Tango Chirimen

丹後ちりめん

Video by Kyoto by the Sea Destination Management Organization

Tango chirimen is a type of flat-woven silk crêpe that has been produced for over 300 years in the Tango region, located on the northern coast of Kyoto Prefecture. The technique for weaving chirimen was brought to Japan from China at the end of the 16th century CE and became popular in Nishijin: a district in Kyoto known for weaving. In 1720, a weaving apprentice in Nishijin, Kinuya Saheiji, introduced the technique to his home region of Tango. Made of high twist raw silk yarn and characterized by its textured surface, this soft and wrinkle-free silk crêpe has for generations been the preferred fabric for making yūzen-dyed kimono. Despite the proliferation of European-style dress, synthetic yarns and mechanized weaving techniques that became popular in the mid-20th century CE, the tradition of Tango chirimen has continued to thrive.

Tango

The geography and climate of Tango have provided the perfect conditions for the development of the area’s 1,300 year-old silk industry. Its humidity helps to preserve the silk threads which can be damaged by a dry atmosphere, while its coastal location and abundance of mountain springs and rivers offer a plentiful supply of the soft water required in the weaving process. The Tango region is renowned for its expertise in producing chirimen and the tradition continues to be passed down among local weavers today. Kyōtango is now the principal town in the region, after several towns merged in 2004, and the area is the largest manufacturer of silk textiles in Japan, accounting for a third of the country’s silk textile production.

What is chirimen?

Chirimen is a flat-woven silk crêpe made of high twist raw silk yarn. It is a soft fabric that doesn’t crease easily, and its signature crimped surface texture (shibo) is what distinguishes chirimen from other silks. Historically, the most prevalently produced chirimen was plain white because it could be easily dyed (and re-dyed). This is one of the reasons chirimen was particularly suitable for yūzen-dyed kimono production. Yūzen is a resist dyeing technique that allows precise and intricate designs to be hand-painted directly onto the cloth. Whether dyed before or after the weaving process, chirimen’s crimped shibo texture diffuses light, creating varying tones and lustre that bring out a depth of colour rarely seen in untextured fabrics.

How chirimen is made

To create chirimen, weft (horizontal) threads are spun up to 3,000 to 4,000 times per metre by a twisting machine that keeps the fibres wet throughout spinning to avoid breakage. The tightly twisted weft threads are then woven with warp (vertical) threads, which are more loosely twisted. The fabric is then removed from the loom and scoured to remove impurities including sericin (a protein produced by silk worms that coats silk threads). This lengthy process causes the fabric to shrink by up to 30%, creating the bumpy relief shibo effect across its surface. Weavers are able to create a variety of textured chirimen by skilfully adjusting the twist ratios, fibre denier and ply, as well as the weave structure. Finally, the refined cloth is cut to the required length and carefully inspected for imperfections. In Kyōtango, chirimen that passes this inspection is stamped with registration and validation marks which are unique to Tango chirimen.

KYOTO Design Lab

2020 marked the 300th anniversary of Tango chirimen production. To demonstrate the relevance of the craft today and in the future, KYOTO Design Lab [D-lab], interdisciplinary design and architectural incubator at Kyoto Institute of Technology, challenged designers from eight countries to respond with proposals of future possibilities for the material. The resulting exhibition, Alternative Futures: contemporary design responses to the 300 year Tango chirimen tradition, presented ten sets of works that explored combinations of chirimen with materials and techniques such as urushi (Japanese lacquer), 3D printing, laser cutting, wood turning, and various dyeing and printing methods. The curator of the exhibition, Professor Julia Cassim, said: “Craft traditions are often seen as immutable but for designers they exist to learn from, subvert and exploit in new and exciting ways.”

Examples of chirimen by Nuno

Over the past 300 years, craftspeople in Japan have honed and developed chirimen weaving techniques using new materials and technologies while preserving the essence of the chirimen tradition. Today, weavers not only produce the original undyed Tango chirimen for kimono but also work with man-made fibres and craft materials, experimenting with new product development. This season, the Ground Floor at Japan House London presents the works of four producers who specialize in techniques associated with Tango chirimen. All four have contributed their expertise to collaborative projects with the leading textile design firm Nuno, led by Japanese textile designer Sudō Reiko. Sudō’s work is exhibited in MAKING NUNO – Japanese Textile Innovation from Sudō Reiko in the Gallery at Japan House London from 17 May 2021.

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