Historical Overview

The original inhabitants of Japan (people of the Jomon Culture) wove cloth of plant fiber. Invaders from the northeast Asian mainland established the Yayoi Culture in Japan beginning around 300 b.c.e., introducing more sophisticated materials (including ramie and silk) and techniques. But a recognizably Japanese textile culture can be said to have begun in the Yamato Period (c. 300-710 c.e.), when aristocratic clans and the emergent monarchy led to a greatly increased demand for fine fabrics, especially of silk. The introduction of Buddhism in the mid-sixth century swelled the demand for fine textiles for ecclesiastical use. Some of these textiles were imported from mainland Asia, but increasing amounts were produced in Japan. Weavers, dyers and other textile workers from Korea and China were encouraged to settle in Japan under court patronage; the production of textiles was both patronized and regulated by the state, and the best textiles were produced in imperial workshops.

Silk fabrics in both plain and twill weave were often dyed in solid colors or in patterns produced by stamped wax-resist dyeing. Brocades were produced for both aristocratic and temple use. Other techniques included appliqué, embroidery, and braiding.

The explosive growth in the number, wealth, and power of Buddhist temples in the Nara Period (710-785) led to an intensified development of textile arts, as well as the importation of mainland textiles on a massive scale. The ensuing Heian Period (795-1185) saw a greater emphasis on domestic production, partly in imperial workshops and partly in private ones. This period saw the continued importance of brocade and embroidery, along with increased use of pattern-woven cloth as a ground for patterned dyeing, whether done by wax- or paste-resist methods or various techniques of shaped-resist dyeing. As the harmonious use of colors in multiple layers of clothing was one of the chief aesthetic principles of dress in this era, great efforts were made to expand and perfect dyeing methods.

The Kamakura (1185-1233) and Muromachi (13381477) periods saw the establishment of military rule under the auspices of the samurai (warrior) class. International trade increased again during this period, bringing a wealth of new materials, techniques and design motifs to Japan. Cotton was introduced at this time, largely supplanting the use of hemp fiber in textiles used by commoners. The development of the Noh theater under the patronage of the military aristocracy during the Muro-machi Period, with its attendant demand for luxurious and brilliantly beautiful costumes, stimulated textile production and innovation. The introduction of multi-harness looms and improved drawlooms led to an increase in production of complex silk fabrics such as damask and satin, which often were used as background fabrics for patterned dyeing (damask) and for embroidery (satin).

After more than a century of civil warfare (14771601), the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1601-1868) brought an era of renewed peace and prosperity to Japan. By the sixteenth century the kosode had become established as the basic garment of Japanese dress; the rapid growth of cities, and of well-to-do urban populations, made this and ensuing forms of the kimono a focus for textile arts. Sumptuary laws designed to prevent commoners from wearing brocades and other complex textiles simply stimulated weavers and dyers to produce surface-decorated fabrics of exceptional beauty and variety that stayed within the letter of the law. The growth of urban pleasure quarters inhabited by courtesans who sometimes could command gifts of great value stimulated the brocade-weaving and tapestry-weaving industries, as demand grew for elaborate and luxurious sashes (obi) with which women fastened their kimonos. Meanwhile, in the countryside, peasants were establishing or maintaining their own techniques for weaving and dyeing cotton fabrics, often in distinctive regional styles.

The abolition of military government and the restoration of imperial rule in 1868 led to a period of rapid modernization in Japan. There was a significant vogue in the late 19 th century for Western clothing for both men and women; in the early twentieth century, however, many women returned to wearing kimonos much of the time. Following World War II, kimono wearing declined again, becoming limited by the 1960s almost entirely to festival and special-occasion dress, or occupational dress for women in the hospitality industries. The traditional textile arts had already entered a long period of decline by the late nineteenth century, when Japan turned to the industrial production of textiles as an early step toward economic development and modernization. Cheap machinemade fabrics cut deeply into the peasant production of handwoven and hand dyed cotton cloth. Conscious efforts to maintain or revive old textile traditions has kept many techniques from disappearing entirely, but the hand production of textiles in Japan now belongs almost entirely to the world of art and craft.

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