This past weekend, I got my first oshima tsumugi kimono. My local kimono store was having a sale for 80% off their secondhand oshima kimono. That, combined with my “every time you bring a friend in here, they buy something” discount meant that I got a wonderful secondhand oshima kimono (that fits me!!) for 10,000 yen (about $100) when the original price was 58,000 yen (about $580).
In honour of this purchase, I decided to do some digging into the process of oshima tsumugi and how it’s made. There are several types of tsumugi that fall under the oshima category, but in this post, I will be focusing on doro-oshima (the mud-dyeing method) simply because that was the method used to create my newest kimono.
Doro-oshima was created on Amami Oshima, an island that is officially part of Kagoshima prefecture, but it’s actually about halfway between Kyuushu and Okinawa. The process is long and labour intensive. A single kimono can take up to a year to complete. Here’s the process that they use.
- Creating a graph of the pattern
The pattern is created and drawn onto graph paper to be used as a blueprint. The blueprint will determine the number and length of threads that are needed to complete the finished fabric.
The silk threads are starched with a liquid made from boiled igisu seaweed, native to Amami Island. The starch has several reported benefits besides holding the threads together. These benefits include making the threads easy to handle, giving the threads a good gloss and texture (more on oshima’s unique texture later), acting as an insect repellent, and helping the threads retain their colour when they are dyed. After the starch is applied, the threads are strung out in the sun to dry.
Binding involves preparing the threads for dyeing. Oshima uses a resist method of dyeing in which certain parts of the thread are bound with cotton thread so that these areas don’t absorb the dye. There are several ways to do this.
By hand: the threads are individually bound and tied with cotton thread where the craftsman doesn’t want the dye to go. As you can imagine, this is extremely time and labour intensive.
By a press: the threads are sandwiched between two plates to create the resist.
Resist loom: A loom is used to weave in cotton warp threads among the silk threads. The cotton threads prevent the silk from picking up the dye. This is the most common method used nowadays.
- Teichigi Dyeing
Techigi is also known as Yeddo Hawthorn. The wood is boiled for a length of time (some websites claim it’s for ten minutes, others for 14 hours, and some say it’s for two days. I tend to think it’s probably somewhere in the middle). The tannin in the wood is what creates the reddish-brown hue of the dye. The wood is harvested in the winter before it blooms so that the dyers can harvest the maximum amount of nutrients in the wood. After the wood has been boiled, it is used to feed the fires for the next batch.
Once the dye is ready, the bound threads are dipped in the cooled dye and worked by hand for about 15 minutes. Lime is added to help the colour set. After fifteen minutes, the threads are left in the sun to dry. Once they are dry, a new batch of dye is prepared and the process repeats. And repeats. And repeats. 20 times is the standard.
- Mud Dyeing
Once the threads have been dyed in the techigi 20 times, it’s time to dye them in mud. The mud on Amami Oshima is very rich in iron. The reaction of the iron and the tannin in the techigi turn the reddish-brown threads to a gray colour. The process was discovered in 1878 when a woman doing the laundry thought she had ruined her family’s clothes. She washed them in the muddy water of the rice patty and they changed from red-brown to gray. I really wonder what the conversation was like that night when her family saw their clothes.
For every twenty dips in the techigi dye, the threads are dyed in the mud once. The full process (techigi and mud) is repeated several times until the threads take on a dark black colour. This colour is extremely difficult to reproduce even with chemical dyes.
Done, right? Not quite. Processing the thread includes a whole list of things to do. This includes unbinding the threads, aligning the threads according to the design, giving the threads another coat of starch, and adding any other colours. Adding colours is another labour intensive process. The dyes are rubbed into the threads at every point they appear on the pattern. Sometimes thousands of times over.
Finally, the weaving can begin. The weaver must align the patterns perfectly, one thread at a time. Every seven centimeters, the weaving must stop for inspection. During the course of weaving, the warp threads tend to slacken on the loom, and years of experience have shown the weavers that seven centimeters is the magic number to adjust all the threads again.
Unlike other woven fabrics (see meisen) where the pattern has a blurred look, oshima is precise with no blurred edges. In order to achieve this, the weavers use a needle to make minute adjustments to the threads and create a perfectly aligned pattern. Weaving a full kimono bolt takes minimum one month to complete, but it could take much longer depending on the complexity of the design.
Finally, every bolt of fabric must be inspected by a cooperative of experienced dyers and weavers. There is a list of 18 or 24 checkpoints (different sources give different numbers) that the bolt of fabric must pass including things like width, length, pattern accuracy, colour, and the weight or thickness of the fabric. If any of these checkpoints don’t pass, then the bolt of fabric is rejected as authentic oshima tsumugi.
It’s now been six months to a year since the first step in this long, long process began, but the oshima silk is finally ready to be turned into a beautiful kimono.
When I first started learning about kimono, it was hard for me to appreciate the work that went into oshima tsumugi. I preferred big floral designs, but I have to admit, oshima is growing on me. The texture of the silk is one of the weirdest textures I’ve come across. When I first felt it, I thought “oh, synthetic.” I kid you not, it felt like a raincoat. It was very smooth with an almost plastic feel and it was shiny. Since then, I’ve been told many things about oshima (none of which I want to test on my own kimono!) including that they don’t wrinkle and that they are waterproof. Oshima is quickly becoming one of my favourite kinds of kimono. They’re so versatile and subtle.
One of the things that I don’t understand about oshima is that, with all the work that goes into creating one kimono, it’s still only considered a casual kimono. You’ll never see one at a tea ceremony or formal party. It seems such a shame to relegate such an intricate kimono to such a low rank. Especially when you start to dig into the history and discover that for a long time, regular people were not allowed to wear them. They were used to pay taxes only. Obviously somebody high class was wearing it. It was only after the Meiji era that regular people could wear oshima tsumugi again.
Another thing I questioned was why it fell under the tsumugi category. Traditionally, tsumugi uses the silk cocoons that are not fit for sale. The broken silk threads are reeled together to create the thread. The resulting fabric shows the lumps and bumps that come from using uneven thread. Oshima is nothing like that. The only answer I can find is that when oshima was first created, they used tsumugi, however, now they use traditional, smooth silk thread.
I really hope I’ll be able to add some more oshima tsumugi to my collection some day.
Sources for this post: