About Tsujigahana – the ancient Japanese textile tradition

19th November 2018

tsujigahana art

Tsujigahana is the name given to a group of rare and beautiful textiles that were in fashion in Japan in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was the term that began to be used by textile collectors and dealers in the late nineteenth century. some translate it today as ‘flowers at the crossroads’ as a reference to some of the floral motifs and intersecting pathways seen in some of the surviving designs, but little is known about the original meaning of the word and how it was used.

These textiles are distinguished by designs created through an intricate combination of stitch-resist dyeing complemented by hand drawn stylized floral motifs and pictorial vignettes rendered in ink. As the technique developed, gold or silver leaf and embroidery were also used to embellish the designs. Tiedyeing is the technique most basic to tsujigahana, but each element contributed to the harmony and beauty of the whole. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, other styles of dyeing and surface design became increasingly fashionable and tsujigahana vanished, leaving so little trace of how these lovely examples came to be created that it began to be referred to as a phantom dyeing art.

There are now few extant examples of tsujigahana, and most exist only in fragment form, preserved only because the original treasured garment was often donated to a temple where it would be cut up and reused for priests’ garments or altar trappings. To many today, these representatives of bygone elegance epitomize Japanese textile design and technical execution, even though much of the original design and production process remains shrouded in history.

One day in 1937, when 20-year-old Itchiku Kubota, the famous textile artist, was a young yūzen dyer, he walked into the Tokyo National Museum and underwent a life-changing experience. He wandered into a room in the museum and saw, for the first time, a fragment of tsujigahana that was on display. Such was the impact of this small remnant, he said, that “for over three hours I remained transfixed there in the deserted museum hall, contemplating this little fragment of fabric which seemed to have been on display in the showcase for me alone.”

The colors were very faded, Kubota said, and “though only a ghost of its former splendor remained … I ‘saw’ it as it must have appeared several centuries ago … The encounter had been intense, charged with mystery. I later thought that, if such a thing as reincarnation did exist, then the creator of this tsujigahana would have been me.”  Kubota vowed to recreate the subtle beauty of this lost art although there were no guides or mentors to show him the way.

About Tsujigahana – the ancient Japanese textile tradition – by Dr Jacqueline M. Atkins, Collection Curator