Shinshu tsumugi silk Shinshu tsumugi
Hand drawn and spun, hand dyed and woven
Truly natural textiles of unsurpassed beauty and elegance
Shinshu Tsumugi is a kind of silk fabric also known as pongee and produced throughout Nagano Prefecture. Each region in the prefecture has their own production styles and techniques and the specific fabric name differs depending on the the region. Being produced over such a wide area, the many different types of Shinshu Tsumugi have their own unique character.
Shinshu Tsumugi are known for their superb color dyeing and quietly restrained silk sheen. The raw materials are hand-spun threads from raw silk, wild silk, dupion silk, and floss silk. The traditional dyeing techniques are centuries old and by using natural plant dyes, it is said that the same dye shades will never ever be created twice; every single time is different. Pongee is either plain colored or pattern weave; the main patterns are stripes, checks, and splashes. Since every roll of kimono cloth is hand-woven from dyed threads, no two pieces even with the same pattern will ever be identical. Hand weaving gives a warmth and simplicity and adds distinctive texture to the fabric. Sometimes the green cocoons of Japanese oak silkmoths are used as the raw material. Wild oak silk kimonos are very lightweight and so durable, they are often passed down three generations: from grandparents to parents, and onto grandchildren.
The origins of Shinshu Tsumugi are found in ashiginu silk cloth woven in the Nara period (710-794). From olden times, the Shinshu region once known as the “silkworm province” has been famous for its thriving sericulture.
Early in the Edo period (1603-1868), all the Shinshu domains encouraged sericulture, and production of woven fabric started as a sideline for farmers. Using threads hand-spun from raw or floss silk, the weaving of pongee began, and within a short time the entire region flourished as a pongee production center. Every year large quantities of pongee were dispatched to Kyoto and at the same time, thanks to its ideal climate and an abundance of trees and plants Shinshu became the mainstay of the plant dyeing which spread throughout the region. By the middle of the Showa period (1926-1989), kimono textile production had declined in part due to the popularity of Western style clothing; despite such setbacks the techniques of Shinshu Tsumugi continued to be handed down in the region.
After World War II, Nagano Prefecture implemented successful measures to support and promote the pongee textile industry, and once again the production of Shinshu Tsumugi flourished throughout the whole of Nagano Prefecture. Nowadays, Shinshu Tsumugi has a well-earned reputation as a luxury kimono textile and production now involves an integrated system covering every aspect from cocoon spinning through to the final woven fabric.
General Production Process
- 1. Cocoons and Degumming of Silk
From old times, cocoon cooking and degumming of raw silk have been carried out using a clarified brew of straw ash lye and water. The degumming process removes sericin, a water-soluble protein, which sticks the cocoon threads together. The use of lye enables potassium or other minerals in straw ash to adsorb onto the fibers, giving an elegant sheen and resilience to the woven fabrics. This is an important process to improve the texture of pongee, and also helps create the beautiful rustling sound so characteristic of silk clothing.
- 2. Making Floss Silk
Floss silk is made by boiling cocoons for several hours and opening each one with the fingers to make a bag-like shape. Square-shaped floss silk is made by stretching a cocoon over a wooden frame. The quality of floss silk is determined by the selection and combination of different quality cocoons, and the value of hand-spun threads is dependent on the condition of the finished floss silk. Floss silk made from fresh cocoons is stretchy, and considered to be the best for floss silk pongee.
- 3. Hand-Spinning
Fibers are drawn by hand from floss silk, and spun threads are wound around a flyer type hand spinning machine. Since the thread is barely twisted, the finish is similar to a completely hand-spun thread. Hand-spun threads are characterized by their uneven thickness, and it is said the personality of the spinner can be felt in their spun thread. Wild silk threads made from natural cocoons is so valuable, it is known as the queen of fibers.
- 4. Dyeing
Threads are simmered in natural liquid dyes made from seasonally harvested trees, plants, nuts, or fruits. The use of natural plants allows dyeing in harmony with the seasons. The same dye will be used many times as the dyeing and drying process is repeated to attain darker and deeper shades and hues. Colors may also be blended by adding different dyes; a task requiring years of practice and much skill.
Unlike other production areas, the Shinshu region has no professional dye works, and the dyeing process is carried out at individual textile factories or workshops by dyers using the traditional techniques handed down through the generations. This results in truly unique colors and a high degree of artistic freedom for the dyers and weavers.
- 5. Weaving
Shinshu Tsumugi is hand-woven on a tall loom. The weaver steps on a wooden pedal to open the warp, and with one hand throws a shuttle called hi across the loom, and then catches it with their other hand, steps on the wooden pedal to close the warp and tamps down the thread with a reed. Because of the repetitive nature of working on a loom the skilled artisan soon sets up their own pleasant and soothing rhythm, reverberating through the workshop. Weaving with a hand-thrown shuttle gives a tight woven fabric, ideal for a beautifully fitted kimono.