Japan's textile-makers combine tradition with technology
Mother-of-pearl, wisteria and a deceptively blue butterfly from South America are part of a strategy to woo high-end fashion designers to discover the potential of Japanese textiles.
A handful of highly specialised manufacturers and artisan weavers from Tango, in the region of Japan's ancient capital Kyoto, were in Paris last week to showcase their innovations, combining centuries-old tradition with the latest in nanotechnology.
Tango has long been famous for textiles because its wet climate favours the production of silk, particularly the crepe called "chirimen" used in kimonos. But technological advances are spurring the creation of new products with potential appeal outside Japan.
Initially it was the automaker Nissan which took an interest in the Morpho butterfly, which inhabits an area along the River Amazon. Its shiny cobalt blue colour in fact contains no blue pigment but is produced by the way it refracts light.
Nissan and Teijin Fibres initially explored the possibility of mimicking the butterfly's properties for a new kind of paint for cars but instead came up with a glossy material, Morphotex.
Without dyes or pigments, it creates the illusion of colour under light from the structure of its fibres. Using nanotechnology to control the thickness of the fibres, the fabric shows variations on red, green, blue and purple.
Toyota Tsusho, the textile arm of another car manufacturer, has also harnessed nanotechnology to develop a technique of weaving gold and silver threads into luxury denim, which it believes could find a future in haute couture.
New techniques are also enabling small-scale craftsmen to innovate and diversify, says Kyoji Tamiya of Tamiya Raden, whose father developed a way of weaving with mother-of-pearl inlays.
Shells are mounted on traditional Japanese paper in exquisite patterns, reminiscent of oriental pottery, which is then shredded to form the weft and woven with silk. From using the fabric, which costs upwards of 510 dollars a yard (metre), for elaborate obis, the sashes that tie kimonos, he is branching out to handbags.
Mitsuyasu Koishihara's father, meanwhile, has revived an ancient technique for making textiles from the branch of the mountain wisteria. Once made all over Japan, it declined with the arrival of cotton and all but disappeared except in the Tango region.
"One day he saw this ama or Japanese sea woman (traditionally, women dive for shells in Japan) and she had a bag made of something he didn't recognise. She said it was wisteria."
He set about rediscovering how to weave from it. Wild wisteria, which looks like raffia, is soft to the touch but twice as strong as linen.
Their company, Yushisha, is the only one specialising in wisteria textile making, which has now been designated a "cultural heritage of Kyoto".
As well as being used for obis, bags and norens, Japanese curtains decorating the entrance of shops, they are hoping their rare fabric will find a niche market in the West.
Other innovations shown in Paris included silks retaining the original stiffness with which the silk pupa protects itself from ultra-violet light, which is normally lost in the manufacturing process, and ultra-soft cottons made to a higher gauge than anywhere else in the world.
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