Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
When a certain effect in textiles can be achieved on two different weaving apparatuses, it is common practice to assume the simpler method to be the more primitive and thus antecedent to the more advanced technique. This paper will discuss two unique Japanese weaving methods that testify to the fact that simple techniques do not always predate their more sophisticated counterparts. In these examples, the simpler weaving methods were actually created in imitation of preexisting textiles from other regions that had been woven on more complex looms. The first of these examples is the Japanese method for voided velvet; the other is a double cloth woven on the small island of Hachijo.
Thanks to its location at the end of the Silk Road, the island nation of Japan was for centuries a cultural reservoir for numerous treasures imported from its Asian neighbors and far-off continents. Chinese and Korean artisans began immigrating to Japan in around the fifth century, bringing with them advanced technology from their respective cultures. At the same time, native Japanese artisans invented weaving methods to imitate the foreign textiles they saw, often without any knowledge of the original techniques they were trying to emulate.
Over Japan's long history, there have been two periods when the foreign influence on textile culture was especially strong. The first of these periods was during the 7th and 8th centuries, when large quantities of primarily Chinese textiles were imported into Japan. Some of these still exist today in the Shoso-in Repository in the ancient capital of Nara. The other wave of foreign textiles into Japan took place between the 15th and 18th centuries, coming from such far reaches as Yuan- and Ming-dynasty China, India, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Among the treasures imported during these centuries were numerous patterned weaves that had been created in far off lands using highly advanced techniques.
One of precious textiles in the later group was Chinese velvet. Japanese weavers had long puzzled as to how to make looped pile on the surface of silk fabrics, a secret that the Chinese had guarded for centuries. The way in which this technique eventually arrived in Japan is described in an Edo-period book, which tells that a metal rod was accidentally left in the loop of a velvet textile imported into Japan around 1650. With this fortuitous discovery, Japanese weavers finally understood that the raised pile loops were formed with wire rods.