Home > Highlighting JAPAN >Highlighting Japan January 2015>Japanese Textiles

Highlighting JAPAN

previous Next

Japanese Textiles

Kyoto-style hand embroidery

Cultural handcraft survives changing times

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 a thousand 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 sixteenth 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. Misuzu Goto, the third-generation head craftsperson at Nakamura Shishuu, explains that embroidery thread is typically made from twelve strands of silk, but the strands can be separated. An embroiderer looking for fine detail may use as few as two strands, each less than half the thickness of a strand of human hair.

“With this fine silk, you can create different tones of color gradations, allowing you to make the colors you want,” Goto says. “And not only can you produce fine or dense color, but complicated shades—like colored fall leaves—as well.”

Goto, who has been doing this for thirty-seven years, shows a bit of her own handiwork on the obi she’s wearing: various flowers and leaves just a few centimeters across. When asked how long something like that takes, she says “Two days.” A larger and more elaborate piece featuring a peacock on the back of the obi takes a few weeks. She demonstrates her technique, separating a few brilliant orange-colored silk filaments, rolling and twisting them together, and threading them through a diminutive needle. Her stitches are impossibly fine; she stitches across the warp of silk to fill in the maple leaf she’s working on, each needle stroke only about a millimeter apart.

Nakamura Shishuu makes original designs and custom orders, but these days sewing machine embroidery is common and fewer people are wearing kimono regularly. The studio has answered this change by offering embroidery “experiences”—single-day workshops where the general public can try their hand at a bit of embroidery and come away with a souvenir, like a fan case or a fukusa (traditional wrapping cloth). Participants can also make a travel mug decorated with their handiwork during the session. ”It’s really good for people who want a Kyoto-style souvenir to take home with them,” says Goto.

A travel mug? Why not. There’s no bad place to inject a little bit of sumptuous, silky beauty in your life. Kyo-nui is a living art, having survived more than thirteen centuries. With the help of consummate artisans like Goto and companies such as Nakamura Shishuu, the tradition lives on.

previous Next