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Light Blue Brocade Fabric

Textiles have long played an important role in Japanese life. Japanese weavers and dyers used silk, hemp, ramie, cotton and other fibers, and a range of weaves and decorative treatments, to produce textiles of distinctive design and exceptional aesthetic merit. These textiles were put to many different uses: for clothing of both commoners and elites; for banners, hangings, and other materials produced for use in temples; for theatrical costumes; and for cushion covers, curtains, and other domestic uses. As with many other Japanese arts, Japanese textiles historically have developed through an interaction of external influences and indigenous techniques and design choices, and a tendency to develop both technology and aesthetics to a high degree of refinement.

Historical Overview

The original inhabitants of Japan (people of the Jômon Culture) wove cloth of plant fiber. Invaders from the northeast Asian mainland established the Yayoi Culture in Japan beginning around 300 B.C.E., introducing more sophisticated materials (including ramie and silk) and techniques. But a recognizably Japanese textile culture can be said to have begun in the Yamato Period (c. 300-710 C.E.), when aristocratic clans and the emergent monarchy led to a greatly increased demand for fine fabrics, especially of silk. The introduction of Buddhism in the mid-sixth century swelled the demand for fine textiles for ecclesiastical use. Some of these textiles were imported from mainland Asia, but increasing amounts were produced in Japan. Weavers, dyers and other textile workers from Korea and China were encouraged to settle in Japan under court patronage; the production of textiles was both patronized and regulated by the state, and the best textiles were produced in imperial workshops. Silk fabrics in both plain and twill weave were often dyed in solid colors or in patterns produced by stamped wax-resist dyeing. Brocades were produced for both aristocratic and temple use. Other techniques included appliqué, embroidery, and braiding.

The explosive growth in the number, wealth, and power of Buddhist temples in the Nara Period (710-785) led to an intensified development of textile arts, as well as the importation of mainland textiles on a massive scale. The ensuing Heian Period (795-1185) saw a greater emphasis on domestic production, partly in imperial workshops and partly in private ones. This period saw the continued importance of brocade and embroidery, along with increased use of pattern-woven cloth as a ground for patterned dyeing, whether done by wax- or paste-resist methods or various techniques of shaped-resist dyeing. As the harmonious use of colors in multiple layers of clothing was one of the chief aesthetic principles of dress in this era, great efforts were made to expand and perfect dyeing methods.

The Kamakura (1185-1233) and Muromachi (1338- 1477) periods saw the establishment of military rule under the auspices of the samurai (warrior) class. International trade increased again during this period, bringing a wealth of new materials, techniques and design motifs to Japan. Cotton was introduced at this time, largely supplanting the use of hemp fiber in textiles used by commoners. The development of the Nôh theater under the patronage of the military aristocracy during the Muromachi Period, with its attendant demand for luxurious and brilliantly beautiful costumes, stimulated textile production and innovation. The introduction of multi-harness looms and improved drawlooms led to an increase in production of complex silk fabrics such as damask and satin, which often were used as background fabrics for patterned dyeing (damask) and for embroidery (satin).

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