Silk has been sought after as a luxury fabric throughout the world for centuries. It has long been used to make kimono in Japan, but did you know that most kimono silk comes from the Tango area in northern Kyoto Prefecture, where silk textiles have been produced for 1300 years? Today, artisans in Tango are keeping the highly specialized skills of the local industry alive while adapting traditional textiles to contemporary lifestyles. We take a look at Japan’s preeminent silk textile production region, the history of the craft, and Tango textiles today.
Table of Contents
1. The History of Tango Textiles
Historical records show that production of silk textiles began in the Tango region in the eighth century. There’s even evidence of the local silk having been presented as an offering to the Imperial court. A major turning point came in the mid-eighteenth century when methods for making what is now known as Tango chirimen (delicately textured silk crepe) were introduced to the area. Ensuing technical innovations turned Tango into a major hub of silk textile production. Today, some seventy percent of Japan’s kimono fabric is made in Tango.
Tango’s modern textile industry is centered in the municipalities of Kyotango and Yosano. About 600 workshops are involved in various aspects of production from weaving through to dyeing and finishing. The northern part of Yosano in particular is home to Chirimen Kaido, or Chirimen Silk Road, a historic street where rows of old textile studios and residences of merchants who prospered in the textile trade have been preserved.
One of the reasons the silk textile industry flourished in Tango is the climate and geography of the area. High rainfall and winter snow cover make it damp year-round, and thus an ideal environment for silk thread, which breaks easily in dry conditions. Another factor is the availability of water. From the preparation of thread through to the final finishing, Tango chirimen requires a huge amount of water. The rain, snow and nearby river are an abundant source of high-quality water that yields pure white, supple silk fabric.
2. The Characteristics of Tango Chirimen
Let’s look more closely at Tango chirimen, the pillar of the Tango textile industry. Tango chirimen is a white woven silk fabric with fine crimps called “shibo”, and is primarily used for kimono. Production flourished in Tango after a weaver introduced the techniques to the area from Kyoto some 300 years ago in 1720. The crimps make for soft, supple fabric that is resistant to creasing and, because light reflects irregularly on the uneven surface, rich and lustrous in color when dyed.
Tango supplies chirimen to kimono manufacturers in Kyoto and all over Japan who dye the fabric with ornate designs to make stunning kimono.
◆How are the crimps made?
Tango chirimen fabric is made using untwisted thread for the warp and tightly twisted thread for the weft, which create the crimped effect on the surface. The weft thread is twisted about three thousand times per meter. It’s kept wet while it’s spun to prevent the fine fibers from breaking. After a piece of fabric is woven, it is washed to remove sericin (a substance that coats the surface of silk thread) and impurities. The weft attempts to untwist itself, and this is what causes the crimps. At the same time, the fabric takes on a shiny white luster and supple texture.
Part of the chirimen production process. The weft yarn is kept wet as it is twisted. The quality of the finished fabric varies depending on the precision of the twists.
Washing the fabric using water drawn from the nearby Takeno River. The high-quality soft water produces soft fabric.
Much of the enormously time-consuming and labor-intensive process of producing Tango chirimen has been automated, though continual fine-tuning by experienced artisans is essential because the thread acts differently depending on weather conditions and humidity. Technical innovations have also made it possible to produce crimped fabric from synthetic fibers. Tango chirimen is ever evolving as artisans constantly devise new designs and textures.
◆Studio Tours and Tango Chirimen Products
Tayuh Textile Industry Corp. in Kyotango has been producing luxury silk textiles since 1931. Their range of Tango chirimen fabric and products is available at the shop on premises. You can also tour the workshop. Bookings are essential and can be made through the inquiry form at https://tanko.or.jp/en/inquiry/. Please bring a translator with you for the tour.
Please note that studio tours are currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tango Chirimen Kimono Experience
In northern Kyoto Prefecture, in the town of Yosano in the Tango region, people have long been producing Tango chirimen silk crepe for high-grade kimonos. Nowadays “Tango chirimen” itself is almost a …
Many of Tango’s artisans are drawing on their silk-weaving expertise to create innovative, new textile products. We profile three such studios that share another common thread—they’re all being noticed internationally.
◆kuska fabric: The Beauty of Hand-Woven Silk
kuska fabric fuses hand-weaving techniques, fashion and art to create silk textiles unlike any other. One touch and you’ll be captivated by the lustrous shine, the soft, smooth texture and the intricate, three-dimensional patterns. Even artisans from the famous Italian “Silk City” of Como applaud the remarkable artistry of kuska fabric’s creations.
The kuska fabric brand was established in 2010 by Yasuhiko Kusunoki, the third generation to head his family’s Tango chirimen studio since it opened in 1936. Kusunoki was eager to move away from making traditional white fabric and use Tango weaving techniques to create textiles that aren’t possible with mass production. He pivoted to an entirely hand-made, hand-woven operation, and the label acquired a considerable following through its line of neckties, stoles, and other fashion items. Further rebranding in spring 2022 to increase focus on the company’s greatest strength, the fabric itself, kuska fabric is now also developing new fabrics and supplying fabric to other fashion brands.
Kusunoki says that the beauty of handweaving is that “the weaver can plump the fabric with just the right amount of air as he or she ‘converses’ with the silk yarn while weaving.” This gives the fabric a luxurious three-dimensional texture and incomparable luster and shine. A further advantage of handweaving is that it enables more intricate patterns with greater depth that simply aren’t possible with a machine. “Handwoven fabric turns out completely differently depending on the amount of pressure applied and air incorporated. There is infinite potential for expression,” explains Kusunoki.
It’s a point of pride at kuska fabric that the products are entirely handmade every step of the way from dyeing through to finishing and sewing. “We’re able to make our ideals a reality because of the incredible number of professional artisans we have here in Tango who are experienced at handling delicate silk,” says Kusunoki.
kuska fabric’s signature color is crisp, bright “Tango blue” inspired by the Tango ocean. An enthusiastic surfer, Kusunoki has even designed a surfboard that has a panel of fabric.
kuska fabric offers a range of products. The ties, which have been the mainstay of the brand since its inception, come in a particularly wide variety of designs. They are now sold in five countries, including by Huntsman, holder of multiple Royal Warrants in Savile Row, London. Since 2017, kuska fabric has also been exhibiting at the world’s largest men’s fashion exhibition, Pitti Immagine Uomo in Italy.
The company is conscious of sustainability, offering free repairs on its products and experimenting with a take-back scheme to rework used items. With an eye towards the circular economy of the future, kuska fabric continues to be an innovator in the field of silk weaving.
kuska fabric’s studio in Yosano-cho has a shop on premises. Studio tours are available with advance bookings (email firstname.lastname@example.org). Please refer to the calendar for business days. We recommend that you bring a translator for the tour. If you’re in Tokyo, you can visit kuska fabric’s flagship store on the first floor of The Imperial Hotel Plaza. https://kuska.jp/
◆Tamiya Raden: Weaving Jewels of the Sea
Tamiya Raden has caught the eye of global luxury brands with a textile called raden-ori, or “mother-of-pearl weaving”, a technique by which shell is woven into fabric to create textiles with stunning jewel-like shine. Raden-ori was initially developed forty years ago by Katsuichiro Tamiya, and has since been gradually refined by Katsuichiro and son Kyoji.
This highly original type of weaving was born from Katsuichiro’s passion to create a fabric that was truly of Tango, the town of the ocean and textiles. Originally a weaver of obi (kimono sashes) and a middleman between craftspeople in Tango and kimono manufacturers in Kyoto, Katsuichiro hit on the idea of marrying traditional Kyoto hikihaku (a technique of using gold or silver coated thread in the weft of fabric), which he was already skilled at from his work with obi, with raden (lacquerware and woodwork inlaid with mother-of-pearl). The idea took two years to bring to fruition.
Shells used in raden-ori include abalone, turban shell, and black-lip pearl oyster. Thin layers of mother-of-pearl are cut from the shell and attached to washi paper in the desired design, which is then sliced into fine “threads” (pictured top right) and painstakingly woven into silk fabric.
The workshop is now being run by Kyoji. He has honed the techniques inherited from his father to produce a wide variety of designs including traditional Japanese floral and bird motifs, geometrical patterns, and abstract illustrations with astonishing skill. Aiming to push the raden-ori envelope even further, he is now working on ways of inlaying leather, lacquer, and other materials into fabric. He has also made lampshades, artworks, and fashion accessories such as bracelets. What is perhaps most striking about raden-ori is how the hues change depending on the angle of the light, the type of shell used and how it is prepared. Shimmering like the sparkling sea or shining like the star-studded night sky, the beauty of raden-ori is breathtaking.
Kyoji’s sights extend beyond the shores of Tango and Japan. Before the pandemic, he exhibited each year in Paris at the world’s largest fabric trade show, Première Vision, and he makes garment fabric, watch faces and interior fabric to order for famous international brands. In 2019, Kyoji and some industry cohorts launched Tango Creation Platform to foster collaboration between overseas creators and the artisans of Tango and explore new possibilities for expression. Maintaining involvement in the project, Kyoji continues to promote the outstanding skills of the Tango artisans and the region’s potential as a production area to the world. https://tamiyaraden.com/
This family run company weaves mother-of-pearl into high quality kimono fabric, creating a work of stunning quality that has been featured during Paris Fashion Week and garnered a collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Take a tour of Tamiya Raden’s workshop, see the kimono woven with mother-of-pearl (consistently ranking as one of Japan’s top 10 kimono), and find out how this company has kept its roots and business tied to the sea.
◆Yushisha: Ancient fujifu fabric for the modern day
Tango may be best known for silk textiles, but local artisans are also safeguarding another type of weaving, which is one of Japan’s oldest. Called fujifu, it is fabric woven from the fiber of wild wisteria plants. For most of Japan’s history, the common folk used the fibers of whatever grass and trees were available around them to make fabric for clothing and other items. Although you might not imagine it from its elegant flowers, wisteria is well suited to this purpose as it is a vital plant with robust fibers that produce robust fabric. The ancients believed that one could absorb the vitality of the wisteria plant by wearing fujifu.
Fujifu was made across Japan until it gradually became victim to cotton in the early twentieth century and was thought to have died out. In 1962, however, it came to light that fujifu was still being woven by locals in the Kamiseya district of Miyazu City, the discovery of which spurred a research and preservation movement. Masao Koishihara of weaving studio Yushisha in Tango is one of those involved in keeping fujifu techniques alive. Koishihara was a fourth-generation weaver at a Tango silk weaving workshop, but fell in love with the beauty and culture of fujifu some forty years ago and chose the path of a fujifu artist instead.
“Making fujifu is extraordinarily time consuming and labor intensive,” says Koishihara. The process starts with a trip to the mountains to harvest bark from wisteria trees. The bark has to be stripped of its skin to obtain the inner layer, which is what is used to make yarn. The inner layer is boiled in lye and rubbed and rinsed in river water to extract the fibers. Once the fibers are dry, there’s the onerous task of joining them into a continuous piece of thread. These are just some of the many steps to prepare the yarn before weaving can begin.
“Fujifu was born of an era when nature worship was practiced. The ancients wove their desire for the long life and prosperity the wisteria tree symbolizes, and their reverence of nature into the fabric. I try to take care to do the same,” says Koishihara.
Made entirely from natural materials, the Koishiharas’ fujifu is indeed a gift of nature—rustic and full of raw beauty. The pair have a flair for creating new and original textures and designs, and have incorporated all manner of materials including silk yarn and washi paper into their fabrics. In addition to their main product, kimono obi, they also make stoles, bags, furnishings and more, and have worked with exclusive European brands. Carrying the baton of thousands of years of fujifu, the Koishiharas are breathing new life into this ancient craft. It will be a vibrant, living one that they pass on to the next generation.
[Studio Tours and Weaving Experiences]
You can see fujifu works on display in the gallery at Yushisha’s studio. Visits must be booked in advance. Studio tours and handweaving experiences are also available. We recommend that you bring a translator. https://yushisha.com/