Kurume gasuri, A Legendary Japanese Ikat

Kasuri (絣) is the Japanese term for what is more commonly known by its Indonesian name, ikat. It refers to a process of reserve dyeing threads as well as to the resulting material woven from these threads. Kasuri may be contrasted in this way against shibori, whose motifs are created through reserve dyeing on whole fabrics rather than on threads.
Born in India, ikat culture exists in a variety of places across the globe – including the derivative European chiné à la branche that was so prized by Marie-Antoinette. Among the dozen or so different kasuris produced in Japan, kurume gasuri (久留米絣) from Fukuoka typifies the art.
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Application of a design onto warp threads, corresponding to a sketch. © Japan Traditional Craft Ayoma Square, 2015
While ikat was propagated through Japan by its southern islands of Ryûkyû, close to Taiwan, kurume gasuri was elaborated in the heart of Japan. Legend has it that the term and technique come from Inoue Den, a young woman born in 1788 in Kurume, on Kyushu island – at the meridian amidst the four principle islands.
This twelve-year-old farmer’s daughter noticed white dots on her likely well-worn clothing. Evoking snowflakes, the design that grew from this came to be known as hakumonsanran (scattered white pattern), yukifuri (snowfall) or arareori (hail-cloth). Analyzing the fabric’s composition, this patient and curious child was the source of the key step in kasuri, the thread twisting.
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The threads are bound before dyeing. The tied zones are “masked” and thus preserved against the penetration of the dye. This step determines the pattern of the final woven fabric, which varies in complexity. © Japan Traditional Craft Ayoma Square, 2015
Woven by farmers since the end of the 19th century, this cotton fabric became a craze across the public. Even into the 1960s it was the material par excellence for work clothes and daily wear. Traditionally indigo, its colours and patterns have changed to please an even larger group of consumers – though purists never see anything beyond the traditional snow-dusted deep blue.
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Untied threads. © Japan Traditional Craft Ayoma Square, 2015
It takes some thirty steps across four phases to produce this material: motif design and translation into threads; thread knotting (the knotted zones are protected and remain white); dyeing, unknotting and sun-drying; and finally hand-weaving. Each step is precise and careful, carried out by an artist-cum-artisan.
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Hand weaving on treadle loom. © Japan Traditional Craft Ayoma Square, 2015
Like yuki tsumugi (a silk pongée) and ojiya-chijimi, kurume gasuri has been elevated to the status of art. It was designated an “intangible cultural good” in 1957 and a “métier d’art” in 1976; today it is the center of efforts to preserve and pass on the expertise needed to continue production.
The images accompanying this article are stills from the video produced by the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries.
Cover Photo: Kurume gasuri, a snowflake-shaped ikat pattern. © Japan Traditional Craft Ayoma Square, 2015