During the Edo era in Japan, the Tokaido road leading from Kyoto and Osaka to the capital Edo was the nation’s main highway. Near the city of Nagoya a village called Arimatsu grew astride the Tokaido and achieved great prosperity through the production of indigo dyed clothing fabrics that were sold to travelers on the highway. These fabrics were decorated using sophisticated Shibori tie-dyeing processes. Shibori techniques already had a long history in Japan but in Arimatsu many processes were developed and refined that allowed the large-scale production of many complex patterns.
Alex and I visited Arimatsu in 2014. The village has long been absorbed within Nagoya’s suburbs and what was once the great Tokaido is now just a sleepy side street lined with many nice old buildings. Several of the buildings are the great warehouses and mansions of the textile merchants who made their fortunes here, alongside old-fashioned restaurants and craft shops selling shibori items. There is also the Arimatsu Shibori Museum, which was the reason for our visit.
The key to Arimatsu’s success lay in systematising and regimenting the production of small and complex repeat patterns. One important technique was the printing of a guide pattern on the fabric using a fugitive ink. This allowed the craftperson to align many hundreds of small individual elements with great accuracy. Various posts and hooks were also developed to help the worker carry out the arduous task of repeating complex patterns.
At the Arimatsu Shibori Museum one can watch craftswomen demonstrate some of their techniques, though when they are working at full speed it is almost impossible to see what they are doing. It is only when they slow down a great deal that one can work out how the seemingly magical knotting techniques are achieved. The ladies we watched were very patient and spent a lot of time showing us exactly what they were doing step by step.
The Museum features a wonderful display of example pieces that show each traditional pattern from untied material through the tied stage, the dyed stage and on to the finished patterned fabric.
There is also a display area showing Kimono and other items created from Arimatsu Shibori fabric.
The museum features a large shop with a wide range of locally produced textile goods ranging from small “touristy” items up to very fine goods such as Kimono at truly eye-watering prices. Sadly, even with the local craftspeople’s great speed and skill, such labour intensive items now struggle to find a market at a viable price. Much of what looks like Shibori fabric sold in Japan today is in fact printed and we discovered that much of the genuine Shibori made for the more commercial end of the market is now sent from Arimatsu to Korea and China where it can be knotted by much cheaper labour.