Oshima Tsumugi - the Japanese Art of Silk-Weaving
by Emi Graziani
What is Oshima Tsumugi?
Oshima Tsumugi is a beautiful Japanese silk fabric that is manufactured
through an unbelievably intricate and complex process. I use the term "unbelievable" because
I fear some of you may not believe me as I outline below what is involved
in making these fabrics. It is THAT amazing. Maybe telling you that
it takes 6 months to a year to complete one single piece of cloth measuring
less than 5 square yards will
clue you in on the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes into
each piece of work.
I've attempted to describe below the major steps involved in the process.
Ready? Here we go ...
THE DESIGN- the start of a journey. ... A looooong journey.
Firstly, the intricate designs of the Oshima Tsumugi are drawn on
graph paper - this becomes the blueprint of the dying and weaving
processes. Hm, so far so good. Sounds like something you could
do, right? Keep reading ...
STARCHING - prepping the silk
The silk threads are starched with a special type of glue made from
seaweeds found in the seas of Amami Oshima. This is an important step that not only serves to prevent fraying of the threads,
but also helps the threads better retain the color in the dying
process. This step is repeated to ensure even dying at a later
BINDING - just like tie-dye! ... Not.
In this step, the silk threads are bound to cotton threads according
to the pattern blueprint. An overly simplistic analogy would be
tie-dying a T-shirt: where the T-shirt is bound tightly, you get
less dyeing than where it is not bound. Now, imagine applying that
same concept ... except we're not talking T-shirts and rubberbands,
but each individual silk thread that will become part of the finished
fabric, and cotton threads with which to bind them. The
cotton threads serve not only to protect the select portions of
the silk threads from being dyed, but alsokeeps the threads aligned
to a perfect grid formation throughout the subsequent processes.
The unparalleled precision (and patience!) used in this binding
process results in the intricate patterns of the finished product.
DYEING - Dye x 20. Dye again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat ...
OK, now that I've asked you to imagine the T-shirt tie-dying process,
please shut that image out of your mind. Because dyeing the silk
threads Oshima Tsumugi-style is nothing like dunking a T-shirt
in a pot full of dye.
First, you have to make the dye. (I told you it's not going to be easy!)
Finely chopped Sharinbai branches and roots are boiled for two
days in a large pot, then the extracts are set aside for 4-5
days. The threads are dyed in this extract 20 times,
each time with a new vat of liquid.
Dyeing part 2: the thread is then dyed in iron-rich mud. Aside from giving
its signature brown-black color, the mud-dying process results
in such added benefits as making the end product wrinkle-resistant,
fire-retardant, stain-resistant, and anti-static.
Done with dyeing? Not quite.
These two dyeing processes must be repeated 4~5 times! And by the way, we're
still not done with dyeing.
MORE DYEING - MORE Dyeing!!!??
So far we've dyed the silk threads in just one color - the brown-black
color given by the Sharinbai and mud dyeing processes. If we want
more color, we must do more dyeing.
The cotton threads are unbound from the silk threads in those areas
that require further dyeing. This reveals the white, underlying
silk threads that were undyed in the previous steps. (You can
flash back to the tie-dyeing example for a moment if it helps
... but once the theoretical understanding is achieved please
remember to promptly shut that image out again.)
Colored dyes are then rubbed into the silk threads one spot at a time,
one strand at a time, according to the initial design layout.
This process involves a tiny tiny syringe and a huge huge amount
of patience. And a very keen keen eyesight.
When this last dyeing process is completed, then all remaining cotton
threads are torn off and discarded.
And oh, by
the way, in case you're thinking of doing this as a hobby ... it
takes about 10 years for one to "learn" the
proper dyeing techniques.
WEAVING - or more accurately, matching the threads one spot at a time
As you may have guessed, the weaving process is not any easier than
the other steps. It demands skillful workmanship, as each row is
carefully and meticulously threaded by hand. As each thread is
woven by aligning it to the patterns on the other threads, the
overall design slowly begins to emerge. After every 7cm
or so worth of progress, one must carefully adjust the positions
of the threads with a needle to ensure precise alignment of the
INSPECTION - it ain't official til they say so
It is now many months since we first laid out our pattern on paper,
and finally, FINALLY the last silk thread has been woven to complete
the masterpiece. But we're not done yet. The finished products
must be sent to a special Oshima Tsumugi association to pass a
rigorous 26-point inspection. How rigorous? Well, let's just say
that it involves a panel of Oshima Tsumugi experts carefully reviewing
every aspect of your product for the minutest error or disparity in quality.
They will even bust out some test tubes for a chemical analysis
of the threads, so don't even think about passing off mom's dusty
old curtain as a genuine Oshima Tsumugi product!