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Kyoto's 1,000-Year-Old Hand Embroidery

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Gauzy clouds float by as two cranes with glossy white feathers do a delighted dance across a rich expanse of silk, each feather rendered in exquisite detail, somehow expressing their joy and grace through silken thread. Painstakingly stitched by hand, this is Kyo-nui, or Kyoto hand embroidery, a beautiful Japanese textile tradition with a long and rich background that stretches back more than 1,000 years to the Asuka Period (592-710).

Embroidery was first seen in Japan in conjunction with Buddhism that came from China. Embroideries of the time were of religious icons or used to decorate religious items. By the Heian Period (794-1185), the tradition had moved into the court, with twelve-layered ceremonial kimono (juni-hitoe) being finalized with Kyo-nui. It was even being applied to warrior armor later in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

Eventually, in the late 16th century, during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603) when culture was flourishing splendidly, embroidery was often applied to quilted silk garments, and developed even more. These fine robes took the work of dozens to even hundreds of craftspeople, each with their own stitching specialty, for a single garment.

It was also around the same time that embroidery came into vogue with the general population. In addition to the decoration of kimono and obi (the wide sash used to tie a kimono), Kyo-nui has traditionally been used to decorate the costumes of the actors of traditional Japanese performing arts such as Noh and Kyogen. Scenes from nature are the most common subjects: flowers, plants, animals, insects and clouds.

Kyoto embroidery lives on at Nakamura Shishuu (Nakamura Embroidery), a Kyo-nui concern founded in 1921, where artisans still use traditional methods, hand-embroidering with silk on silk using hand-forged needles made in Hiroshima.

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