Oitama tsumugi silk Oitama tsumugi
One for all and all for one, a unique local industry
Beautiful plain elegant fabrics and three distinct regional techniques
Oitama Tsumugi is a fabric produced in the Yonezawa, Hakutaka and Nagai regions of Oitama in south Yamagata Prefecture. Oitama is well-known as a ramie fiber producing region with ramie fiber the raw material of ramie, a linen-like fabric, being shipped since the very beginning of the Edo period (1603 – 1868); by the end of the Edo period efforts were being made to establish self-sufficient fabric production. Ramie came to be replaced by sericulture using the local mulberry, and the region changed to silk fabric production which then developed as the local craft industry.
The interesting characteristic of Oitama Tsumugi is that the techniques and the successful methods used in Yonezawa, Hakutaka and Nagai are all quite different.
Yonezawa is known for Kusakizome Tsumugi (vegetable dying) and Benibanazome Tsumugi (mainly safflower dying) using natural dyes including safflower (the prefectural flower of Yamagata), indigo and Kariyasu (miscanthus tinctorius).
Hakutaka has the rare Itajime (plate-resist) dying technique which can only be found in Hakutaka in Japan. Hakutaka also has Yokoso Kasuri, Tateyoko Heiyo Kasuri and Yoneryu Kasuri that was strongly influenced by the fabric produced in Ryukyu (Okinawa).
As can be seen each region has quite different production processes but they all use the Sakizome (dye before weaving) method and the labor intensive Hiraori method that takes more time to weave.
Farmers in Yonezawa were already cultivating ramie and safflower in the early Edo period. In 1601, Kagekatsu Uesugi, the lord of the Yonezawa domain encouraged his people to cultivate these plants as the special products of the region. Ramie and safflower were shipped to Echigo (presently Niigata) and other places as raw materials for producing fabrics. Then, in the mid-Edo period in 1776 Yozan Uesugi (9th lord of the Yonezawa domain) started encouraging self-sufficient fabric production, by inviting artisans from Echigo to Yonezawa to explore the possibilities of starting a local industry and to teach the weaving techniques to the local women.
Linen fabric using ramie was produced in the beginning, but the reformation of the domain by Yozan Uesugi encouraged more sericulture, and production gradually shifted to silk fabrics. Furthermore, in the Meiji period, silk fabric production spread to the nearby regions of Hakutaka and Nagai which also had successful sericulture. The high level techniques of making kasuri were introduced and taught in these regions. Yoneryu Kasuri and Itajime Kogasuri became well known throughout Japan between the Taisho period and the early Showa period. The movement to merge these three regions and unify their fabric production under the single name of Oitama Tsumugi occurred in 1976. Since then, the Kusakizome of Yonezawa, the Yokoso Kasuri and Tateyoko Heiyo Kasuri of Nagai, and the Itajime Kogasuri of Hakutaka have been known as Oitama Tsumugi.
General Production Process
- Yonezawa Tsumugi Kusakizome
- 1. Picking safflowers Safflower blooms in the hot summer season and has bright yellow flowers similar to thistle, but between the beginning of July and mid-July the flowers become reddish. They are then picked in the early morning when the thorns are softened by the morning dew.
- 2. Kneading in water
Flower petals picked in the morning change their color from yellow to orange when they are kneaded in water. The yellow pigment of safflower dissolves and is easily isolated in water, while the red pigment is not so water soluble and tends to remain in the petal.
- 3. Fermentation
Drying and fermenting the petals increases the red pigment by about ten times, and crushing them in a mortar and pestle intensifies the color even more.
- 4. Producing Benihana Mochi (safflower cakes)
The safflower petals are pounded to make Benimochi (safflower cakes) which are then dried for easier transportation and also ease of adjusting the amount of dye to control the depth of color.
- 5. Dissolving of pigment and dying
The safflower cakes are soaked in lye to dissolve the pigment. Threads are added to the mix and are dyed an orange color, which with the addition of acid changes to bright red; this process is repeated until the desired shade is attained.
- Hakutaka Tsumugi & Itajime Kogasuri
- 1. Ito tori (reeling silk from the cocoons) The warp threads and the weft threads are prepared by teasing out fibers from the boiled cocoons and hand winding them to give the threads a natural texture.
- 2. Kasuri Ita Maki (winding the threads around a special board)
For the Itajime dying method, the warp and weft threads are wound around special boards with fine grooves carved in accordance with the Kasuri patterns. Any discrepancy in the tension of the threads will affect the positions of the Kasuri patterns making this an important process that demands great care and concentration.
- 3. Dying the threads
About ten boards with wound threads are stacked one on top of the other and temporarily tightened at the top and the bottom. Hot water is poured over the boards to fuse the boards and the threads, followed by pouring natural dye over them. When the boards are removed, the threads are dyed with the same patterns as the carved grooves on the boards.
- 4. Weaving
The dyed threads are left to dry and then woven by adjusting the threads so the patterns on the warp threads and the weft threads are in their correct positions. Weaving requires great concentration and even a skilled weaver cannot weave more than 30cm a day; this precise and detailed work produces the distinctively delicate patterns of Itajime Kasuri.
Where to Buy & More Information
Yonezawa Orimono Rekishi Shiryokan