Global Textile Nomads in Amami Oshima by Nancy Craft
Last May, I accompanied textile artist Nancy Craft on a pre-tour preparation trip to Amami Oshima. Nancy, who is also a long time Travel Planner at Esprit Travel, went on to lead the following tour in November.
This past November, I led an Esprit Travel textile study tour of Amami Oshima, a sub-tropical island located between Kyushu and Okinawa. We planned the tour especially for the Global Textile Nomads, a group gathered by Jill Heppenheimer of the Santa Fe Weaving Gallery. As on previous Santa Fe Weaving Gallery trips, we focused our study on Japan’s traditional textile techniques and meeting traditional artisans and cutting-edge artists.
Although most tourists come to Amami for the white sand beaches, sparkling warm ocean and scuba diving, our purpose was to learn about Oshima Tsumugi, an elegant silk kimono fabric that is created by an elaborate, time consuming, multi-step process dating back 1300 years.
Our host for the visit was Masahito Hara, the 3rd generation proprietor of Nizaemon, a family business that is involved in every step of the Oshima Tsumugi process, including design, dyeing, weaving, finishing and marketing of the cloth.
As we sat in their showroom on tatami mats surrounded by bolts of fabric and finished kimono, Hara-san explained the highly detailed and complex creation process, where the cloth is actually woven twice! First, a “mat” is tightly woven from silk warp threads and cotton weft, a physically demanding process traditionally done by men on sturdy wooden looms. The mat is then taken off the loom and dyed with “sharimbai” a local plant from the rose madder family, and mordanted in naturally iron rich mud bogs, alternating the two processes over 60 times to create a rich brown color.
After the densely woven mat is dyed, it is carefully taken apart and the cotton weft is removed leaving only the silk threads with a pattern of white dots. These dots will become the basis for the final pattern when the yarn is woven for the second time. Hara-san told us that the finished rolls of fabric, ultimately destined to become casual, or semi-formal kimono, will be sold at shows in Kyoto and Tokyo for at least $2000 (and more, depending on the complexity of the pattern.)
As we struggled to understand how the elaborate, technically precise yet extremely artful geometric patterns are designed and executed, we walked a few blocks to the home of a couple who weaves for Hara-san’s company, for an enlightening demonstration of both the mat weaving and the painstaking, time-consuming second weaving of the shimmery, exquisitely patterned silk fabric. A “tan” or bolt of about 13 yards long of 12 inch wide Oshima Tsumugi takes months for a weaver to complete.
Apparently, our deep interest in Amami Oshima was unusual, because reporters from two of the local newspapers sat in on our visit with Hara-san. Our stories and photos appeared in both publications the following day!
Later, we visited Nozaki-san, a quiet, proud craftsman who works with his wife and son doing the natural dyeing and “dorozome” (mud mordanting) for designers and weavers like Hara-san. We learned that the mud bogs must be carefully maintained and not over-used, in order to preserve the quality of the “dorozome.”
Over dinner in a local restaurant, Hara-san, now handsomely dressed in one of his kimono designs, spoke about his desire to bring Oshima Tsumugi traditions forward to appeal to a younger, western clothing wearing people. Hara-san was very interested in our ideas as to how Oshima Tsumugi could be appreciated outside of Japan. As we feasted on local delicacies from the sea and drank strong, local, vodka-like shochu, we were treated to an impromptu performance of “shima uta” (Amami folk music) by the restaurant owner, a famous performer. Before long, we were all dancing and singing with other customers. As on our past trips, we came to see the textiles, but were most affected by the warmth and sincerity of the people we met.