Kurume Kasuri

The world of kurume kasuri weaving in Kurume, Kyushu 久留米絣

Cynthia Harvey Baker

FOR THE LAST twenty years I've been fascinated by the making of double-ikat. It's traditionally made in only three countries: India, Indonesia and Japan. To make this magical textile, both the warp and weft threads are meticulously tie-dyed to form distinctive patterns when they are woven together.

I had seen ikat being made in India and Indonesia. Now it was time to learn how it's done in Japan. In May 2013 I headed for the southernmost island of Kyushu and the city of Kurume.

Double-ikat in Japan is called kurume kasuri and is made only in the historic city of Kurume. Here this indigo-dyed woven fabric is 'treasured for its simple but rich patterns and its combination of traditional methods and modern design, which is attracting new attention from the fashion world'. Kurume is not only treasuring its past, but also looking to the future.

Two kasuri designs from the Tomohisa family workshop, Fukuoka, Japan.
Two kasuri designs from the Tomohisa family workshop, Fukuoka, Japan
An order for school Happi Coats in the Yamaura family workshop, Japan.
An order for school "Happi Coats" in the Yamaura family workshop, Kurume, Japan

Early research

A year or so earlier, I had made contact with Sadae Torimura, an expert on kurume kasuri, and her daughter Tomoko. Sadae worked for the Fukuoka Prefecture Textile Research Institute for over 30 years, and from 2002 to 2006 was Professor of Correspondence Education at the Osaka University of the Arts. She is currently on the Inspection Committee of Kurume Kasuri. Sadae and Tomoko kindly organised for me to meet up with two families of master weavers in Kurume.

Tomoko also gave me a book produced by the Kurume Kasuri Preservation Society from which I learned that the founder of kurume kasuri was a Ms. Den Inoue who was born in Kurume and lived there from 1788 to 1869.

When she was about 12 years old, she was intrigued by an old garment made of a 'faded pattern of indigo blue cloth'. She took the textile apart and worked out how it had been woven, then set about trying to reproduce it. After several years of effort, she achieved her goal, and throughout her life Den taught this weaving method, thus establishing today's kurume kasuri.

Looms weaving kasuri, Tomohisa family workshop, Fukuoka, Japan.
Looms weaving kasuri, Tomohisa family workshop, Fukuoka, Japan
Hiroshi Tomohisa and his mother Soeko, holding up one of Soekos designs, Fukuoka, Japan.
Hiroshi Tomohisa and his mother Soeko, holding up one of Soeko's designs, Fukuoka, Japan

The Tomihisa family

The day after I arrived in Kurume I set out to visit the Tomihisa family of master weavers at their factory in nearby Fukuoka. Hiroshi-san, the son, greeted me at the top of the lane and, as we walked, I could hear the evocative clack of the looms.

Kurume kasuri is woven both by hand and on mechanized looms. That day kimono and futon widths, about 12 inches wide, were being woven. Hiroshi told me that the family buy their cotton from California but the indigo is grown in Japan. The noise of the looms in the workshop precluded conversation, so we moved away.

As we sat on a step outside to drink a glass of green tea. Hiroshi introduced me to his wife Masami and baby daughter Ayano. Hiroshi then drove me to the delightful Kurume Kasuri Museum, where the textile is described as 'The heart and mind of Japan'.

Walking around, I suddenly saw the difference between the double-ikat of Japan and those of both India and Indonesia. Besides the pattern alone, in Japan the pattern is sometimes combined with a pictorial design which floats around the pattern. It was interesting to see on one item the misalignment of the individual pieces, emphasizing that these were made by hand, not machine.

Next day I drove to the Tomihisa family complex and again Hiroshi was waiting for me. I was introduced to Soeko, his mother, and we moved upstairs to a large room where Soeko sews. Some of her quilts were displayed on the walls, and Soeko and Hiroshi proudly held up a new one made from kurume kasuri to show me. I looked at some of Hiroshi's lovely new designs. On the wall there was a photograph of Hiroshi's father, Kimihiro, as a young man, weaving.

The Tomihisa family first began weaving kurume kasuri three generations ago, and the business has been passed down by Hiroshi's grandfather Katumi to his son, Kimihiro (Hiroshi's father). Hiroshi told me that in the village of Kurume everyone was a weaver.

The family now makes its own traditional designs and new ones designed Hiroshi. At the moment the fabric is sold only in Japan, but Hiroshi hopes that one day it will become known worldwide.

Indigo dye vats and a bundle of rami in the Yamaura family workshop, Kurume, Japan.
Indigo dye vats and a bundle of rami in the Yamaura family workshop, Kurume, Japan

The Yamamura family

The next day I went to meet the Yamamura family Shoji Yamamura's assistant, Makiko Kakihara met me at the lane leading to the house and weaving complex and took me inside to meet Shoji san. The family business is known as Yama-Ai and is in Yamegun, also near Kurume.

Inside the dyeing room there are about twelve vats covered with wooden lids and bubbling with a greeny/gold sheen. Shoji brought a hank of cotton already tied with rami and showed me how the dyeing was done. This was the first dye bath The hank went in and out with great precision and timing. He squeezed the hank between wooden poles and then immersed it in a second vat, using a tool like a sickle to move the hank evenly through the dye. Again the surplus dye was wrung out and the hank hung up to dry until the next immersion. Some designs, Shoji said needed dyeing up to 40 times and turned from a blue/green to a deep dark blue almost black.

We then moved to another part of the complex where the hanks are corded on heddles ready for the loom. Shoji showed me some of his new designs based on stars and held up the piece Makiko had designed and was now weaving. I saw many hand looms with work in progress. There l met Shoji's mother Fumiko who had taught him to weave. His wife, Etsuko, like Hiroshi's mother is a quilter.

Finally I passed on to an upper room where I was shown the work of Shoji's father, and downstairs again to where the family's work is displayed and there is a small shop. The Yamamura family still use the traditional designs handed down through the generations but new designs are also produced. They source their cotton in China, India and the USA and indigo from Japan.

Shoji told me that the family has designed and made kurume kasuri since the Meiji era, which has involved four generations, the latest being Shoji himself. When I asked why they were weavers, Shoji replied that it was the Kurume speciality so of course they were weavers!

Kurume kasuri, Kurume, Kyushu, Japan.
Kurume kasuri, Kurume, Kyushu, Japan

A world view

The magical indigo and white kurume kasuri fabric is now acknowledged as a Japanese Important Intangible Cultural Property, and has its own Technical Preservation Guild, founded in 1976. It has 31 registered members, whose aim is to continue to improve the quality of kurume kasuri in terms of both skill and future development. In 2012, members produced 50 products which were certified by the Guild. Members exchange ideas, and, through training, aim for higher standards. They also work towards further development of their traditional work and hope that in time kurume kasuri will be acknowledged and admired throughout the world.

This article was first published in The Quilter, Journal No. 138, Spring 2014.

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