Miyako hemp cloth Photo:Okinawa Convention&Visitors Bureau

Miyako hemp cloth Miyako jofu

The smooth texture of linen and a waxy luster
A delicate traditional textile from Okinawa


What is Miyako hemp cloth ?

Miyako Jofu is a textile produced in Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture. It is counted as one of the four major Japanese Jofus. It is the highest quality Aizome (Indigo dye) linen textile that has been designated as an important intangible cultural asset of Japan.
The characteristics of Miyako Jofu are the fine Kasuri pattern woven by the fine threads and the smooth and lustrous texture that has a waxy appearance. The fibers for the fine threads are pulled out from the Choma (ramie) one by one by hand so the textile woven with these threads has a good air permeability and is strong enough to last for three generations.
The Choma, which belongs to the Urticaceae family and is a perennial plant, naturally grows in Okinawa. It grows in approximately 40 days and can be harvested approx. 5 times a year. It is not rare to take a couple of years to finish a roll of textile from the stage of spinning threads. The warp threads are dyed with the Ryukyu Ai repeatedly using the Kukurizome (tie-dye) method. 1,120 or more threads are required for the warp. Weaving takes longer than 3 months and when the textile is woven, you can see the tortoise shell pattern or flower pattern emerging in the fine white Kasuri pattern. The Kinuta Uchi (hammering the cloth) is the final process, which gives Miyako Jofu its soft and lustrous texture.


Miyako hemp cloth - History Photo:Okinawa Convention&Visitors Bureau

It is believed that linen textiles using the Choma (ramie) have been produced in the region surrounding Miyakojima since the 15th century. When a Ryukyu ship full of gifts to the Ming Dynasty was about to sink due to the damage caused by a severe typhoon that hit the ship on its way, a man in Miyakojima dived into the sea and fixed the ship. Owing to the man’s bravery, the ship could sail safely and nobody was harmed. The Ryukyu King praised the man’s bravery and assigned him as the Toikiribozu (a funeral priest). The man’s wife was so pleased that she presented the linen textile to the Royal government. This is regarded as the beginning of Miyako Jofu. Miyako Jofu was dedicated to the Ryukyu Royal government for approximately 20 years after that.
After the Satsuma Domain started to rule Ryukyu in 1609, they introduced a poll tax from 1637. So, it became a duty of the Ryukyu women to produce Miyako Jofu and present the textile to the government. The textile was produced under the strict supervision of the officers and became well-known widely as Satsuma Jofu, a highest quality linen textile. When the poll tax was abolished, a textile union was formed to prevent the quality of the textile from deteriorating. They kept the quality of the textile as high as possible and the production peak came between the Taisho period (1912 – 1926) and the beginning of the Showa period (1926 – 1989). Production of the Miyako Jofu declined during World War II when Okinawa was governed by America. Currently, the people in Okinawa are giving high priority to develop successors who will carry on production of the textile using the traditional techniques.

General Production Process

Miyako hemp cloth - General Production Process Photo:Okinawa Convention&Visitors Bureau

  1. 1. Taking fiber from the Choma (ramie) Miyako Jofu uses the threads made from the Choma, which belongs to the Urticaceae family. The Choma is not strong in the wind so the plant is cultivated where there is less wind, for example, in the backyard of a house and without the use of chemical fertilizers. The Choma becomes taller than 150cm after about 40 days and then it is ready to be cropped. The plant should be cropped from just above the root and the leaves should be taken off. The surface bark of the stalk should be peeled off. Then, the inside of the stalk is scraped off using an abalone shell, leaving only fiber. This process is different than in other regions. The Choma can be cropped 4 – 5 times a year but the best crop is grown in the early summer between May and June. The fiber cropped in this period of the year is called the Urizunbu. The fiber is washed in water and dried in the shade.
  2. 2. The Oumi (or Bunmi) (making threads by hand) Fiber taken from the Choma is shredded by hand using nails and fingers to make fine threads. The warp and weft threads are both hand-spun. This process requires great patience. The warp threads are shredded to the thickness of human hair and twisted (not knotted) into one thread. Then the thread is twisted using a spinning wheel. The warp threads are made of two threads twisted into one thread. The weft threads are made of single threads twisted. It takes more than 3 months to spin enough threads for one roll of the textile. The Oumi is an important process that determines the texture of the textile.
  3. 3. Designing and Kasuri-jime (preventing dyeing) The cross Kasuri pattern, which is the characteristics of Miyako Jofu, is drawn on graph paper. The Kasuri pattern uses the Kukurizome (tie-dye) technique. After the Seikei (warping) and the length of threads have been sorted for one roll of textile, the threads are starched to prevent the patterns coming out of position. When the starch is dried, the places that should remain white are tied with cotton threads. The Kasuri patterns are minute so a machine to tie the threads is used. Cotton threads that tie the threads look like a mat so it is called the Kasuri Mushiro (a Kasuri mat). When all the places required to remain white are tied, the threads are washed to remove starch so the threads will be dyed evenly.
  4. 4. Dyeing the threads The Ryukyu Ai (Assam indigo) is cultivated in Izumi, Okinawa Mainland for Miyako Jofu. The mud-like Ryukyu Ai is put in a plastic container. Then, the caustic soda as the alkaline substance and the Awamori (Okinawan liquor) or brown cane sugar are mixed in the Ryukyu Ai. The mixture has to be mixed well and should be left for 1 to 2 weeks. The mixture has to be stirred daily during that time. When the mixture is fermented, it produces a foam called the Ai no hana (flower of Indigo). The Kasuri Mushiro and the plain Jiito are put in this liquid dye. The Ai (indigo) becomes oxidized when it is exposed to air and the color emerges. For this reason, the threads are soaked and then taken out so that they are exposed to air repeatedly. After being soaked in the liquid dye, the threads are wrung and put out in the sun to dry (4 – 5 hours). The process of soaking the threads in the liquid dye and taking them out to expose them to air has to be repeated approximately 20 times until the thread color becomes deep enough.
  5. 5. The Kari Osa Doshi (temporarily putting threads through reed) When the threads are dyed, the cotton threads that tied the threads are removed. The threads have to be washed thoroughly and dried. When the threads are dry, they are put through the temporary reed one by one in line with the design.
  6. 6. The Seishoku (weaving) The threads are wound after the Kari Osa Doshi and put through the Sokome (the eye of the heddle). After that, they are put through the Osa (reed) to complete the preparation. The weaver starts weaving slowly and carefully. The warp pattern is adjusted using a needle so that the fine Kasuri patterns do not appear in the wrong position. Even an experienced weaver can weave only 20cm or so a day.
  7. 7. The Kinuta Uchi (hammering the cloth) The woven textile is washed and dried in the shade. When it is dry, both sides of the textile are starched using the starch from waste potatoes. The textile is folded to a small size and a cloth is spread over a wooden (barked tree) stand and the folded textile is hammered for about 3 hours using a wooden hammer made from Distylium racemosum which is as heavy as 4kg. When the textile is hammered evenly and thoroughly, the lustrous and smooth wax-like texture is created.

Where to Buy & More Information

Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum

Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum

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