Shinshu pongee with a prestigious texture | Traditional Japanese crafts in Nagano

Shinshu pongee, a traditional craft that can never be made the same

The characteristic of Shinshu pongee is
said to be its austere luster and folk art-like high quality dyeing. Raw silk,
silkworms, silk balls, and hand-spun cotton yarns are used as raw materials,
and the fabric is dyed with stripes, plaids, kasuri, and plain colors using
mainly herbaceous dyes and traditional dyeing techniques called
“soshiki-dyeing. This process is so delicate that it is said that no two
fabrics are ever the same color. The texture and simplicity of each piece is
brought out by weaving each piece by hand on a loom called a “tebata”
(hand loom). The yarn is sometimes made from silk reeled from the silkworm,
which produces green cocoons, and the pongee woven with this yarn is said to be
light and strong enough to be worn by parents, children, and grandchildren for
three generations.

In terms of the production system, even
after being registered as a traditional craft under the generic name of Shinshu
tsumugi, each region has its own unique production system, and unlike other
production areas, there is no division of labor.


Types of Shinshu pongee

Shinshu pongee is a generic name for silk
fabrics produced throughout Nagano Prefecture, and is called “Matsumoto
pongee”, “Ueda pongee”, “Yamamugi pongee”, “Iida
pongee”, “Ina pongee”, etc., depending on the region where it is
produced. The yarns are dyed using native plant dyes, and the patterns are
mainly stripes and plaids.

The differences among the production areas
are as follows: Ueda Tsumugi is based on stripes and plaid patterns; Matsumoto
Tsumugi is woven with silk from silkworms, which is sometimes called
“Yamako Tsumugi”; Iida Tsumugi is characterized by its simple hand
weaving; and Ina Tsumugi retains a strong tradition of the olden days.

Shinshu pongee
Source: Ginza Kimono Aoki

Traditional techniques and skills

fabrics shall be woven using the following techniques.

  • Yarn-dyed plain weave.

  • The yarn used for the warp shall be raw
    silk (including wild cocoons) The warp yarn shall be hand-knotted raw silk
    (including wild cocoons), ball yarn, or cotton yarn, and the weft yarn shall be
    hand-knotted ball yarn or cotton yarn.

  • A “hand bobbin shuttle” shall be
    used for the beating of the weft yarns.

  • Dyeing of the weft yarns must be done by

Shinshu pongee

History of Shinshu pongee

Shinshu (Nagano Prefecture), also known as
“the land of silkworms,” has long been a center of sericulture, and
the origin of Shinshu silk is said to date back to “ashiginu” woven
in the Nara period (710-794).

In the early Edo period (1603-1867), clans
in Shinshu encouraged sericulture as an industrial policy, and silk fabrics
using raw silk and cotton spun by hand began to be woven as a side job for
farmers. At the same time, the technique of herb-dyeing became popular because
of the abundance of native plants and trees that could be used for dyeing.
Thus, the whole Shinshu area flourished as a production center of pongee
fabrics, and from the Kan’en period (1748- ) to the Meiwa period (1868-1912),
pongee fabrics were shipped to Kyoto every year.

After that, the production of pongee
fabrics declined, and until the mid-Showa period (1926-1989), the technique was
only passed on in a small way for the purpose of technical preservation. After
the war, with the promotion measures of the prefectural government and the
pongee boom, the production of pongee fabrics became active again in the whole
prefecture and has continued to the present day.

 Manufacturing Processes and Methods

1. Refining cocoons and silk

Since ancient times, the refining of boiled
cocoons and raw silk has been carried out using the lye from the supernatant
liquid of straw ashes and filtered liquid. Refining is the process of removing
sericin, a water-soluble protein necessary for the silkworms to glue their spit
threads together to make silkworms.

Refining with lye creates an elegant luster
because potassium and other substances contained in the straw ash are adsorbed
by the fiber. This is an important process that improves the taste of tsumugi
silk, as the fabric becomes more elastic and makes a distinctive sound as the
silk rubs against the fabric.

2. Making cotton

Cocoon cocoons are boiled for several hours
and then spread out one by one with the fingertips of a hand to form a pouch.
The quality of cotton is said to be determined by the selection and blending of
the cocoons used as raw materials, and the quality of the hand-spun yarn is
determined by the quality of the finished cotton. Cotton made from raw cocoons
has a strong pull and is said to be the best quality for manumen tsumugi.

3. Hand Spinning

Shinshu pongee is spun by hand from raw
cotton, and the spun yarn is wound onto a flyer-type hand spinning machine.
Since the yarn is almost untwisted, the result is similar to yarn spun entirely
by hand. The thickness and individuality of the yarn can be felt, giving it a
texture unique to handspinning. Tensanshi, which comes from natural cocoons, is
so precious that it is also known as the queen of fibers.

4. Dyeing

Yarn is boiled using dyes made from natural
dyes made from grasses, trees, nuts, fruit trees, and other natural dyes that
can be gathered depending on the season. The process is repeated by dyeing
according to the four seasons using herb and tree dyes, and then dyeing and
drying again and again using the same dyes. The colors gradually become darker
with each repetition. Dyeing techniques and sense of style are evident in the
process of layering different dyes to fuse the colors together.

Unlike other production areas, there are no
specialized dyeing factories in Shinshu, and the dyeing process is carried out
in each textile factory or workshop. This makes it possible to freely create
colors and pursue satisfactory dyeing. Craftsmen specializing in dyeing are
called dyers, and they have handed down their traditional skills.

5. Weaving

Shinshu tsumugi is woven by hand on a
takahata (high loom). The warp threads are opened by stepping on a treadle, and
a tool called a shuttle is thrown in with one hand to pass the threads to the
other side.

The other hand catches the shuttle, steps
on the treadle again to close the warp, and at the same time strikes the
bobbin, repeating the entire process.

Because it is a manual process, the high
loom weaving by skilled craftsmen has a steady rhythm and a pleasant weaving
sound. Because the fabric is spun with a hand-thrown shuttle, the ground of the
fabric is very tight and the kimono is well tailored.


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