Ojiya-chijimi, Snow Fabric

“It is in the snow that the thread is spun, and in the snow that the weave is woven. It is the snow that washes and bleaches the fabric. Everything begins and ends in the snow. Chijimi fabric only exists because of snow: we may say that snow is the mother of Chijimi.” So begins the final part of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country (雪国, Yukiguni) – a suitable description of the fabric produced in Echingo, at the heart of Snow Country.
The fabrics of Echigo-jôfu and Ojiya-chijimi were added as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage objects in 2009 – the first time Japanese textiles had risen to this status. Since then, a second material – a silk pongee named yuki-tsumugi – has joined these ranks. Domestically, though, Echigo-jôfu and Ojiya-chijimi fabrics have been classed as intangible cultural heritage objects since 1955 by Japanese authorities. As such, their production is subject to specific conditions: hand-spun ramie (teumi), hand-knotted ikat dyeing (tekubiri), weaving on back-tension looms (zaribata), hand-washing and manual fulling (shibotori), and snow bleaching (yukisarashi).
It is certainly this final step that is most essential and most impressive, its setup resembling a contemporary art installation. Long, narrow bolts of damp fabric are extended over immaculate snow-covered meadows and gardens, transforming the spaces into open-air ateliers. In the early days of Spring, the fabrics are exposed to the bleaching power of sunlight, which is intensified by the snow. Over the course of ten to twenty days, the textiles are also lightened by the penetration of ozonic ions from the snow beds themselves.
Echigo, a former province now part of the Niigata prefecture, covers a vast zone stretching along the coastline of the Japanese sea, between 180 and 400 kilometers north of Tokyo. These lands have always enjoyed a reputation for their rich cultivation of rice, while their mountains – heavily snow-capped in winter – have been renowned for ramie fabrics. Other regions have made this material into their specialty, such as Noto-jôfu in the central North area of Honshû and Miyako-jôfu and Yaeyama-jôfu in Okinawa. Today, production of this plant-based textile from the nettle family is primarily in Asia. In Japan, its cultivation is centered in Shôwa in Fukushima, 160 kilometers from the now-infamous nuclear plant at Fukushima Daiichi.
The association for the conservation of Echigo-jôfu and Ojiya-chijimi-fu is a repository of intricate savoir-faire and works to produce training programs to protect these for future generations. Fewer than 40 bolts of chijimi and jôfu, which are hand-spun and hand-woven, are currently produced annually. The former, a crêpe, differs from the latter, which is ramie-based, most notably from its pleated or crêped appearance, which is known as shibo.
As it has always been, these fabrics are produced during the snowy season between December and March, when humidity and snowfall are appropriate to pleat the ramie threads. One does not tire of these fabrics, though, when winter turns to summer, for “by some harmonious effect of the exchange between light and darkness, the remarkable freshness of this fabric woven in the cold of winter remains, even in the heat of the most torrid summers.” (Kawabata)
As a complement of this article, watch the documentary, as rare as it is surprising, produced in 1964 by NHK [ed. note: Japan’s national public broadcasting organization]. Six minutes, black-and-white expressionist, Japanese without subtitles.
Photo Credits: Yuko Iida