Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, has a lot of history, a lot of culture, and a lot of claims to fame: the purest water for the best sake, tofu, and green tea; historic temples on mountaintops with blessed waters; resplendent castles that host innovating art. One interesting aspect of Kyoto’s culture that doesn’t seem to be so well-known is its weaving and textile tradition: Nishijin-Ori.
Why is it called Nishijin-Ori (西陣織)? Well, because it is made in the Nishijin district, with the phrase itself literally translating to Nishijin (西陣) fabric (織). Here, there are many historic homes and warehouses, as well as modern structures, some of which host textile factories, where traditional weaving is practiced, with looms, threads, patterns, and all!
One such place is the Nishijin Textile Center, home of the Nishijin Textile Industry Association, the main organizational body of the craft.
This place is big! It has three main floors: Floor three has showrooms and stages where kimono fashion shows are usually held, but, due to the pandemic, all shows were put on indefinite hiatus. When we went up there, it was mostly just the soft echoes of our steps and a few quiet restrooms to see.
The second floor has a large array of goods you can shop for: This is where you can get small pieces of cloth, cloth bags, banners, and clothing, all made from traditional Nishijin textiles. If you’re lucky, you can even see a live weaver at the massive loom in the back, cranking away at their work as they show how all of the moving parts dance together to create the harmony of fabric.
The first floor has a few historic and informational displays, as well as a rotating selection of Nishijin goods. When we went, the name of the game was ties! I picked up this beautiful green tie for a couple thousand yen. If you’re willing to pay a little extra more for a higher quality good, Nishijin clothing will be right up your alley!
Another fine locale to experience Nishijin-Ori is the Orinasukan / Handwoven Technology Promotion Foundation, located just northwest of the Nishijin Textile Center (about 10 min by bus).
This location works a bit more like a showroom, displaying the history and mechanic know-how of Nishijin-Ori. We had a lovely woman show us around in Japanese and we were given a nice fact sheet in English to help us navigate what was being said and shown. In the warehouse attic, dozens of looms stood on standby, patterns draped and ready to be fed into the machines, threads taught and ready to be integrated with one another. The rest of the second floor had many ornate displays of Nishijin artistry: banners and Kimono draped on neat displays for all to admire.
The selection of goods to purchase was more limited here, with a small gift area in the front lobby area with a few pieces of cloth and cloth goods. We ended up picking up a set of Kyoto-themed coasters, with images of Kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera sewn into the soft fabric.
The Oldest Form of Nishijin-Ori
The oldest variation of Nishijin-Ori is Tsumekaki Hon Tsuzure-Ori, which literally translates to Nail-Scratching Genuine Tapestry Weave. Why such a name? Well, because its weavers take on a special characteristic: They file specific grooves into their fingernails that allow them to lace the threads together very precisely. This allows the weavers to create very intricate patterning that machine weaving seems to lack. The craft itself is now very niche, with few practitioners around today. One company, Kiyohara Orimono, located in Shiga Prefecture, continues to practice this craft and puts out some very lovely crafts and clothing options. I was lucky enough to purchase a bowtie made this way (pretied, however, so a bit of a cheater tie), and it is in my regular wardrobe rotation. These were also available in the gift shop on the first floor of the Nishijin Textile Center.
We love us some traditional textiles here! Are there any traditional textiles or clothes-making techniques where you’re from! Let us know in the comments below and we’ll check them out when we’re in your neighborhood!