Date of this Version
In Approaching Textiles, Varying Viewpoints: Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2000
The production of Echigo j u, a fine Japanese ramie textile, is in crisis. Woven on a body-tension 100m from hand-plied threads and often incorporating detailed warp and weft kasuri (ikat), Echigo j u is arguably one of the most sophisticated extant bastfiber traditions in Japan, and perhaps the world. Media and researchers alike regularly laud its ancient production processes, but contemporary makers are facing the almost insurmountable challenge of remaining financially solvent in a rapidly diminishing kimono market, with an increasing scarcity of artisans. One reason that Echigo j u survives today is because it has been designated an important Intangible Cultural Property by the government of Japan. This designation, given only to a small number of outstanding craft traditions, stipulates adherence to a set of specific highly skilled and non-mechanized production processes. It is significant to note that four out of the five woven textile industries to which the government has granted this status require the use of labor-intensive hand-plied or hand-spun thread in both the warp and the weft. While the recognition and subsidies accompanying the Important Intangible Cultural Property designation have unquestionably benefited Echigo j u as a tradition, the high standards and expectations they have set for the industry have not always concurred with practical reality. At the crux of the problem is the fact that Echigo j u is made not by one artisan but by a complex system of divided labor. Each time even a single link is cut from the production chain of craftspeople, makers are forced to either discretely find alternative means and sources or face the very real prospect of losing their livelihood. Only after I had worked side-by-side for months with weavers and textile producers was it admitted to me that a dearth of local artisans has forced thread merchants to look abroad for handplied thread.