ladies’ short-sleeve kosode kimono; gradually the range and number of items being embroidered was increasing.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), as a reflection of the incredible wealth of merchant classes, designs applying embroidery to the whole of a kosode came into vogue; it was truly the high watermark of embroidery culture. In recent years, Kyo-nui is increasingly found on kimono accessories, obi sashes, and interior items; this opulent embroidery work finds itself much in keeping with modern times.
General Production Process
- 1. Drawing a Design
The design to be embroidered is drawn in pencil or sumi ink on paper. The design pattern book covers a broad range from very classical to modern contemporary or a design maybe an original made by just one workshop.
- 2. Copying onto the Fabric The design is copied by shining a light through a glass sheet and drawing onto the material; more recently silk-screen techniques have been applied. The lines of the design soon fade away in the course of the embroidering
- 3. Color Scheme Embroidery threads and colors are selected according to the design. It is said there are 2,000 types of Kyo-nui threads, and the color palette and taste differs depending on the workshop; therefore, each workshop dyes their own threads. The array of color mixes is virtually infinite allowing simply stunning designs to be created. For a typical color scheme, 20 to 30 different shades are used for a kimono, and the final color selection is left to the eye of the artisan; it is even said by experienced artisans that the threads call out and speak to them, guide them in the choice of shades and colors. Such skills rely on years of experience and intuition.
- 4. Setting Fabric on a Frame
A large piece of fabric with the drawn design is set on a frame and stretched with wooden rods; it is important to get the tension right and not to warp the fabric. When embroidering relatively small items such as family crests on a kimono, a small frame is used.
Next, using a special tool, embroidery threads are twisted; this is a characteristic feature of Kyo-nui, which gives strength to the threads and creates uneven surfaces, resulting in the prismatic play of light and shade and giving further depth to the rich colors. At the same time, light-catching sheens are created; this process is essential to ensure the exquisite expression of Kyo-nui.
- 5. Embroidery The needles used for embroidery are handmade with more than ten different types being commonly used. Currently the only company producing such needles is located in Hiroshima Prefecture and consequently these needles are much valued by the artisans. There are about 15 basic Kyo-nui stitching techniques, but if fine stitching methods are also included, the total reaches about 150 or so. Originally, Kyo-nui embroidery work was divided according to the stitching techniques; however, with the changing times, this no longer happens, and at present, each workshop pursues their own stitching styles and color palette to create their own original and splendid embroidered world.
- 6. Finishing To finish the piece, the reverse side of the embroidered fabric receives a light glue wash to reinforce the overall embroidery and give more body to its beautiful appearance.
Where to Buy & More Information
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts
ClosedDecember 29 to January 3
Business Hours9am to 5pm