Nibutani bark cloth | traditional crafts from Ainu

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Nibutani bark cloth

Nibutani Bark Cloth (called Nibutani-attushi in Japanese) is a bark fiber fabric produced in the region surrounding the the town of Biratori, Hokkaido. The term Nibutani originates from Niputai which is an Ainu (indigenous people of north Japan) language word.  It means “a land where the trees grow thickly”. Ainu people in the region still produce traditional crafts to maintain their cultural practices. The cloth has good breathability, water resistance, durability, and a distinctive texture. Threads spun from the inside layer fiber of wild Manchurian elms growing around the Saru River are woven with a weaving machine called attushi karape.

This weaving machine has a unique shape where one end is fixed to a pillar or a leg of a table, while the other side is fixed around the weaver’s waist. And the weaver uses his body to pull the threads. Nibutani-attushi has been produced with almost the same tools and techniques for more than one hundred years. The fabric is used for making kimono, Hanten (short coats), aprons, belts and accessories. It was originally used to make durable clothing for family members. However, its functionality and beauty were appreciated by Japanese merchants trading with the Ainu, and eventually Nibutani Bark Cloth was designated as a traditional craft.

History

Ainu women spun threads from tree bark and wove the looms to provide sturdy clothing for their families. Since the Ainu language was passed down orally, written records could only be made by the Japanese. And from the late 18th century onward, the records indicate that demand for Ainu crafts increased due to trade with the Japanese.

In 1792, a document (Abashiri City History Compilation Committee, 1958) records that “three sheets of atsushi with a hand width” were exchanged for “a bale of rice containing eight sacks”. An examination of old records suggests that the conditions that encouraged the development of handicrafts in geographically poor areas such as Shari and Saru, where marine products were scarce, were the conditions that prompted the development of handicrafts in search of a means of trade.

From the end of the 1945s, folk craft companies began to purchase more and more handicrafts, and when the folk craft boom of the 1930s occurred, Nibutani bark cloth became a local industry. Men also began to participate in the collection of bark, and the division of labor between those who spin the yarn and those who weave it progressed, and the entire community embarked on mass production.

In March 2013, Nibutani bark cloth, along with Nibutani ita, became the first traditional handicrafts in Hokkaido to be designated by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Production Process of Nibutani bark cloth

1. Collecting bark

The whole family works together to peel and collect the bark of halibut and linden trees. Although there is no rainy season in Hokkaido, the bark is easier to peel in June because it contains more moisture. Select halibut trees with few branches and knots with a diameter of 15 to 20 cm. Insert a trowel into the base of the standing tree at a depth of 30 to 40 cm, peel off a little of the bark and lift up the tree, being careful not to damage the woody parts. Holding the bark with both hands, lift the tree straight up with a width of 7 to 8 cm. Twist and shake the bark, and peel it as long as possible with the same width so that it does not become thin, and you will get a good, long thread.

2. Peeling off the rough bark

After removing the hard rough bark from the mountain, remove the inner bark immediately to prevent it from drying out and take it home. The bark is then folded and carefully removed by hand, sometimes using a sledgehammer, from where the rough bark has been split. The inner bark is then folded and bound with the same inner bark.

Nibutani bark cloth manufacturing process
Copyright :Nibutani Ainu Craft

3. Boil in a kettle to soften.

The collected inner skin is stretched and dried for 2-3 days. Dried in this way, they can be stored for years. The dried inner skin is then bundled and prepared for boiling. The inner skin of halibut is made up of many thin layers, which are softened by boiling with wood ashes so that the thin layers can be peeled off. Bring the water to a boil, add the inner skin, and just before it boils again, add the wood ash. Cover with a lid and simmer for several hours, switching top and bottom sides to ensure even cooking.

Nibutani bark cloth manufacturing process
Copyright :Nibutani Ainu Craft

4. Wash in a stream and peel off the bark.

Wash off the slimy, reddish-brown bark that has boiled softly and turned reddish-brown under running water. If the slime remains, the yarn will not be strong. Strip the fibers evenly so that they do not become thin, while wringing out the layers of peeling fibers.

Nibutani bark coth
Copyright :Nibutani Ainu Craft

5. Drying

Lay them outside on poles and let them dry in the sun for about two weeks. Exposure to sunlight removes the reddish-brown color, and exposure to rain evens out the color.

6. Tear into uniformly thin strips.

Soak in water again to soften the dried fibers so that they can be easily peeled off. Peel off the inner skin as thinly as possible, in a single layer, and then tear into pieces about 2 mm wide. Once the required amount of strips have been removed, they are dried again.

7. Connect the twisted threads with a machine knot to make a ball of yarn.

The fibers are lightly twisted with both hands and spun into a single strand using a machine knot. It is said that it takes one month to make one ball of yarn.

Nibutani bark cloth
Copyright :Nibutani Ainu Craft

8. Warp threads are put on the loom.

Because the warp threads are stretched over the length of the cloth to be woven, the work is often done outside in the open air. To avoid tangled threads and uneven lengths, this work is done on a day when there is no wind. A part of the loom, the part that hangs the warp thread, is secured with a stake, and the stake that hangs the other end of the warp thread is driven into a remote position.

The work of hanging the threads is done by two people. One person moves back and forth between the stake and the loom while unrolling the thread, and the other person hangs the thread on the loom according to a set procedure. Once finished, the warp threads are bound together at intervals of 70 to 90 cm and tied up. The stakes are removed and the outdoor work is finished.

Ainu traditional crafts
Copyright :Nibutani Ainu Craft

9. Weaving while sitting

The loom  is an ancient loom called a koshibata. One warp thread is fixed to a post and the other to the loom, and the weaver weaves while sitting and pulling the warp threads with the weaver’s loom. The woven cloth is then draped and rolled on the floor, and the weaver weaves forward.

Ainu tradition
Copyright :Nibutani Ainu Craft

Summary

These two traditional crafts are now mainstream in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is a very large island, so there are still many traditional crafts in various regions. However, if we consider the history and value of these two nationally famous traditional crafts, we can say that these two are representative of Hokkaido.

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