Top Menu

The Secret Life of Japanese Textiles

April 3 – June 10, 2007

In the West, mention of Japanese textiles generally conjures up images of women in silk kimono. The very vertical kimono and the starkly horizontal obi tell only one part of the story of Japanese textiles, however. Japan has an unusually rich and diverse textile history, which springs from several sources.

First, the islands of Japan straddle several climatic zones, which once determined fiber and dye sources. While historically both traveled beyond their local markets, the majority of Japan’s populace sought materials that were near at hand and affordable. This gave rise to recognizable regional specialties.

At the same time, Japan was periodically influenced through trade and diplomacy by other Asian nations renowned for their textiles. Furthermore, the trickle of European influence prior to the 1850s burst into a flood after the opening of Japanese trading ports following Commodore Perry’s visit in 1854.

Japanese class structure had its own impact on textiles. The Tokugawa military regime, which ruled from 1600 to 1868, instituted a rigid class system, and promulgated a variety of sumptuary laws dictating the materials and dyes suitable to each class. As a result, until the laws were abolished with the collapse of the Tokugawa government, a farmer might cultivate silk, for example, but would be prohibited by law from wearing it. Only those on the highest rungs of society could wear silk lawfully, and only those who fell outside the system such as actors and courtesans, or the elite of the economically powerful merchant class, could flout the laws with some impunity.

A textile’s purpose also dictated its characteristics. Functional textiles had to be hardier than ornamental ones; celebratory textiles were more festive and imaginative than quotidian textiles; workers’ apparel was structured and decorated differently from that of the more leisured classes, winter garments were denser (in weaving, padding or layering) than summer ones. Design motifs are often a clue to a textile’s purpose. While clothing is perhaps the most obvious use of textiles, it is by no means the only use. Traditional Japanese material culture was no different in using textiles to fulfill a variety of needs.

Over the centuries, in the endless quest for the beautiful and the novel, the Japanese developed or adopted countless ingenious weaving and dyeing methods, many of which survive in some form today. While it would be impossible to catalogue all of them here, The Secret Life of Japanese Textiles includes examples from central Japan that illustrate some of the most popular techniques for making and embellishing these fabrics.

This exhibition would not have been possible without the help and support of people too numerous to mention, but special recognition must go to four wonderful friends. I am forever indebted to the late Tomoyuki Yamanobe, Curator Emeritus of the Textile Department at The Tokyo National Museum, for his endless knowledge and endless generosity in sharing it. I am similarly indebted to the late Masakazu Utsumi, former Dean of Students at Tama Art University, for his boundless kindness and warm moral support during my studies there. A special thank you for their expertise, labor and patience must go to Nobuko Kajitani, Conservator Emerita, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for vetting the text that accompanies the exhibition, and to Midori Sato, Conservator, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for working magic with needle and thread. Their assistance has been invaluable.

Finally, I would like to thank Isetan Kenkyūjō, which had the foresight many years ago to capture traditional weaving and dyeing techniques on film, and the kindness to allow some of those films to be shown to a new audience.

-Valerie Foley, Guest Curator