This year marks the 300th anniversary of “Tango chirimen”, a luxury silk crepe fabric that’s delicately textured. The Tango area on the northern tip of Kyoto prefecture is home to this special textile.
Kimono researcher, Sheila Cliffe is among those who have taken a keen interest in Tango chirimen. Named the ambassador for 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.
Developing designs in digital times
Besides “shibo”, delicate creases on the surface of Tango chirimen created by twisting the weft threads, one of the many charms of Tango chirimen is the wide variety of silk jacquard patterns.
Ebara, one of the factories Cliffe is paying close attention these days, is a fabric producer specializing in weaving patterned fabrics. Established in 1950, Ebara originally started as a producer of mongami, which are Jacquard cards used for weaving patterned textiles. The company began using looms in 1963 and started weaving their original fabrics in-house.
Mongami is a pattern-creating card with holes punched in it to indicate how the pattern will take shape. This is attached to a Jacquard loom, a machine that weaves patterned textiles. The machine controls and adjusts the needles connected to the warp and weft threads, weaving the patterns into the fabric. We asked Yasunori Yamamoto, an expert on mongami creation with 43 years of experience, to show us the production process.
Mongami production begins with plotting out the fabric design onto graph paper, with each grid representing one warp and weft thread. A great amount of focus and patience is a must for the artisan as he decides on the positioning of each thread and color in the grid one by one with a brush to recreate the designs. The colored parts are then transferred onto punch cards as holes.
Today, however, the process has been digitized. Patterns are plotted on a computer and the data can be sent to machines to produce punch cards. This greatly improves efficiency, giving artisans more time to respond to their clients’ requests and create fabrics with new patterns more easily.
Among many designs, Cliffe is particularly interested in “ryomen-ori”, a rare reversible fabric with different colors and patterns woven on each side. Creating mongami for ryomen-ori is a particularly complex process as patterns on both sides are plotted out on a single mongami. Such complex fabric was made possible through a combination of higher efficiency provided by digitalization and the in-depth knowledge of weaving that only experienced craftsmen such as Yamamoto possess.
Cliffe said she was amazed when she first saw a ryomen-ori textile. “You can pick and choose your favorite patterns for each side and have a kimono tailored,” Cliffe said. “I decided to have a little fun. I arranged the fabric so that the different sides appears next to each other on the kimono.”
“Ebara has innovative ideas for these traditional techniques. Its creations use modern colors rarely seen in Japanese traditional wear, as well as unique designs using western flowers as motifs,” Cliffe said. “I’m looking forward to seeing Ebara’s interesting new creations in the future,” Cliffe added with excitement.
Searching for unknown colors
The town of Tango overlooks the Japan Sea with its particular blue. There is an artisan residing in the town who recreates the same blue shade for dyeing kimono. Tomohisa Kobayashi came across a blue dye named “Tango Blue” four years ago and has since been working to master the color. Blue dyes are delicate and hard to use―the shade can fade easily in sunlight. Kobayashi has successfully managed to tweak the existing Tango Blue dye formula and create a dye that gives a long-lasting, pure blue color.
Highly skilled at gradation dyeing, Kobayashi works freehand to dye the white silk fabric with different shades of blue. The process cannot be paused midway. He works until he finishes dyeing a roll of cloth for kimono. “Focus is more important than anything else,” Kobayashi says. True to his word, the process requires an extremely high level of concentration―a slight shake of the hand can ruin the work.
“I admire his desire to create work that is revolutionary,” said Cliffe. New and exciting dyed works await as Kobayashi continues to test his limits with more complex colors and designs.
30-1 Jisanjo, Yosano-cho, Yosa-gun, Kyoto
2718-3 Amino-cho Amino, Kyotango, 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