Deep in the heart of Shiga in a small town called Aisho-cho, the art of traditional weaving techniques is being masterfully preserved by the Ōmi-Jofu Traditional Crafts Center. It is here where I would learn about the level of focus and diligence required to weave a seemingly simple piece of cloth using traditional Japanese techniques.
Upon entering the crafts center, we were graciously greeted by energetic staff members, who brought us into the main weaving room. Inside the room were colorful fabrics and expertly crafted textiles, and at the center were several types of looms. The staff members then proceeded to teach us about the different kinds of materials used in creating textiles. I learned that hemp, or “Asa” in Japanese, was the material I would be weaving with to make a small square of cloth. To accomplish this, I used a Ji-bata loom, which was used extensively in Shiga for making textiles before more modern looms were adopted.
Before I began, the staff members showed me how the hemp threads are meticulously separated from the stems of the plant before they could be prepared for use. Then my instructor deftly demonstrated how to use the loom, using her whole body to control the complex array of strings and levers, appearing to be an extension of the machine itself. It was then my turn to weave, and she helped me get set up. The loom was low to the ground, and the tension was controlled by a floating foot pedal and a strap wrapped around my back. It took me some time to understand how to properly control the loom with my body while threading left and right, but after a few minutes I got into a rhythm and started feeling more comfortable with the process. After settling in, it was relaxing and almost meditative to focus on the craft, letting my thoughts go free. Soon enough, an hour passed and I completed my square of hemp fabric. Compared to a sample of my instructor’s fabric, mine was very crude, but I enjoyed the process nonetheless.
After trimming the edges of my little square of hemp fabric, the staff taught me about kasuri, a type of fabric that has been woven with fibers dyed specifically to create patterns and images. This causes the patterns to have a soft and blurry appearance, and many variations are possible. On another more modern machine, my teacher demonstrated how it was made, expertly threading the kasuri back and forth. I was amazed by the amount of patience and skill required to make these finely crafted textiles.
These weaving techniques have their roots in a time when Shiga was referred to as “Ōmi”, before the prefectural system was established. Ōmi played a large role in the commercial activities during the Edo period, as it was a center of travel between Edo and Kyoto. Textiles were an important part of goods produced in Ōmi, providing quality clothing and other necessities.
Having experienced the process of creating only a small piece of fabric with the Ji-bata loom, I could only imagine the amount of dedication required to produce a significant amount of textiles, working day in and day out to keep up with the demands of the ravenous market during the Edo period.
Thanks to the Ōmi-Jofu Traditional Crafts Center, we can imagine how different life was long ago without the modern conveniences taken for granted today. Weaving my own fabric was eye opening, making me realize the amount of mastery required to make quality textiles. It was a pleasantly unique and relaxing experience, perfect for travelers wanting to participate in something truly different in Japan.