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Tsumugi Silk: Poor Man's Fabric Turned Luxury Folkcraft

Weaving Okinawa
Tsumugi Silk: Poor Man's Fabric Turned Luxury Folkcraft

Tsumugi silk is a fabric that is the result of a labor-intensive artistic weaving method, and is prized for its supple softness and unique designs. Vicki Beyer introduces two locations where it is still being produced using traditional methods: the Okinawa island of Kumejima and the Ibaraki town of Yuki.

Silk fabric was introduced to Japan from China in the third century. Roughly a century later the Japanese were raising their own silkworms and weaving their own silk. While silkworms were cultivated by many farming families over the centuries as an item of trade, commoners were forbidden to wear the soft, supple cloth until the middle of the nineteenth century. Its use was strictly limited to Japan’s upper classes.

There was one exception to this rule: tsumugi silk.

Tsumugi silk has been referred to as silk homespun because of its distinctive production method and resulting texture. Regular long fiber silk is produced by unraveling the fine, long filaments from boiled silkworm cocoons and reeling them into silk yarn, which is then woven into cloth. Tsumugi silk begins from damaged or broken cocoons, which cannot be unraveled and are therefore essentially a waste product. The broken cocoons are boiled and crushed into a kind of floss resembling cotton puffs. Yarn is then hand-spun out of this floss in the same way it would be spun from other short-staple fibers, like cotton or wool.

A Beauty Formed from "Flaws"

A Beauty Formed from "Flaws"

Yarn produced as homespun has slubs that often show up in the cloth woven from them.

Silk yarn produced this way tends to have slubs, thickened areas where the short staple fibers are joined together by hand in the spinning process. These slubs show up as occasional slight thicknesses in the ultimately woven cloth. This may have been why tsumugi silk was historically acceptable for use by commoners and less acceptable for use by the upper classes.

In modern times, these “flaws” are regarded as “features” and tsumugi silk is highly regarded as the fabric to use for garments when the wearer wishes to express his or her individuality, particularly in informal or less ceremonial settings.

Kasuri-dyed yarn before being woven into fabric

Often in producing tsumugi silk, the yarn is dyed before being woven into cloth. Dying yarn at intervals along its length to produce a pattern once the cloth has been woven, a method known as kasuri, is employed in the production of many of Japan’s textiles.

Over the centuries tsumugi silk has been produced in most regions of Japan. As a result of modernization, however, the labor-intensive folkcraft has died out in many areas. Two places well-known today for continuing to produce tsumugi silk using traditional methods are the Okinawa island of Kumejima and the Ibaraki town of Yuki.

Kumejima Tsumugi

Kumejima Tsumugi

A coaster woven from tsumugi silk yarn, still on the loom. The visible pattern was created by the way in which the warp yarn was dyed before the weaving began.

Kumejima is a small island about 100 kilometers west of the main island of Okinawa. Tsumugi silk production began here in the second half of the fifteenth century. This method of using otherwise useless silk cocoons was introduced from China as part of the trade between China and Okinawa.

Kumejima Tsumugi has enjoyed a revival over the past few decades, as young Okinawans have taken up the challenge of becoming tsumugi artisans. Traditionally, specialized artisans handled each of the various stages of tsumugi production: preparing the cocoons, spinning the yarn, producing natural dyes from local plants, dyeing yarn, and weaving cloth. Today’s artisans, however, learn all stages of the production process. Each bolt of Kumejima Tsumugi is designed and produced by a single artisan, a project that takes nearly a year. Just hand-spinning enough yarn for a bolt of cloth takes about three months. Little wonder Kumejima Tsumugi is now a luxury product!

Visitors can learn more at Tsumugi Weaving Pavilion, which has workshops on the eastern side of Kumejima island. The pavilion has videos and displays on the process of tsumugi production as well as a shop with various items made from tsumugi for sale. There are opportunities to experience some stages of the production process. In an hour, visitors can have the experience of tie-dyeing a cotton bandana using traditional vegetable dyes (¥2,400). In about 30 minutes, it is possible to sit at a traditional loom and weave a coaster using tsumugi yarn (¥2,200).

Yuki Tsumugi

Yuki Tsumugi

Museum display of a weaver using a back loom to produce Yuki Tsumugi silk.

Another area where tsumugi production is thriving is the town of Yuki, in Ibaraki Prefecture (about 100 km northeast of Tokyo). While some people maintain that tsumugi silk has been produced here for nearly 2,000 years, it seems most likely that tsumugi production began in Yuki around the same time as in Kumejima. The name Yuki Tsumugi came into use in the early seventeenth century.

The Yuki Tsumugi production method was recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. When it is woven in the most traditional way, a back loom is used. This is a slow way to weave, but the end result is fabric that is soft and durable, yet wrinkle resistant. It is said to get softer as the fabric ages.

Inside the kominka gallery at Tsumugi no Yakata are displays of a wide variety of Yuki Tsumugi silk.

Tsumugi no Yakata in Yuki is a complex of buildings, most dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, devoted to promoting production and appreciation of Yuki Tsumugi. Among the buildings are workshops dedicated to various stages of tsumugi production (there is a training course available for aspiring artisans), a small museum, a gallery displaying bolts of yuki tsumugi in a wide variety of colors, designs and fabric weights, and, of course, a shop. The complex is open Thursday through Monday 10:00 to 16:00 (17:00 on weekends and public holidays).

Similar to Kumejima’s Pavilion, visitors can experience either the dyeing or weaving stages of production. Weaving a coaster takes about 30 minutes and costs ¥2,200. There are several different items visitors can choose from for the dyeing experience; prices vary.

Tsumugi silk has become a luxury folkcraft item that is highly prized by many for its color, texture and durability. A close examination of the way it is produced and the quality of the finished product reveals why.