Photo: Vicki L Beyer
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Yonezawa textiles – top quality interwoven with centuries of history and tradition

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By Vicki L Beyer

Stepping through the traditional gateway into the enclosed garden outside Nitta Textile Arts Inc, I smiled as I heard the clickety-clack of looms. The Yamagata city of Yonezawa is, even today, renowned for the quality of its textiles and I am imagining how a century ago, when more factories operated, the sound of looms must have permeated the city’s streets. I am here to learn about that history and the production techniques that have made Yonezawa’s textiles, known as Yonezawa-ori, highly prized for centuries.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Nitta is one of dozens of small factories in Yonezawa still involved in Yonezawa’s tradition of textile production, but perhaps the only one that actually produces inputs for every stage of the process: preparing and dyeing threads (known in weaving as yarn) as well as weaving the yarn into various types of fabric. Nitta’s factory is adjacent to the Nitta family home, a stunning example of Taisho Period (1912-1926) residential architecture.

My companions and I are greeted by Gentaro Nitta, the ninth-generation owner-operator of Nitta Fabrics, who welcomes us into his home with a bowl of traditional green tea and a sweet as he settles himself next to the irori fireplace to provide us some background information.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

There was a time in Japan’s history when nearly every farm household had some involvement in textile production, whether it was raising silkworms, flax or cotton, converting those raw materials to yarn, weaving the yarn into fabrics, or sewing the fabrics into garments. In Yonezawa’s case, however, from 1601 when the Uesugi clan took over as feudal lords, flax and silkworms were produced as items for trade with other provinces of Japan. Even with this “export” product, the district remained a poor one, nearly bankrupt in 1767 when the eighth feudal lord, Shigetada Uesugi (1720-1798), relinquished his role as lord (daimyo) to his son-in-law, Harunori Uesugi (1751-1822). Harunori, who later took the name Yozan, was just 16 at the time. A devotee of the Neo-Confucian scholar Heishu Hosoi (1728-1801), Yozan quickly determined that economic recovery for his impoverished district would require a strict policy of fiscal restraint and development of new economic opportunities.

Yozan decided that profits could be increased by adding value to the raw materials produced in his district before they were exported. Thus he supported the development of dyeing and weaving, ways of processing the yarn Yonezawa was already producing. In time, Yonezawa became particularly known for its taffeta-like silk, used to make men’s hakama trousers and kamishimo broad-shouldered over-vests.

Yozan also encouraged the development of a dyeing industry, particularly fostering cultivation of safflowers, known in Japanese as benibana, used to produce beautiful shades of red dye. The thistle-like flowers bloom both yellow and red from the same plant, but through the dye production process, the resultant dye is red. Safflowers are still cultivated across Yamagata and have even become the prefectural flower.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Nitta-san moves us into another room, where he explains about safflower and the other natural dyes used in production of the yarn used in Yonezawa-ori. He has set up a small table to demonstrate safflower dye by dyeing handkerchiefs for us. He explains how safflower dye is produced from dried red and yellow petals and is formed into patties for storage and transport. The dye is later reconstituted in water.

We each wad and bind our handkerchief with rubber bands in whatever way we chose. The bound portions will get less, or even no dye, leaving a pattern when completed. Our handkerchiefs are then immersed in a tub of water and Nitta-san adds a bit of safflower dye. As he adds acidic plum vinegar to the mixture, the color magically deepens.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

He explains that the longer the cloth is immersed, or the more times it is immersed, the deeper the color produced. Later, in his showroom he shows us a deep crimson kimono that required 15 kilograms of dye to produce. It was stunning.

In spite of the historical importance of safflower as a dye, the art of it nearly died out in this region in the middle of the twentieth century. First its cultivation was banned during the war, when food production had to be prioritized. After the war, chemical dyes were cheaper so interest in natural dyes waned. But Nitta-san’s grandparents were determined to revive the dye in the 1960s and spent years redeveloping the process, conducting their experiments in the very room we were sitting in.

As we move into the factory itself we encounter a lone craftsperson sitting at hand-operated loom, weaving an intricate design that will ultimately be used for a custom-made kimono. After passing the shuttle containing weft yarn through the taut warp yarn, she carefully confirms the position of each color on the yarn before pressing the weft yarn into place with the loom’s reed. It looks to be a highly complex process. In the two rooms behind her, yarn is being dyed.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Many colored patterns are woven into the cloth, rather than dyed onto it. To do this, first the warp and weft yarns are dyed into specific colors at specific places along their length. The warp yarn, usually more than 20 meters long, must then be loaded onto the loom in exactly the right places in order for the pattern to emerge correctly as the cloth is woven. On the second floor of the factory, we see the device used to line up the yarn.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Back on the ground floor, we come to the machine looms that we could hear on our arrival. Operators monitor the looms, but the process of moving the shuttle and tamping the weft yarn in place is all mechanized with punch cards controlling the positions of the yarn as the weaving takes place.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

It was mesmerizing to watch these machines swiftly turn yarn into fabric, each machine creating fabrics of different colors and different patterns. The quality of the finished product was plain to see. More samples of the cloth awaited us in the showroom, both in rolled bolts and already fashioned into kimonos. In the small shop, various useful items made with Yonezawa-ori, ranging from neckties and scarves to handbags and meishi cases, were available for purchase. Nitta also has an online shop.

As we were leaving, we each received our dyed handkerchiefs, a delightful memento of our visit.

Nitta is only open to visitors by special arrangement. Other places in Yonezawa where visitors can explore the city’s textile tradition include the centrally-located Yonezawa Textile Historical Museum (aka Yoneori Kaikan), with displays on Yonezawa’s dyeing and weaving history. (Ordinarily open 9:30-16:30 daily April through November and on weekends and public holidays—except New Year’s—December through March. Double check with the local tourism office before visiting as it has been closed during the pandemic.) Just a couple minutes’ walk around the corner is the Primitive Fabric and Ancient Textiles Museum, where you can learn about the earliest textile production in Japan and see samples of well-preserved centuries-Old garments. (Open 10:00-12:00/13:00-16:00 daily except New Year’s; admission 500 yen.)

Alternatively, check out Dye and Weave Studio Wakuwaku-kan in western Yonezawa, where you can also observe the dyeing and weaving process. With a reservation (Japanese language only), you can spend an hour weaving a small item or dyeing a handkerchief or scarf.

To learn about the history of these beautiful fabrics and to see the combination of modern and traditional techniques employed in producing them today will give visitors a much deeper appreciation of the city of Yonezawa and of Japanese craftsmanship.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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