The Ryūkyū Kingdom (1429-1879) was a kingdom in the tropical island chain to the southwest of mainland Japan. Today, these islands make up Okinawa Prefecture. The kingdom flourished through international trade, especially with China, and developed a distinct culture known for its beautifully dyed and woven textiles. While craftspeople made painstaking efforts to revive some of these traditions after they were lost in World War II, one particularly exquisite type of fabric, ton-byan, remains a mystery.
In The Lost Textile of Ryūkyū, a documentary produced by NHK, leading textile designer Sudō Reiko takes viewers on a journey through Okinawa as she searches for the secrets of this particularly elusive fabric.
Ton-byan, also known as ‘the lost cloth’, is a slightly translucent fabric with a pale sheen. It is made from unknown plant fibre and has a simultaneously strong and soft texture.
The name ton-byan first appeared in the mid-18th century in Okinawa-related documents that chronicled the history of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.
Under the kingdom's rule, unique textiles developed around Shuri castle in the capital (present-day Naha), distinctly routing these textiles in court culture. It is believed that ton-byan fabric, too, was born from Ryūkyū’s flourishing aristocracy and that only those of high status were permitted to wear a ton-byan kimono.
But the exact origins of the fabric and its composition remain unknown. In the documentary, textile researchers and craftspeople, who have dedicated significant time to unearthing the mystery, share their theories on ton-byan.
As part of her journey through Okinawa, Sudō also explores other weaving and dyeing techniques that are unique to the archipelago, including bingata, kasuri and shuri-ori.
Bingata (bin meaning ‘colour’ and gata meaning ‘pattern’) is a type of stencil dying technique that is said to have originated in the 15th century when stencil techniques and other methods from all around Asia met in Ryūkyū. Bingata is still practised in Okinawa today.
Another technique still practised today is kasuri, which is used by weavers to create patterns with slight changes in movement. Kasuri was introduced from Southeast Asia around the 14th century and underwent unique developments in the kingdom. The Ryūkyū kasuri is characterized by its gentle yet orderly patterns.
Lastly, shuri-ori is a weaving technique that is loved for its colours, patterns and high quality.
About Sudō Reiko
Sudō Reiko is one of Japan’s most influential contemporary textile designers, renowned for creating innovative textiles, championing new sustainable manufacturing methods and working to highlight Japanese textile heritage. She is the Design Director of leading textile design firm Nuno, which was founded in 1984. Known for pushing the boundaries of textile production, Sudō and her team integrate Japanese dyeing and weaving traditions with cutting-edge technology and experimental finishing methods, whilst combining diverse materials such as cotton, silk, metal and paper.
Her special interest in textiles born from Japanese craftsmanship extends to those from Okinawa, which use advanced techniques to create intricate patterns.