Kubota Orimono

Famous Treasure from Amami-Oshima
– Oshima Tsumugi weaving hopes for connections

☆Honba Oshima Tsumugi, a silk woven fabric born on an island in the deep south of Japan

Amami Oshima, where different cultures have intermingled since ancient times ■Amami Oshima, where different cultures have intermingled since ancient times
Tatsugo, a traditional Oshima Tsumugi pattern, which is based on a cycad-leaf motif ■Tatsugo, a traditional Oshima Tsumugi pattern, which is based on a cycad-leaf motif

“Swish, clunk, swish, clunk, clunk.” Around 5:00 a.m., as the light slowly starts to appear in the sky, the pleasant sounds of weaving looms can be heard echoing throughout the island. Pre-dyed warp and weft threads interlock with fine precision, weaving beautiful patterns that will be transformed into kimono coveted by people all over Japan, and traveled across the sea.

The island of Amami-Oshima is located some 350 km from Kagoshima, a city that overlooks the majestic Sakurajima Island. Since ancient times, Amami-Oshima has been a center of maritime trade, where a variety of cultures intermingled. It is here that Honba Oshima Tsumugi, the finest masterpiece of silk woven fabric, was born.

☆Repaying a Debt of Gratitude to Oshima Tsumugi

The history of silk weaving on Amami Oshima dates back to around 700 AD. The Documented Offerings of Tōdaiji Temple and Shōsōin from the eighth century contain entries of “brown tsumugi from the southern isles” being offered, and the Nanto Zatsuwa, an informative book about the islands in Japan’s south written in the mid-1800s, in Japan’s Edo Period, records details about the island’s silk-weaving industry, from its sericulture to the tekukuri kasuri patterns and unique dyeing methods it employed. Given the historical background, in which the Satsuma Clan that ruled the region had a monopoly on Oshima Tsumugi textiles, offering them as tributes to the Edo Shogunate, it is easy to imagine that, even in those long-ago times, Oshima Tsumugi was of an astonishingly high quality.

Honba Oshima Tsumugi has been described as one of the world’s three great woven textiles, along with Gobelins tapestry and Persian carpet. What is its true appeal that has captivated so many?
“In terms of the number of people involved in its production, the time taken, and the level of skill required, there is no other textile like it anywhere in the world,” explains Mr. Shigeru Kubota, President of Kubota Orimono Co., Ltd. This was the first thing we heard from Mr. Kubota, who has been to Japan’s textile production regions, and traveled the world to see its textiles, including those in China, Indonesia, and Laos.

Mr. Shigeru Kubota, President of Kubota Orimono Co., Ltd. Mr. Shigeru Kubota, President of Kubota Orimono Co., Ltd. ■Mr. Shigeru Kubota, President of Kubota Orimono Co., Ltd.
At Kubota Orimono, a diverse range of products made with Honba Oshima Tsumugi is on display. ■At Kubota Orimono, a diverse range of products made with Honba Oshima Tsumugi is on display.

He told us that, because many families on Amami Oshima made their living weaving Oshima Tsumugi, many of the island’s natives feel a debt of gratitude to the textile. Mr. Kubota is one of those people. Production volumes of Oshima Tsumugi had fallen to just 3% of its peak, and Mr. Kubota, determined to do something to turn the situation around, established his company, Kubota Orimono, in the city of Kagoshima. “Traditional industries are like countries that close themselves off from the rest of the world. The artisans’ tendency is to protect their skills, but I believe that tradition (that is, upholding) and innovation (that is, attacking) are two sides of the same coin,” says Mr. Kubota. At Kubota Orimono, the pursuit of tradition (upholding) includes ways of evolving Oshima Tsumugi textiles for use in kimono, such as the development of 15-maruki* fabric and the acquisition of a patent for its production method. At the same time, the company also pursues innovation (attacking) through the adaption of Oshima Tsumugi fabric for Western-style clothing, accessories, and interior décor items. “We make subtle changes in design and color to the old, while also seeking out new things. We want to bring diversity to our products, so they are not bound by stereotypes, while also retaining the essence of Oshima Tsumugi.”
(* “Maruki” is a unit for a certain number of kasuri threads. The higher the number of maruki, the finer and more delicate the pattern, which makes it more difficult to produce. Most Oshima Tsumugi patterns have a density of 7 or 9 maruki, and anything with a density of 12 maruki or more is treated as a luxury item.)

Two textile designs with a density of 15 maruki. The elaborate detail of the pattern is a wonder to behold. Two textile designs with a density of 15 maruki. The elaborate detail of the pattern is a wonder to behold. ■Two textile designs with a density of 15 maruki. The elaborate detail of the pattern is a wonder to behold.

☆Hopes for Connections, from Artisan to Artisan

The shimebata was invented by Nagae Iemon, an Oshima Tsumugi weaver. ■The shimebata was invented by Nagae Iemon, an Oshima Tsumugi weaver.

The process begins with the production of design sketches, before moving onto kasurijime (thread binding), dyeing, weaving, and final product inspection. Specialist artisans for each of the more than 30 processes involved work in a relay to create a single Oshima Tsumugi textile. These textiles could be described as the fruit of uncompromising time and effort. Recalling Mr. Kubota’s words, “Our textiles are full of soul, totally hand-made, taking over thirty artisans more than six months to produce,” we spoke to some of those artisans.

The most distinguishing feature of the Honba Oshima Tsumugi production process is its “twice-woven” aspect. The first weave, known as kasurijime, is a preliminary step done on a special apparatus called a shimebata. In this process, the silk threads are bound tightly with cotton thread to produce the kasuri threads. Kasurijime separates the parts of the kasuri thread that will be dyed from the parts that will not, which means that every single thread produced is unique. This task, which requires both strength and delicacy, is the job of Mr. Nishida, who has been doing it for 50 years. As he deftly operated the shimebata, he told us, “I don’t need to follow it with my eyes. I can tell how well the thread is bound by how it feels in my hands and by the sound that the loom makes.”

真剣な表情で、丁寧に色をのせていく田中さん With a determined expression, Mr. Tanaka carefully applies color to the threads. ■With a determined expression, Mr. Tanaka carefully applies color to the threads.

The final runners in this production relay, who take on the hopes of the nearly 30 artisans that have come before them, are the weavers. Ms. Shigenobu, a native of Amami-Oshima, takes on the extremely precise task of meticulously weaving together the kasuri threads, which have been colored one by one, to match the pattern chart. A veteran among veterans, Ms. Shigenobu can envisage the completed design just by looking at the chart. What is she thinking as she works on the fabric, deftly operating the loom with a “swish, clunk, swish, clunk, clunk?” “I grew up to the sound of the loom from when I was very small. It was like a lullaby to me. These days, the designs are very complex, making the work very hard, but I weave very carefully, imagining what kind of person will wear the finished product.” In her words, we could sense the truth of the mysterious warmth that can be felt from Honba Oshima Tsumugi. Even at Ms. Shigenobu’s skill level, there are some pieces that take several months to complete. Ms. Shigenobu’s heart as she enjoys the time and effort involved in her work, and the hopes of all of the artisans that have been imbued into the textiles, seems to give Honba Oshima Tsumugi a mystical power to move people’s hearts.

Ms. Shigenobu (in the background) quietly and steadily weaving in line with the pattern chart. Ms. Shigenobu (in the background) quietly and steadily weaving in line with the pattern chart. ■Ms. Shigenobu (in the background) quietly and steadily weaving in line with the pattern chart.

The hopes of dozens of people are linked together, woven into the single form of Honba Oshima Tsumugi. In an age improving efficiency seems to be the catch-cry of industry, what is the significance of hand-made?

The sincere hearts of the artisans as well as the time and effort required can be glimpsed in the finished product. There is a richness of spirit in the value that the Japanese people find in such time and effort when their thoughts turn to the artisans and their effort. Perhaps these traditional crafts, which are born of the unique aesthetic of the Japanese people, will give rise to something valuable, something that we have started to forget in this modern age.

Inspection of all fabrics ensures the quality of Oshima Tsumugi. ■Inspection of all fabrics ensures the quality of Oshima Tsumugi.