Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Traditional Japanese Weaving of Taketomi-jima


Earlier this year I spent a week in the remote Yaeyama-shoto archipelago of the Okinawan islands of Japan, where, on the island of Taketomi-jima, 300 local residents live in traditional Ryukyu homes in what is often referred to as a "living museum" of Ryukyu culture. Ryukyu is the Okinawan people's name for their chain of islands, and traditional Ryukyu architecture involves wooden houses topped with ceramic tiled roofs surrounded in white grout that gradually fades to black as it ages.


The homes are protected by shisa on the roof or at the gate, dragon-like ceramic creatures from Okinawan mythology. Shisa are usually found in pairs - one with mouth open, one closed. The open-mouthed shisa wards off evil, and the closed-mouth one keeps the good spirits inside.


Each yard is surrounded by a low coral rock wall, and many of these have become home to brilliant flowers or even edible plants like the fiery island pepper.

Even the island's roads are made of crushed coral, traversed by pedestrians, water-buffalo-drawn carts, bicycles and the occasional car. An informational map at our bed and breakfast gave statistics about the island:


Population: 304
Traffic lights: none
Police: none
Cows: lots

The island's constitution includes laws forbidding residents from building non-traditional structures, selling their homes to non-islanders, or even renting "in a disorderly manner" to unscrupulous tenants!

The island's most famous beach is Hoshisuna-no-hama, or Star Sand Beach. The sand here is made up of regular sand particles mingled with the skeletons of tiny starfish. A sign on the beach tells visitors they must only collect the starfish as souvenirs, and not take the regular sand.


The traditional craft of Taketomi is kasuri weaving, a type of ikat dyeing and weaving process in which individual threads are bound tightly in patterns and then dyed. Where the threads are tied, the dye does not penetrate, leaving a white patch against the dark dye, usually indigo. These threads are used as the weft of the weave, with the pattern pre-dyed into the threads before weaving. 

The Taketomi Field Museum has a collection of looms still in use for weaving kasuri fabrics. Taketomi has its own traditional woven pattern, the mukade moyo (centipede pattern), made up of a checkerboard-like pattern of white squares on a dyed background, which was traditionally used on minsa sashes.


In the Taketomi process, long lengths of dyed threads made from local banana leaves are stretched on a frame to dry and before weaving. The drying racks are simply poles stuck into the gaps in the coral fences outside the houses. There was a time when the number of weavers had decreased dramatically and a concerted effort is now made to keep the kasuri tradition alive.

I have used another Japanese dyeing technique, shibori, adapted to metal manipulation, in some of my brooches, so I was particularly interested to learn about kasuri dyeing and weaving. Used on metal, the shibori technique creates folds in a thin sheet rather than dyed sections that are later unfolded.

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