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Meriyasu: the rise of machine-knitted fabric

メリヤス

“History

Knitting was first introduced to Japan during the Nanban trade period (1543–1614 CE) when trade relations with Europe were established in earnest. The Japanese term for knitted fabric,  meriyasu, is derived from the Portuguese word ‘meias’, meaning ‘socks’.  Meriyasu  specifically refers to fabric made using a plain stitch which can stretch in both horizontal and vertical directions. The first knitted items that entered Japan were primarily socks, gloves and undergarments; however, as the use and range of knitted fabric expanded to outerwear and non-clothing items, the term  meriyasu  became outdated and from mid-1950s the English word ‘knit’ came into the common vernacular.

Knitting Samurai

Meriyasu production first began in Nagasaki, in the south of Japan, but soon spread to Edo, present-day Tokyo, where, due to the relative peace and stability of the Genroku era (1688–1704 CE), many samurai took up hand-knitting to supplement their income. The Meiji era (1868–1912 CE) brought in the abolition of the feudal clan system, leaving many low-ranking samurai out of work, and they turned to hand-knitting in even greater numbers. They worked with knitting needles and thin iron rods, using cotton and silk thread to make tabi, Japanese socks with a separate part for the big toe, undershirts, gloves for firearm handling, hilt and handguard covers for swords, and other items. Much of this production took place in the Honjo district, in eastern Tokyo, where many residences of feudal clan lords, daimyo, had been located and were now transformed into knitting factories.

Industrialization

The Meiji government recognized that the textiles industry was to play a big part in the industrialization of Japan, and actively encouraged mechanization and mass production of knitted fabric. State-run factories were established to lead and inspire private enterprise. In 1870 Japan's first machine-made knitwear was produced by the entrepreneur Nishimura Katsuzō in Tokyo, after he purchased a new Komaru circular sock knitting machine from America; the following year, he purchased a new horizontal rubber knitting machine in order to improve the quality of his products. Following suit, many knitting factories equipped with similar machines were established in Honjo, which came to be regarded as the birthplace of Japan's knitting industry. As the industry developed, different types of knitting machines came into use, such as double-sided and hanging knitting machines.

Growth of the knitting industry

The Meiji government's modernization of Japan's military, based on the Western system, played a key part in the development of the knitting industry – vast numbers of knitted military clothing and accessories were now needed. Following the reform, every military conflict stimulated a surge in the production of knitted fabric: the Satsuma Rebellion (1877), Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and World War I (1914–1918). At the same time, the growth of Japan's urban population and their changing lifestyle further contributed to the expansion of the knitwear market. In 1883 the government opened the Rokumeikan, a hall which served as a premier location for cultural exchanges with the West, and started promoting imported knitted garments. Clothing influenced by European and American fashions was adopted by young urbanites and uniforms worn by various types of workers began to be made of knitted fabric.

The Tokyo Meriyasu Trade Association

As capacity for manufacturing knitted fabric increased, separate producers took responsibility for individual stages of production – spinning, knitting, bleaching and dyeing, readjustment and sewing. In 1905, producers of knitted fabrics in Tokyo, including machine and needle manufacturers, and sellers of knitted goods, formed The Tokyo Meriyasu Trade Association. Their membership grew from 250 in 1905 to 680 in 1916 as the industry expanded; this was in part due to the demand generated by World War I (1914–1918), as the knitting factories were not only working to meet the domestic needs but also exporting military uniforms to Japan's European allies. Despite the recession that hit Japan after the end of the war, meriyasu production continued to thrive; however, in 1923 the Great Kantō Earthquake struck, wreaking great damage in Tokyo, with a devastating impact on the meriyasu industry; over 9,860 knitting and sewing machines were destroyed and hundreds of workers’ lives were lost.

Japanese knitwear today

Today, the term ‘meriyasu’ refers specifically to machine-knitted fabrics, while ‘amimono’, knitted material, and ‘nitto’, knitted fabric and knitwear, have replaced it in everyday use.

Tokyo Knit Fashion Association, established in 1945, is an organization of small and medium-sized enterprises and small businesses that produce knitted fabrics and products. One of its members, Maruwa Textile Industries, developed their own patented technology, '4-Dimension Motion System', and used it to design a knitted shirt which was adopted by JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) for use by astronaut Yamazaki Naoko onboard the space shuttle 'Discovery' in 2010. Another member, Nakahashi Meriyasu, established in 1951 in Honjo, in the Sumida ward of Tokyo, has supplied global fashion houses with its knitted fabrics. Inspired by the history of knitting in Japan, they have created a series of reversible hand-finished slipper-socks called ‘Merippa’ – a fusion of the words ‘meriyasu’ and ‘slippers’.