As part of our recent tour of Japanese artisanal production, we visited the Nakae family of Nakae Silk Works, in Kagoshima city, Kyūshū; a small loom and dying workshop where father, mother, and son work together to create some very special fabrics, using techniques specific to this region some of which date back 1300 years.
On our arrival, we were treated to a demonstration weaving of a 100% abacá fabric - produced from the stem fibres of a specific type of banana, and related to if perhaps softer than manilla fibre from the Philippines. In Japan this kind of fabric is prized for its breathability and durability, providing a very comfortable cloth to wear in hot and humid conditions. As a thread abacá is relatively rough, meaning that if used for both warp and weft the fabric must be woven entirely by hand, as mechanised looms tend to snag, stall, or snap the warp. The shuttle containing the weft fibre is tossed back and forth and caught either end, before alternating the warp using foot-pedals, creating a simple plain-weave fabric, a process that is remarkably quick in the hands of a skilled weaver, but which does none-the-less take approximately two weeks to produce a 12 metre long roll of fabric, at a width of about 14 inches (the standard for kimono silk in Japan).
Through in the main weaving room, where there are a range of looms from small hand looms, treadle looms, and large 'programable' dobby looms with an appearance not unlike a steam-punk rendering of a computer. Here we were introduced to the Oshima Tsumugi (Pongee) technique of silk weaving, an exceptionally complex method devised in the late 19th century in Amami Oshima, an island (we were to later visit) about 230 miles south-southeast of the southern tip of Kyūshū, where Nakae-san senior was born, in the village of Tatsugo, home of the most famous of the Tsumugi patterns - Tatsugogara.
This technique seems so fantastically intricate and multi-staged, so delicately poised and contingent upon so many variables, it seems almost a miracle that it should work at all. We'll be explaining the stages and process more fully in a later post, but here we show a first-stage fabric is woven to a specific pattern using raw silk and a blocking cotton thread, before it is dyed - typically using local materials such as sharinbai (Japanese hawthorn) which is boiled into a kind of tannic soup into which the material is alternatively dipped with iron-rich local mud-water to produce shades of grey, or ultimately black. This first stage fabric is then pulled apart to reveal silk thread which holds dye only in certain parts, leaving a pattern (at its simplest) of white dots, called Kasuri.
The variably dyed yarn then defines the pattern once woven for a second time into the finished fabric. The carefully calculated pattern on the thread combines to create an overall pattern, which emerges only as the silk is woven. Incredibly, the warp and the weft are often separately dyed in this way, and brought together painstakingly in the final weaving to create sometimes extremely intricate figures. The weft is minutely adjusted by hand after each pass of the shuttle to ensure proper and precise alignment.
Below we see Nakae-san senior as he prepares thread for the loom on a large sorting frame. The rods at the bottom of the image play an important role in ensuring the threads are correctly ordered before being taken to the loom - as long as the threads are correctly ordered in their crossing here, the rest it was explained will naturally follow. Watching Nakae-san work you are struck by the practiced ease and fluidity of his movement - decades of know-how and experience condensed into elegant efficiency. The Nakae family are part of a dwindling number of weavers capable of producing Oshima Tsumugi fabrics, numbering approximately 100 in Kagoshima and 200 on the island of Amami Oshima.
A large winding machine, using a nicely adapted bicycle wheel as part of the mechanism for winding hanks of freshly dyed yarn onto spools ready to be sorted.
The family also dye their own silk and abacá fibres using 'ai' or natural indigo which they grow in a small garden to the side of the weaving rooms. For this they also use waste shavings from yakusugi, the famously ancient and highly resinous Japanese cedar trees that grow high on the island of Yakushima.
Nakae-san, with his friend, and our guide Ebara-san, says he developed a method to produce indigo-red dye in his youth, and shows us the remarkable range achievable using only indigo and mud dying techniques - the jet black may be dipped up to 80 times.
Kagoshima and Amami are both rightly famed throughout Japan for their friendliness and hospitality and it was no surprise therefore when our visit ended with a treat of green tea and a homemade local speciality - made of glutinous rice mixed and pulped with a sweet mountain herb, and finally wrapped in a ginger leaf to maintain freshness and absorb flavour - a sticky, gooey, delicately scented delight!