The Tango area, on the northern tip of Kyoto, has thrived as a producer of luxury silk fabrics for 1300 years. The land is known for producing “Tango chirimen”, a silk crepe fabric that is delicately textured. Celebrating its 300-year anniversary this year, Tango’s silk industry has kept the traditional craftsmanship alive throughout the years while innovating itself continuously to adapt to the times.
Kimono researcher, Sheila Cliffe is among those who have taken a keen interest in Tango chirimen. Named the ambassador for the Tango Textile Industrial Association this year, Cliffe continues to spread the charms of Tango chirimen across Japan and the world. We visited unique Tango chirimen factories with Cliffe.
Traditional white silk fabric production carried on since the post-war period
During the economic boom of the 1960s, the Tango region was filled with the loud sounds of the looms at work. In particular, Amino was the area where machine weaving was the most active.
Fast forward to today; only a few of these weaving houses are still active in the district. Even so, the town greets its visitors with the unique sounds of weaving heard from the rows of traditional buildings. Guided by the pleasant sound, we arrived at Tayuh, a weaving factory established in 1949.
“I see Tango chirimen as the pillar of the kimono industry,” Cliffe said. “The foundation of kimono is the white silk fabric, most of which is produced in Tango. Tayuh has maintained its high standards since the post-war period and continues to produce high-quality fabrics,” she added.
Tayuh’s president Hayato Tamoi welcomed us to the factory and showed us around the vast production base. “Shibo, or soft puckering on the surface, is a unique characteristic of Tango chirimen. Shibo is created by weaving warp threads with weft threads that have been twisted around 3000 times,” he noted. “From twisting the threads to weaving, we do everything in-house at Tayuh.”
Although it looks like most of the processes can be operated by machines, human hands are required for various steps. For example, the first step (called “itokuri”), winding raw silk threads onto a frame under proper tension, can only be achieved by craftsmen with years of experience and sensitive hands. Artisans also carefully monitor to make sure the threads don’t get tangled or torn apart while being twisted or woven.
Recently, Tayuh has been receiving textile orders from companies beyond the kimono industry, such as foreign interior design brands and major fashion houses. “We are seeing less demand for white silk textile as less people wear kimono nowadays. I hope these techniques will be used in new fields, carrying on one of Japan’s proud traditions,” Cliffe said. She hopes that the long-running textile house will continue to thrive in the new era.
Weaving silk threads with ancient Japanese techniques
The town of Yosano, located south-east of Kyotango city in Kyoto, is a beautiful town surrounded by abundant nature. Here, unique silk textiles are created by Tokizo Sakitsu and his wife at a traditional-style house.
“He weaves very rare silk textiles,” Cliffe said with admiration. Indeed, this factory is one of around three in Japan that produces fabrics using a method called “zuridashi-tsumugi”, spinning threads from cocoons dyed with plants. Usually, thread and textiles are produced first and then dyed, but this method dyes the cocoons first and then thread is spun from them. All of the steps are completed by hand, requiring around 20 days to spin enough thread for one kimono.
“Because he uses colors derived from plant sources, all the threads have unique shades,” Cliffe said. “Hand-spinning the threads gives unique warmth and color to the fabrics. His textiles have a charm that cannot be reproduced by machines and chemicals,” she added. In addition to spinning the threads, hand-weaving adds another 20 days to Tokizo’s meticulous production process.
112 Amino-cho Asamogawa, Kyotango, Kyoto
1147-2 Ushirono, Yosano-cho, Yosa-gun, Kyoto
Born in 1961, Sheila Cliffe is a kimono researcher from the UK. Mesmerized by kimono during her visit to Japan in 1985, Cliffe moved to Japan and currently teaches kimono culture at Jumonji Gakuen Women’s University. As the ambassador for the Tango Textile Industrial Association, Cliffe has been promoting Tango chirimen across Japan and the world.
Photography by Saori Fushimi