Japanese Textiles

Indigo dyed Japanese cloth
Indigo dyed Japanese cloth

Textiles have long played an important role in Japanese life. Japanese weavers and dyers used silk, hemp, ramie, cotton and other fibers, and a range of weaves and decorative treatments, to produce textiles of distinctive design and exceptional aesthetic merit. These textiles were put to many different uses: for clothing of both commoners and elites; for banners, hangings, and other materials produced for use in temples; for theatrical costumes; and for cushion covers, curtains, and other domestic uses. As with many other Japanese arts, Japanese textiles historically have developed through an interaction of external influences and indigenous techniques and design choices, and a tendency to develop both technology and aesthetics to a high degree of refinement.

Historical Overview

The original inhabitants of Japan (people of the Jômon 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 (1338- 1477) 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 Nôh theater under the patronage of the military aristocracy during the Muromachi 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 (1477- 1601), 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 19th 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 machine-made 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.

Woven Textiles

Japanese kimono

The weave types most commonly encountered in Japanese textiles, regardless of the fiber used, are plain (tabby) Twill Weave Satin Weave, damask and other patterned weaves, and brocade.

Silk fabrics intended for use in kimono in which the principal decorative elements are batch-dyed or resist-dyed rather than woven or embroidered are usually made in plain weave or damask weave. Colored damasks (donsu) employing dyed silk warp threads and weft threads in contrasting colors were used without further dyeing or embellishment; colored damasks were particularly favored for decorative purposes, such as mounting fabric for scroll paintings, and in cloths employed in the tea ceremony. Floating-weft or floating-warp satin (shusu) is often used for silk garment fabrics in which the main decorative elements will be applied by embroidery. Patterned twill (aya) and twisted-warp gauze (ra), often in lightweight, semi-transparent fabrics, have been used for garments since the Nara period, and in later times were especially favored for the wide, loose trousers (hakama) and stiff jackets (kamishimo) worn by samurai on formal occasions. Twill is frequently also used as the ground weave for a multicolored, brocade-like, drawloom-woven fabric called nishiki.

Brocades and tapestry weaves of various kinds were used in ancient times for Buddhist ecclesiastical garments and temple decorations. As garment fabrics they are used especially in obi sashes, which are often tied in very elaborate and decorative ways that display to good effect the luxurious textiles of which they are made. Both obi and kimono, the latter particularly as costumes for Nôh dance-drama, are often made of kara-ori ("Chinese weave," i.e. weft-float brocade), a stiff, heavy fabric in which supplementary weft threads on bobbins are float-woven by hand over a plain or twill background fabric. Fingernail tapestry (tsuzure), as the name suggests, is a bobbin-woven tapestry, capable of producing patterns of extreme complexity, and often used for obi.

Plain weave is by far the commonest weave for cotton fabrics. Rural, or faux-rustic, cotton textiles in stripes and plaids of indigo and other vegetable-dye colors, were extremely popular during the Tokugawa period for informal kimono; such fabrics were also used for domestic décor such as covers for sleeping mats and sitting cushions. Plain-woven textiles of plain white cotton were used as the ground for a wide range of dyeing techniques, described below.


Much of the distinctive beauty of Japanese textiles rests on the use of highly developed techniques of dyeing, including paste-resist, shaped-resist, and ikat, as well as composite techniques employing two or more of these methods in concert.

Wax-resist dyeing (batik) was known in ancient Japan, but was abandoned by the end of the Heian Period in favor of paste-resist methods, employing a thick paste of rice flour instead of wax. Paste-resist methods include stencil dyeing and freehand dyeing.

Stencil dyeing (katazome) employs stencils made of mulberry bark paper, laminated in several layers with persimmon juice and toughened and waterproofed by smoking. Patterns are cut into these stencils using special knives. Paste is forced through the openwork of the stencil onto the cloth, where it then resists taking the dye when the cloth is immersed in a dyebath. The paste is washed from the cloth after dyeing. Simple stencil dyeing is most commonly found in folk-art indigo-dyed cotton textiles, used for domestic furnishings as well as for clothing. The most common contemporary application of paste-resist dyed indigo-and-white cotton cloth is for yukata, cotton kimono used as sleepwear and for informal streetwear, especially at hot spring resorts. Stencil dyeing can also be done in two or more stages to produce a multi-colored result.

Freehand paste-resist dyeing (tsutsugaki) uses a waterproof paper cone to apply paste to the fabric; this technique is often employed to create large, bold patterns such as are found on shop curtains (noren) and package-carrying cloths (furoshiki).

Shaped-resist dyeing techniques are generically known as shibori in Japanese; the word is commonly translated "tie-dyed," but that does not convey the very wide range of techniques involved in shibori dyeing. Shibori includes resists created by sewing portions of cloth in tight gathers; or by twisting cloth, often in complicated ways; or by folding cloth and then compressing it between boards or in wooden or paper tubes; and similar techniques. In every case the aim is to compress portions of cloth so that they will be unaffected by the dye when the whole cloth is placed in a dyebath. Although expert practitioners can achieve a high degree of control over the process, shibori dyeing always also includes some element of accident or uncertainty, which adds to its aesthetic appeal. Undyed areas of shibori textiles can be embellished in various ways, including hand-application of dyes using brushes, embroidery, or by using paste to apply gold or silver foil to the fabric.

Ikat, known as kasuri in Japanese, is a technique in which warp yarns, weft yarns, or both are bound in thread in pre-arranged patterns and dyed. The yarns are then assembled into a warp and/or woven as weft in the proper sequence, the pattern emerging as the weaving progresses. Kasuri textiles are produced in silk, in a wide range of colors; in ramie; in cotton, typically indigo-dyed; and in Okinawa in banana fiber, often with several colors produced by successive wrappings and dyeings of the yarn.

Yuzen, invented around 1700, is probably the most famous of Japanese dyeing techniques. It is produced by a combination of either freehand or stenciled paste-resist work and hand-application of dyes. With the cloth (either silk or cotton) stretched on a frame, a pattern is applied with a fine brush using a non-permanent blue vegetable dye, and then covered freehand with paste; or else the paste is applied directly with a stencil. A thin soybean extract is then brushed over the entire cloth. The cloth is then moistened with water, and dye is applied by hand with brushes; the dye spreads on the damp cloth to produce the color-shaded effect characteristic of yuzen. Yuzen is capable of achieving color effects of astonishing subtlety and complexity, and is used to produce the finest and most prized of all kimono fabrics.

The Okinawan art of bingata stencil dyeing can be thought of as a paste-resist version of batik. It uses multiple steps of stencil-applied paste and dyeing (either by vat dyeing or by hand application of dyes), with dyed areas covered with paste resist in subsequent stages of work. Bingata is typically produced in bright colors and with pictorial motifs of birds, flowers, and landscapes.


Like brocade and tapestry weaving, embroidery arrived in Japan in ancient times in connection with Buddhism, and was often used to produce pictorial hangings for use in temples. Japanese embroidery uses a fairly small repertoire of stitches, including French knots, chain stitch, satin stitch, and couched satin stitch. In garments, particularly kimono, embroidery is applied to vat-dyed plain weave silk textiles, to silk satin, and as an embellishment to textiles decorated with various dye techniques, including shibori and katazome.

Decorative Stitching

Japanese farm women developed a technique for salvaging worn cotton textiles for re-use by stitching them together in layers for use in jackets, aprons, and other protective garments. The technique, akin to quilting, is known as sashiko, and developed from a practical way of using cloth to a unique craft of decorative stitching. Sashiko is almost always done with white cotton thread on indigo-dyed cotton cloth. Stitches may run parallel to the warp, or to the weft, or both; patterns are usually geo-metric, and often elaborately lacy.

Ainu Textiles

The Ainu are the aboriginal inhabitants of Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan; their ancestors were among the original occupants of Japan, prior to the arrival of the Yayoi people. Ainu culture is closer to that of Sakhalin Island and other parts of northeastern Siberia than it is to Japanese culture. The Ainu are known for preserving old techniques of making jackets and other items of clothing decorated with appliqué and embroidery in bold, curvilinear designs, often in light colors on a dark background.

Contemporary Japanese Textiles

The status of textiles in contemporary Japan can be considered in four categories. Commercial textiles are a declining industry in Japan. Textile production, particularly of man-made fiber textiles such as rayon and polyester, played an important role in Japan's postwar economic recovery, but has been in decline in recent decades as production has moved to countries with lower labor costs. Some silk is produced in Japan by the country's heavily subsidized agricultural sector.

Traditional textiles continue to flourish. The Japanese government encourages the preservation of traditional arts and crafts through subsidies to "Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties," colloquially known as "Living National Treasures." These master practitioners of their arts provide leadership to thousands of other full-time craft workers. Of approximately 100 Living National Treasures at any time, about one-third are in the field of textile arts. Notable examples include brocade weaver Kitagawa Hyôji, the late stencil paste-resist dyer Serizawa Keisuke, and yuzen dyer Yamada Mitsugi.

Fashion textiles have received significant support from some of Japan's internationally famous fashion designers, notably Issey Miyake, whose innovative use of such material as tube-knitted jersey has bolstered Japan's fine textile industry.

Art textiles, or fiber arts more broadly, are a thriving field of Japan's contemporary art scene, and have achieved international recognition through such exhibitions as "Structure and Surface" (New York, 1999) and "Through the Surface" (London, 2004). A number of individual fiber artists have won international reputations, including Arai Junichi, known for his innovative use of techno-textiles; Sudo Reiko, known for her sculptural woven fabrics; and Tomita Jun, who uses traditional dyeing techniques to produce contemporary textile art.

See also Dyeing; Embroidery; Ikat; Kimono; Yukata.


Dusenbury, Mary. "Textiles." In The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. 9 vols. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983.

McCarthy, Cara, and Matilda McQuaid. Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999.

Yang, Sunny, and Rochelle Narasin. Textile Art of Japan. Tokyo: Shufunotomo, 2000.

Japanese Textiles