Japanese textiles

Textiles made from simple twisting and plaiting of plant fibres occurred in the Jōmon period (about 12,500 - 300 BC) and spinning, dyeing and loom-weaving techniques were introduced from the Asian continent during the Yayoi period (about 300 BC - AD 300).

In about AD 200 silkworms and silk were introduced from China. At first Japanese silk was rough, but during the Kofun period (3rd - 7th century AD) officially recruited continental weavers improved weaving techniques. By the fifth century Japanese silk was soft enough to be worn by the emperor. Official textile bureaux were established during the Nara period (AD 710-94). The outstanding collection of Emperor Shōmu (AD 701-56) housed in the Shōsōin treasure-house in Nara includes woven, resist-dyed, embroidered, braided and plaited textiles made in Japan, as well as many pieces acquired along the Silk Road. During the Heian period (AD 794-1185) the emphasis was on dyeing plain colours for the subtle colour combinations of the jūni hitoe (12-layered gown).

In the mid-fifteenth century, the kosode, the forerunner of the modern kimono with its plain wrap-around shape, emerged as an ideal support for the textile designer's art. The Genroku era (1688-1704) marks the peak of Japanese textile production and design, examples of which feature in Ukiyo-e paintings and prints. The samurai class favoured heavy silks, especially the Nishijin weaves of Kyoto. Townsmen complied with sumptuary laws by wearing sombre but expensive cottons and hemps, especially the painterly wax-resist dyed Yūzen designs, and tie-dyed cottons. Resist-dyed cottons from India also reached Japan. Important folk textiles include the indigo farmers' and fishermen's jackets, the elm-bark fibre coats of the Ainu, and kasuri or ikat of Okinawa. Today many vibrant textile traditions flourish under government protection, while the textile makers' art is in constant demand for the making of Nō and Kabuki costumes.

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