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A Bashofu Child’s Kimono: Banana Fiber from Okinawa

Written on November 21, 2008

Bashofu, or cloth woven from yarn obtained from fibers of the leaf bases of the Musa balbisiana, a variety of banana tree, is the cultural signifier of the people of Okinawa, both internally and from abroad.  Bashofu in varying grades was worn by everyone in Okinawa since the sixteenth century, from the impoverished who would wear garments of bashofu rags to the ruling class who would wear kimono of the rarest quality, woven with the most extravagant patterns.  Although Musa balbisiana is not native to Okinawa, its cloth is now synonymous with the Okinawan archipelago.

Bashofu is a highly collectible cloth and it is extremely distinctive in appearance and texture.  Because it is woven from fibers taken from leaves, it is not considered a bast fiber like hemp, ramie or wisteria, but rather it is thought of as a leaf fiber.

This is a child’s kimono, with modified, semi-“Western” sleeves; note that the shoulders are darted and the waistline is tacked up: this is due to two factors: the standard loom width is too wide for a child’s shoulders and therefore they are modified without cutting the cloth; likewise, the length is drawn up so as the child grows the length can adjusted, again, without cutting precious cloth.  The closure for this small kimono is made from two long white cotton pieces which was tied as a kind of sash.

This bashofu child’s kimono is dyed in the kasuri or ikat method which produces the repeat pattern seen on this small, gorgeous thing.  This is a warp kasuri, meaning only the “vertical” threads are dyed.

Getting into the kasuri (ikat) traditions of Okinawa and their impact on the development of Japanese kasuri weaving is a vouminous study–too complex to get into here–but suffice it to say that for centuries the mainland Japanese admired Okinawan cloth. The Japanese ikat weaving was directly affected by Okinawan patterns and concepts, especially as adapted by the asa weaving traditions of omi jofu and echigo jofu.

To this day, the Japanese admiration of Okinawan textile traditions is unabated, and for centuries Japan has borrowed much from the weavers of Okinawa.

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  1. Comment by jude:

    this site has some of the most amazingly beautiful textiles i have ever seen. thank you.

    November 24, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

  2. Comment by Anaka Narayanan:

    For some reason (ignorance, probably) I thought using banana fibre was a new thing, like “bamboo silk”. The child’s kimono is lovely and it’s interesting to know that the length could be adjusted as the child grew. I love how ancient cultures had their own way of re-using and preservation…. so different from today’s ‘use and throw’ culture.

    November 28, 2008 @ 12:25 am