Meibutsugire – recycling textile fragments

August 1, 2009

Meibutsugire are “famed fabrics” or “named fabrics” associated with the Tea Ceremony. Fragments of incredibly valuable fabrics, very often of exotic origin and highly complex in terms of weaving structure, were patched together to form the pouches surrounding tea caddies. Such tea caddies were small ceramic containers with ivory lids and the fabric pouch (shifuku) was closed with a simple thin braided cord. As with other objects in the Tea Ceremony, the fabrics are designed to inspire conversation and admiration. They certainly represent the obsession of complex textiles among the Japanese; here they are recycled and preserved in aristocratic settings of luxury, not entirely different from the scrimping and saving of thread and fabric among peasants and farmers at the other end of the social spectrum. For me, they represent textiles earning a place of respect in the Tea Ceremony, alongside ironwork, ceramics, bamboo, calligraphy and paper – all the arts are thus represented.

Today, craft books are published in Japan which explain the making of drawstring pouches based on the Tea Ceremony model, with the characteristic fringe-less braided cord and splits down the side. Obviously such pouches and bags are put to contemporary uses. Just as daimyo of the seventeenth-century scoured their domains for fragments of old fabrics imported from China and India, I’m sure today’s tea ceremony enthusiasts scour Kyoto’s antique shops for old shifuku pouches, if not old fabric fragments.


Ken Kirihata, Meibutsugire (back cover)

As a braider, I’m particularly intrigued not only by the extreme simplicity of the braid, but by the fact that there is no fringe at both ends. Only when I saw the minute size of the tea caddies in my local State Art Gallery – those in the Art Gallery of New South Wales have no fabric pouch with them – did I realise how thin the silk braid would have to be. The tied knots could be extremely elaborate; part of that elaborate was they must have acted as a sort of security alarm – anyone tampering with or stealing the tea would have found it impossible to re-tie some of the more difficult knots, thus leaving behind evidence of their having been there. I’ve been following shifuku for sale on eBay for many years: it’s impossible to import original caddy lids made of prohibited ivory of course, but resin is the contemporary substitute. The caddies themselves are often high-quality Japanese ceramics in their own right; the shifuku might imitate the traditional Japanese stripes, popular from Edo Period onwards; often they might come with the traditional pinewood box and the woven (not braided) flat braid used to tie the box shut. 


Ken Kirihata, Meibutsugire (Front cover – example is from Kyoto National Museum)

Ken Kirihata describes various examples drawn from high-ranking Japanese museums. On the whole, they resemble Chinese or Silk Road fabrics – and indeed those collected from the C17 tea enthusiasts onwards would have been on the lookout for Chinese, Persian and continental and SE Asian examples – , but on closer examination of course, there are many locally made, replete with Japanese motifs. Kirihata mentions not just weaving techniques, but includes gold stencilling, sarasa Indian chintz techniques and European velvets.

The chapter headings are as follows:

1. Kinran. I guess today this refers to Kyoto brocade incorporating gold thread. Think priest kesa cloth as well – in fact some kesa cloth ended up in Meibutsugire. Many of the examples in this chapter are Ming Dynasty. The use of gold would have to be one of the chief characteristics of meibutsugire.

2. Donsu. This is a softer more gentle version of kinran, done in satin weave. This is obviously more pliable, and less like upholstery fabric in appearance.

3. Nishiki. This brocade came to be introduced into Japan in the C7 and continues to be woven today in Kyoto, of course.

4. Shuchin. Various coloured pattern wefts in satin weave – geometric patterns result.

5. Futsu. Double-weave.

6. Kinra/kinsha. Ra, ro and sha are gauzes and “kin” refers to the goldleaf strips used as wefts.

7. Inkin. Gold-stencilling on gold cloth, often on gauze.

8. Biroodo. Velvet, introduced by Dutch and Portuguese in the C16.

9. Kando. Chinese stripes and checks which were taken up by with vengeance by the Japanese.

10 Moru. Moghul cloth – metal filaments wound around a core of silk.

11. Sarasa. Indian chintz – indigo and madder-dyed using batik methods.

The absolutely incredible thing about this book is that it features closeup photos of both the front and back of some of the fabrics; this is the only time this technique is adopted in the Kyoto Shoin art library series of books.

Ken Kirihata, Meibutsugire. Kyoto Shoin Art Library of Japanese textiles, Kyoto, 1994. ISBN 4763670549.

Here are two pieces of kinran – obviously with a focus on kin/gold:


This was bought from a fabric wholesaler in the same street as the Nishijin Textile Centre in Kyoto. They had thousands of these, all roughly the same size – about A3-sized – and all packaged in plastic bags. I can only assume this business fed directly into the lucrative doll/ningyo market where small-patterned gaudy fabrics, looking as close as possible to genuine kinran or nishiki (Japanese brocade) as possible; I can’t account for the small size of the fabric otherwise – certainly way too small for any garment use, for example. The size of the original can be judged from the diamond which is about 2″ across.  Inside the diamonds are of course stylized kiku/chrysanthemums.


Here’s another example, still machine-made but of slightly better quality. Again, because of the small size of the original, I can only assume it must be for dolls/ningyo, or at a stretch, fabric for obi. Certainly this one and the one above are somewhat flexible but generally what we would consider to be on the way to being upholstery fabric. Stylized flowers against a geometric background.

I understand the Tokyo National Museum ran a temporary exhibition, Jan-April 2009, of meibutsu-gire, which they describe as “a type of dyed and woven fabric brought to Japan from places such as China, from the Kamakura to the early Edo Periods”. Emphasis seems to be put on fabrics from the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties and they were originally owned by daimyo (feudal lords) or by temples and shrines and were uased as mountings for calligraphic workds and paintings, and as shifuku for Tea Ceremony. The exhibition blurb emphasises the use of small motifs.

Other internet references talk about 400 or so fabrics, named after the people who collected then, for the places where they were made, for the potters, after the famous objects they housed, or after some historical anecdote. Originally they were apparently called jidaigire, “fabrics from ancient times” and came to be called meibutsugire when used for famous tea containers, known as meibutsu chaire (meibutsu referring to Tea Ceremony utensils). The fabric was also used for garments of the ruling military class and for nou/Noh costumes (noushouzoku) but were particularly favoured by famous tea master Kobori Enshuu (1579-1647). Interestingly, they influenced later Japanese dying and weaving patterns in textiles.

Two books have come to my attention:

* “Meibtsugire, by Riichi Urano (Tokyo, Bunka Fukuso Gakuin Shuppankyoku, 1969)

* Tilden, Jill, Joachim et al. “Silk and stone: the art of Asia” (1996, hardback, ISBN10 1898113203).

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