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Saturday, Feb. 26, 2000

A needle pulling golden thread through time

Staff writer

Western embroidery enjoys worldwide popularity, especially in European countries such as England. But Japan can also boast its very own style of embroidery, Edo shishu (Edo embroidery), which in the past has adorned everything from shubutsu (Buddhist images embroidered on cloth), dashi (festival floats) and doncho (drop curtains), to kimono and the emperor's crown.

In Edo shishu, only silk thread is used, which sets it apart from other types of embroidery. Also, more than 17 different special stitching techniques are employed.

The shishu industry was an isolated world until recent decades, and Edo shishu became widely known only about 10 years ago when it was designated a traditional craft of Tokyo. According to Edo-shishu artisan Kunitoshi Nomura, the technique was introduced into Japan from China during the Tang Dynasty in the early 700s by the envoy Kibi no Makibi. It first took root in Kyoto, then spread to the port of Yokohama, where embroidery merchants gathered, and later to Tokyo.

Nowadays, almost all shishu is done using either sewing machines or computerized machines; handmade work is rarely seen. Nomura, 92, is one of the 20 or so Edo-shishu artisans who still embroiders entirely by hand. He handles every stage of the shishu process: making the design, applying the design to cloth using chalk paper; dyeing the silk thread (kama-ito) with different colors; twisting the threads together and stitching them onto the cloth.

The cloth is stretched out inside a wooden frame and this single frame is all that Nomura needs to do his work. He pushes the needle through the cloth with his right hand and catches it immediately on the other side with his left. Then he stitches with his left hand and catches the needle with his right. This process is repeated over and over again until a finished piece of embroidery is created. Because the work is done stitch by stitch, a great amount of time and concentration is needed.

Nomura is an Intangible Cultural Asset who has been involved with embroidery for the past 76 years. He started working professionally at age 16, after apprenticing under his father from early childhood. He has traveled around the world to countries such as New Zealand, England, Taiwan and the Philippines to exhibit his works.

Despite his years, he still embroiders every day and submits a work to the handicraft exhibition at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art in Ueno every year.

Normally, every Edo-shishu artisan has a specialty, says Nomura. For example, an artisan who stitches Japanese clothing (waso) usually does only that. And one who creates kesho-mawashi (ornamental aprons worn by sumo wrestlers) works on only that particular kind of stitching.

Nomura, however, handles many kinds of work, from stitching waso, doncho and dashi, through mending embroidery on important cultural assets from the Edo Period, to sudare shishu (reed screen embroidery) which he says no one but he can handle any more.

"I don't have a specialty. In that sense, I'm a jack-of-all-trades and master of none," he says humbly.

Nomura often depicts Buddhist images, such as Dainichi Nyorai, in his work, using large quantities of gold thread from Kyoto.

"To me, embroidery is the same as painting a picture. Just as a painter changes the colors he uses while he paints, I change the color of the thread while I stitch," he says. He adds that the gloss of the work changes according to how strongly the thread is twisted.

Nomura has three children. Only his daughter followed in her father's footsteps and became an artisan of handmade shishu, but she gave it up after marrying. His eldest son is in charge of sales for Matsuya Fukushoku Shishu (a company producing and selling shishu works) and Saitama Matsuya (a limited partner of Matsuya Fukushoku Shishu), and his younger son, Noboru, does machine-made embroidery.

"Times have changed and speed is more important," says Noboru regretfully. "Customers won't wait a couple of months for a handmade embroidered work to be completed and we don't have the time to devote ourselves to that, either."

For information, call Matsuya Fukushoku Shishu, (03) 3831-4776, or Saitama Matsuya, (0429) 85-0700. Embroidery classes are also held by Kunitoshi Nomura at Saitama Matsuya.

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