Dec 28, 2007

Silence of the looms

I enjoy collecting and wearing kimono for tea. I feel comfortable and wear kimono whenever I am teaching tea, in the tea room or sometimes just around the house.
When I lived in Kyoto, Japan, I lived near the district called the Nishijin. It is a famous area in the city known for fabric. Not just any fabric, but designers here, for generations, have produced the most beautiful brocade and woven fabrics used in obi and kimono.

Everyday when I would walk to class, I could hear the sounds of the jacquard looms chink-a-chink-a-chink in the homes where the fabric was woven. But I returned to Kyoto last autumn and walked through my old neighborhood for two days. I didn’t hear any looms working in the homes – not a single one.

Ladies don’t wear kimono very often in Japan any more. Just for formal occasions or when they are going to something traditional like a tea ceremony. Some Japanese women that I have taught don’t know how to put a kimono on because they have never done so by themselves. And certainly, women don’t buy wardrobes of kimono – one for every season – any more. With men it is even more rare to dress in kimono – though it seems like hakama is still worn for many martial arts.

So many of the kimono shops have closed and the shops that supplied the accessories for kimono – hair ornaments, zori shoes, fans, combs, sashes and woven cords have also gone away. I met with a seventh generation kimono designer last November. He is the last of his family to design and make kimono. When he retires, the shop will close.

Like many of Japan’s traditional crafts, the kimono is a dying art. The children of the craftsmen no longer want to carry on the business and finding apprentices is getting harder and harder. Young people no longer want to put in the long hours and the many years it takes to master a craft that has little meaning in the modern world. It is getting harder for these craftsmen to make a living practicing their craft. Though we would like to preserve it, I am afraid that soon we will see very little of kimono, obi and accessories.

Last year, The Washington Post had an excellent article, Twilight for the Kimono about the Nishijin and the the art of kimono.

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