Kyoto embroidery is a Delicate embroidery born of Kyoto’s elegant culture

kyoto embroidery

Japanese traditional crafts embodying the glittering history of Kyoto


What is Kyo-nui, Japanese Embroidery?

Kyo-nui is a type of Japanese embroidery
with a history of more than 1,500 years, which developed in Kyoto Prefecture
and is produced in Kyoto and Uji cities. Kyo-nui is one of the traditional
crafts that uses various colors to decorate silk and linen fabrics like Isesaki-Kasuri, preserving
the elegant Heian period style in the present day. There are many kinds of
“embroidery” in Japan. For example, there is one in Nagasaki in the
south and another in Hiroshima. However, only Kyoto and Kaga are designated as
traditional crafts by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan.
Even just Japanese industry has sophisticated techniques, but Kyo-embroidery is
the one of the most selective and high quality among them.

The charm of Kyo embroidery is its beauty.

Craftsmen of Kyo-embroidery use a hundred
different techniques and combine silk threads of more than 10,000 colors to
create the “beauty of Japan. For example, the color of indigo can be
called “blue indigo,” “blue blue”.  It is very difficult to handle
and create Japanese colors that have been used for thousands of years. However,
there is a mysterious gentleness in silk cloth and silk thread that harmonizes
them. Embroidery is made on a flat surface, but there is something
three-dimensional and deep about Kyo embroidery.

kyo-nui, embroidery
Source: Kyo-nui, Sugishita

Particularly famous techniques of Kyo

Matsui embroidery

A technique of embroidering lines. The stitching is done along the lines of
the underpainting using a backstitch to form the character for “no”
in Katakana (a kind of Japanese letter). The thickness of the line is determined by the layering of the

Cutting Embroidery

This is a technique for embroidering
relatively small patterns or narrow surfaces, regardless of the length or width
of the cloth, in a diagonal or horizontal direction. For example, when
embroidering cherry blossoms or plum blossoms in a single pass, it is essential
to keep the embroidery in close contact with the base of the embroidery so that
it does not float. The technique of cutting a line pattern thicker than the
line pattern diagonally is called “katagiri embroidery”.

Split embroidery

Technically, this is diagonal stitching of
“katakiri” embroidery. The design is symmetrical at the center line,
such as leaves, and is embroidered separately on the left and right sides.

Stitching embroidery

The first stage is embroidered with the
outer stitches aligned and the inner stitches long and short, while the second
stage is embroidered by interleaving the threads of the first stage and
overlapping them. The second step is repeated for the third and fourth steps.
This technique expresses the characteristics of the pattern by using long and
short needle stitches and thin and thick threads. When using plain thread,
embroidery is done so that the needle joints are not noticeable.

Split & stitching embroidery

A technique in which a symmetrical pattern
like leaves is not embroidered across the center line as in split-embroidery,
but is instead embroidered from the outside inward using stitching.

Foggy embroidery

A technique of sewing with thin threads and
pressing at a slight angle to the threads of the main embroidery so that the
sewn threads do not lift from the ground. The same threads as those of the main
embroidery are used to make the pressing threads inconspicuous, but sometimes
threads of a different color are used to produce light rays. It is important to
pay attention to the angle and the thickness of the embroidery thread.

Kimono with Kyo-nui, embroidery
Source: Kyowa Kogei

History of Kyo embroidery – with the Heian

The origin of Kyo embroidery dates back to
794 A.D., when the Heian-kyo capital was built. It is said that it began with
the establishment of a department called “Oribe-no-Otsushi (Oribe Office
or Nuibe-no-Otsushi),” which assigned craftsmen to embroider and mend
kimonos at court. In Kyoto, the capital of Japan at that time, embroidery
techniques were developed for use on kimonos. Since then, Kyo-embroidery has
been used for a variety of purposes.

In the Heian period (794-1185), it was
mainly used for juni-hitoe (12-layered kimono worn by female aristocrats), in
the Kamakura period (1185-1333), it was used for the body clothes of warlords,
and in the Muromachi period (1333-1573), it was used for Noh costumes and doll
costumes. This period marked the height of the popularity of Kyo-embroidery.

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the
Meiji Restoration, Western-style culture developed, and order makers such as
warriors and temples and shrines lost their power, and Japanese embroidery and
Kyo embroidery, which were so-called luxury items, suffered a great shock.
Therefore, embroidered paintings and tablecloths were manufactured to adapt to
the changing lifestyle. In 1873, when Kyo embroidery paintings were exhibited
at the Vienna World Exposition, they were highly acclaimed overseas, and the
export industry of Kyo embroidery began. Then, in a complete turnaround, demand
for Kyo embroidery rose sharply, and Kyo embroidery craftsmen supported Japan’s
economy. Thus, Kyo embroidery has continued to develop while demand has
gradually changed.

In modern Japan, there are fewer
opportunities to wear kimono on a daily basis. However, traditional craftsmen
have inherited the techniques and continue to produce kimonos decorated with
Kyo embroidery. It is also widely used for interior decorations, Furisode (long-sleeved kimono) for coming-of-age ceremonies, all of which fit
the Japanese lifestyle. Kyo embroidery also adorns the eaves hangings,
dozukake, and Miho of the Yamaboko floats of Kyoto’s famous Gion Festival. In
1976, Kyo-embroidery was recognized by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and
Industry as one of Japan’s representative traditional crafts.

Kyoto embroidery

Production Process and Methods

1. Planning

Draft a design to be embroidered. The
designs may be classical or original. The designs are drawn in pencil or ink.

2. Drafting

The preliminary drawing is made by either
copying through the cloth by lighting or, more recently, by silk-screening. The
lines of the preliminary drawing are made of a material that disappears as the
embroidery is stitched.

3. Color Scheme

The colors of embroidery threads are
determined according to the design to be embroidered. It is said that there are
2,000 types of threads used in Kyo embroidery, and since each embroidery store
has its own color preferences, the number of colors, including threads dyed by
the store itself, is enormous. From among these, the most suitable color for
the design is selected. The choice of colors is left up to the sensitivity of
the embroiderer, and experienced craftsmen rely on their experience and
intuition to determine which colors to use.

4. Fabric stretching

The fabric on which the rough sketch is
drawn is fixed to a frame for embroidery. When embroidering a large area, the
fabric is fixed to a frame called a “daibari. The fabric is then placed on
a bar called a “hibo,” which is pulled to hold the fabric in place
without distorting it. When embroidering relatively small items such as kimono
crests, the fabric is fixed to a special embroidery frame called a

Next, the embroidery thread is twisted using
a special rod called a “yori-bo. Twisting the embroidery thread is a
characteristic of Kyo-embroidery, and it gives the thread strength. The surface
irregularities caused by twisting also produce shades of color, giving the
threads greater depth of color. At the same time, luster is created, which is
essential for the delicate expression of Kyo-embroidery.

5. Embroidery Process

Needles used for embroidery are handmade,
and there are more than 10 different types. Currently, there is only one
company in Hiroshima that manufactures needles, making them a very valuable
tool. There are about 15 basic types of stitches used in Kyo embroidery, but if
detailed stitches are included, there are said to be as many as 150 types.
Originally, a division of labor was used for each stitching method in Kyo
embroidery, but this system disappeared with the passage of time. Today, each
store pursues its own unique way of stitching and creates a gorgeous world of

6. Finishing

The embroidered fabric is glued on the reverse
side for strength and visual beauty, and then finished.

kyoto embroidery
Source: omomuki-tsushin

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