Japanese Kimono and Textiles - Now and Zen

From: Thursday, 14 July 2016

Curated by Deborah Whitford

My aim is to capture both the elements of the past and the present in this exhibition.

The Japanese have a strong textile culture that is far more complex than any culture I have ever experienced.  It is amazing in that it exists alongside the modern ideas and modern clothing of the Japanese people however there are several questions which surface. Mainly for how long and in what way will their textile culture survive. It appears remarkably strong but like all traditional cultures in our modern world its survival is tenuous and relies on human desire and consumption.

Any society can only make what we are willing and able to create and others willing and able to purchase.  The desire to create and continue the traditions of Japanese textiles is strong but it needs to be appreciated and supported. Understanding is a major factor in its survival.

This exhibition has been mounted to create interest and understanding and that was my task whilst in Japan therefore I went to visit some of the living masters intending to bring some of my personal experiences to this exhibition.

Japan, has taken many designs and techniques from other places like all cultures do. In Japan there is a culture of defining the textile art and raising the bar. Shibori is such an art.  It is far too complex for me to explain, however please look carefully at the kimono which is a marvel of master craftsmanship by a collection of artisans. There are families who only tie specific types of knots.

Mr Nakahara is a designer of Kyo-Kanoko Shibori for kimono and other items, woven obi and Kumihimo Ropes (the braids used for Samurai armour). Mr Nakahara has designed kimono and obi for the Imperial family. He holds a wonderful collection of unique Kyo-Kanoko Shibori kimono in an elegant shop and house with a remarkable garden, which is another of his passions.  His work is remarkable and the piece which I purchased can no longer be made.  The artisan who have made it are no longer working or alive – it was impolite to inquire as to which.

I also met Mr Toshiaki Nagakusa and his wife Sumie who live in Kyoto and run an embroidery atelier. Mr Nagakusa is a master embroiderer who takes on apprentices who must first learn about their culture, then they can learn to make the silk embroidery thread before they can begin to learn the art of embroidery.  The masterworks are remarkable and mainly undertaken for Noh costumes but the craftsmanship is certainly not limited to the theatre.

The Traditional Fabric of Nishiki is an atelier of the highest quality of weaving for obi and other textiles. Mr Katsumura Koho is the owner and has been the driving force of the atelier for many decades and we met his son Mr Tatsumura Amane.  Although their work is traditional, it is also a modern art in the hands of both father and son.  They both pursue their art by reconstructing old techniques, long lost in Japan and visiting other weaving cultures.  They are men who strive for the protection of their past and to keep their company vital for now and into the future.

We visited YDS Shop and Gallery where we witnessed the Yuzen dying technique an ancient practice from the Edo period which utilizes rice paste as a resist to the dyes.  We witnessed the process from the designer’s studio to the hand drawing, resist paste and multi layered approach required for each colour.  With a different expert for each phase of the process of this complex dyeing technique which over time has engaged modern techniques and dyes to assist them.   As a final touch they apply gold leaf to the finished items.

Another Kyo Shibori company is Katayama Bunzaburo who create wonderful modern pieces for the market place which are structurally amazing, colourful and very inventive.  They started the business in 1915 and have kept their work vital.

We went to Hosoo who have taken their traditional weaving company dating from 1688 and employed new methods to produce designs for clothing designers and interiors therefore replacing the narrow looms of tradition with wide looms to suit modern production.  A remarkable transformation in an ancient world where shoes are still removed to enter the showroom.

I came across the Eirakuya stores in Kyoto and was fascinated by their use of design in all manner of household items made from cloth.  The company dates back to 1615 and their designs are a fusion of past and present.  Striking designs on cotton and some so familiar that you feel you know them when you see them.

There is a movement in Japan where the older established companies are being taken on by a younger generation determined to take their inherited history and the companies they inherit and make them relevant for today. Many of the older traditional companies are handed from father to son and the sons have sometimes gone away from the business to live their life from another perspective before taking on the role expected of them.  Other times the innovation happens from within the confines of working in the company and learning from their father.

The Japanese are to be admired as they hold their traditions proudly and the keeping of one tradition supports the families and businesses who make the traditional brushes, canes, paste and a myriad of traditional equipment required by the various artisans.

The other aspect of the exhibition is the textiles of the kimonos and how they have kept pace with European textile designs and modernity.  You can look at some kimonos and know they come from a particular era.  The textiles are similar but our clothing styles change and the Japanese kept wearing the kimono.  It looks amazing to see the familiar design aesthetics from the 1940’s and 1950’s on kimonos.  The fabrics have been made in Japan, using the unique textile arts of Japan on their traditional narrow cloth.

I hope you enjoy the exhibition as I certainly enjoyed collecting it all together and learning about the textiles of Japan.

I have mainly confined myself to textiles and those that relate to the Kimono and Obi as I was simply overwhelmed by the complexity of all the extra articles of dressing in Japan.  I have also taken liberties in the way I have placed the items together of some displays as again the complexity of correctness of assembly is another project.

There is a lot of choice in reference books on Japanese textiles and costume however I have recommended some which you should be able to find.


Written by Manami Okazaki and published by Prestel.

This is a great book full of information and the basis of my research for the trip to Japan. If you want one book then this would be my choice.



Edited by Anna Jackson who is Keeper of the Asian Department at the V&A.

The book features part of the Khalili Collection and is published by Thames and Hudson.

A specialised book on the changing fashion of Japanese textiles.




Written by Cheryl Imperatore and Paul MacLardy and published by Schiffer.

A good starting point for collecting old Japanese textiles and Kimono.



Written by Norio Yamanaka Published by Kodanshausa.

An absolute essential for wearing the Kimono and the various items required for traditional Japanese dress including the etiquette of wearing the Kimono.