For a while I focused on obis and accessories but lately I’ve found time for a new obsession…
Welcome to my tsumugi world.
I don’t know – I think I must be completely schizophrenic with my kimono buying. After a rapid-fire couple of months purchasing every zingingly bright Taisho item I could find, I am suddenly plunging into the world of subdued blue and brown fudangi and I’ve discovered a new obsession.
Until now, I’d only had a few tsumugi kimono. In fact, for ages I only had one – this floral peach number bought from Ryujapan many a long year ago. I love its dense and slubby texture but it was still a long time before I deliberately bought another.
I say deliberately because I realised after a while that I actually had a few tsumugi kimono that weren’t labelled as such by the vendor. One is a wonderful cocoa colour with little black hieroglyphs all over it and a café-au-lait lining; one is a garment bought from the same vendor in beige and brown with an arabesque print; a third is a zinging green and yellow with tatewaku design; and a fourth is a beige and blue stripe with a very fine woven gold stripe. All of them, I would now call tsumugi for their slightly rough, slightly matte, textured weave and visible rawsilk slubs.
Then last summer I bought a couple of tsumugi hitoe and absolutely lived in the things. They are incredibly comfortable to wear because they are thin and light, but tough, unlike my delicate Meisen hitoes, which are now getting pensioned off to be worn loose as a kind of long haori or uchikake.
The tsumugi hitoes, in contrast, are hardwearing and practical and number among my most-worn kimono. Both have a soft, Thai-silk-like texture, though tsumugi is a bit of a crapshoot generally – you never know quite what’s going to arrive through the post when you buy online. My peach one, for instance, is much thicker and tougher in texture, almost more like a cotton/silk mix.
Just recently, along came a new Ebay vendor with a whole bunch of tsumugi, with regional variations, and I decided to take a punt on a few. Among the items I’ve bought are two Ojiya hitoe. Ojiya is a city in Niigata prefecture that experiences heavy snowfall in winter, along with the nearby city of Tokamachi, also known for its tsumugi. Ojiya, in kimono terms, was originally known mainly for a fabric called chijimi, made from locally-grown hemp and characterised by a crimped surface known as ‘shibo’, which makes it stand away from the skin, giving a coolling effect in the heat of summer.
But now, chijimi production is an intangible cultural heritage and confined to only a few producers, so the same weaving techniques are also used to produce silk fabric known as Ojiya tsumugi. This is what I have bought, in two weights, and both are lovely, with a crisp, creped surface and very soft, subtle patterning that appears solid at a distance.
Another regional variant I plumped for is Tokamachi tsumugi. Other than knowing that the area is famous for its tsumugi, I had no clue what to expect. Tokamachi experiences up to 20ft of snow in winter and there is a Japanese saying to the effect that the locals invented tsumugi because they have six months of winter (in reality they have four). The kimono I chose is a rich blue and has five colours in the weave. When it arrived, what I was immediately struck by was its firmness and density – this feels like a fabric designed to keep the cold at bay and I look forward to wearing it when the temperatures fall.
About my Yuki tsumugi, however, made in Yuki city, a couple of hours from Tokyo, I had more information, because Yuki tsumugi is another intangible cultural heritage and one of the few fabrics to still be woven by hand, on a backstrap loom. This results in a soft but very tough fabric that is said – in the Japanese way of things – to last three generations. My Yuki tsumugi is a simple blue with a big design like a ban-the-bomb sign on it and when it arrived, I knew straight away that this is the tsumugi for me. It’s thick and soft and dense and cuddly, and again I look forward to wearing it a lot in winter.
My final regional tsumugi purchase is Oshima tsumugi. I’ve been after an Oshima tsumugi for a long time after reading about them on various kimono blogs, including the Immortal Geisha forum, and I finally found one I could afford, in a soft silver grey with a brown hemp leaf pattern. Oshima tsumugi is produced by an incredibly time-consuming and complex production process that involves repeated dyeing in hawthorn root dye followed by repeated immersion in iron-rich muddy water to create a ‘crow’s wing feather black’ colour on the silk. A smooth, fine fabric, it is said to tear easily, so I will have to be careful with mine.
When it arrived, what I was most struck by was its resemblence to Meisen – it offers a similar surface lustre, but is more substantial and wearing it, I feel very grown-up. This is a tsumugi that would suit businesswear, especially in the subdued colourways for which it is known. I felt, too, that it’s not really tsumugi at all, as it’s so smooth and then I discovered that for many years it’s been made with combed silk thread, not tsumugi broken cocoons at all – hence the difference. Only the name remains the same.
Apart from the regional tsumugis, I have been indulging in all manner of ‘nameless’ tsumugis, often just bought for a dollar or two and often hitoe, as I find these very easy to wear (and to wash at home). One is even a ‘sha tsumugi’ – a concept I find very intriguing (it hasn’t turned up yet, so I can’t give a verdict).
Tsumugi is something of a private pleasure. In contrast to showy silks such as rinzu, it is only up close that you see the beauty of the cloth – from a distance, many of them appear to be plain, even dull. But just look at the close-up pix here for an idea of their quiet beauty in real life. I am particularly taken with the third kimono in this list – a modern one with a ‘torn paper’ pattern that has the most amazing richness of texture and colour, while with the yellow one I bought last summer, who would suspect these threads of orange, blue and grey when seen at a distance?
Now, however, I feel like I am disappearing down a tsumugi rabbit hole, having recently learned about doro Oshima, and iro-doro Oshima. What am I to do about the other regional variants such as Shiozawa tsumugi and Shuri tsumugi from Okinawa?
Oh dear, I can feel my bank account groaning already.