Meisen-Gasuri 銘仙絣 201219

The past few blogs have dealt with a variety of forms of kasuri. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, Japanese terms are not always easily translated directly into English. Most dictionaries define kasuri as ikat (a Malayan/Indonesian word meaning to fasten or to tie). Ikat in turn is defined in English dictionaries as a fabric in which the yarns have been tie-dyed before weaving (Webster’s on-line dictionary).


Poster advertising meisen.

So now let’s take a look at meisen (銘仙). The average person on the street in Japan will recognize meisen as what we call ikat. However, meisen may also be a solid color fabric, or woven entirely with undyed, unbleached yarns. So actually, meisen is the weave and kasuri is the dye method.

Meisen is a moderately light-weight silk weave with a hard, smooth touch (sometimes with a slub) – not at all unlike what is sold as silk pongee.

Kasuri is the dye technique employed – in which the threads are dyed with sections of color that will later line up to form pattern in the meisen (or other weaves). With me so far?

Notice that I didn’t say anything about tie dyeing the yarns for kasuri as part of the definition. Binding groups of warp and/or weft threads to control  colors (tie dye) is indeed one way to produce kasuri threads. The verb kasuru means to steal away a bit of something, or as the old kanji (飛白) helps us to understand, leaping bits of blank. Basically, any method employed to dye the threads used in weaving to create a Morse-code-like pattern of long and short dashes that will later be lined up to make a pattern or image, qualifies as kasuri. This may include paste resist applied with stencils, block-printed images, hand painted warp and weft, and even silk screening.

Let’s take a closer look at the silk-screen method. Traditional forms of screen dyeing in Japan are called nassen (捺染). [If you have interest in this process I would recommend taking a class from Akemi Nakano Cohn – a long time practitioner and teacher of this art.] In nassen color is pushed through a stencil. When nassen is used to apply color to threads to later be woven, it is called hogushi-nassen (ほぐし捺染). Let’s next take a look at how this technique is applied.


Preparing warp threads by winding onto a large drum prior to dyeing.



First filament silk is reeled onto a large drum to prepare the warp threads for dyeing (left). The warp is threaded onto a special loom and very coarsely woven – notice how greatly spaced the weft is as it holds the warp threads in place (below).

Warped loom with loosely woven weft in monofiliment silk.

This loosely woven yardage is removed from the loom and rolled out onto a printing table.

Screening the warp threads.

In the screening process dyes may be brushed through the screens/stencils, or the dyes may be added to a thickener and pushed through the screens with a squeegee as seen above.

Removing the thin weft threads before returning the warp to the loom.

Once the dyeing is complete, the warp threads will be returned to the loom, but before doing so, the previously woven weft threads must be removed. [If you are interested in trying your hand at this technique, I do have a very good supply of the fine threads used to weave the temporary weft, contact me for more details.]

Warped loom ready to have the real weft woven in.

The warped loom is now ready to be woven with the new weft threads. This time they will be firmly beat into tight alignment.

The pull you see hanging from the center of the image to the left is yanked to send the shuttle flying left and right. For an example of this type of loom in action, click here to watch a YouTube clip.

If you have followed the earlier blogs dealing with other kasuri techniques, you can easily see how this printing process allows the craftsperson to greatly speed up production time. This brought down the price and soon meisen-gasuri became one of of the most popular techniques for nice, everyday wear among women.


Penguins on ice flow.


Because of the relatively quick turn-around time, patterns began to reflect images of current events and more fad-oriented popular motifs. The example shown to the right is reflective of the craze for the South Pole as exploration of the new continent progressed in the 1950s.


Goofey and Donald depicted on meisen fabric used in a haori.

Disney was also making great inroads into Japanese culture, and the country’s love of the characters may be seen in this meisen piece from the late 1940s.

Are you up for a little musical entertainment? Take a look at this video on YouTube. The song is called The Color of Life and is performed by The Six Singing Women (唄う六人の女). Most of the textiles shown in the video are meisen.

This week’s Textile of the Week, 201219, is a fanciful image full of wonderful movement of line. It is handwoven and originally part of a kimono worn as casual wear by middle and upper-class women, or as formal wear by lower-class women.


Textile of the Week, 201219, Meisen-Gasuri

For more examples of meisen-gasuri, check out the samples in Treasures from John’s Collection: Meisen-Gasuri 銘仙絣.

One final bit of history: I thought you might want to know just a bit more about the development of meisen, so I have translated the following text from Dankousha’s 1987 publication,  the Unabridged Dictionary of Colors, Dyes, and Weaves (原色染織り大辞典・談交社・昭和五十二年). The original text in its entirety is below the English section.

Meisen is one version of the flat weave. It had its beginnings in the later part of the Edo Period, at which time it was written with* a variety of characters, including 目千 (lit. “a thousand ends** per inch”), 目専 (lit. “specialty ends**”), 蠒繊 (lit. “ultra fine cocoons“), and so on. Meisen is woven in the general region of Chichibu and Isezaki using yarns called tama-ito (a thick, seasonal raw silk) and noshi-ito (silk thrums) to weave a very strong, thick cloth used in every-day clothes. From the Meiji Period onward the characters most commonly used came to be 銘撰 (lit. “precious selection“)and 銘仙 (lit. “precious enchantment“), and with them a variety of innovations in quality and methods of weaving. Up until the Meiji Period the patterns were mostly stripes. However, with the advent of the Taisho Period, new forms of dyeing appeared such as shimekirigasuri (締切絣), yokosougasuri (縦総絣), nassengasuri (捺染絣), chingasuri (珍絣), and hodushigasuri (解し絣), quickly developing into more and more complex methods and with them the ability to consider vastly more complex imagery. With filament silk as the warp, other threads were introduced into the weave through the weft – threads such as raw (spun) silk, rayon, and even nylon. Centers of production were to be found in Kyoto, Isezaki, Chichibu, Ashikaga, Kiryuu, and Hachiouji, as well as others. Up until the time of World War II, meisen was used mostly for the every-day clothes of women. In addition, it was also used for lining fabric, bedding covers, tanzen (padded garments worn by men indoors during the winter months), and zabuton covers – all of which kept demand high. However, beginning in 1955, wool and synthetics became widespread and meisen suddenly disappeared from the marketplace.

めいせん 銘仙 平織りの絹織物の一。江戸後期には目千・目専・蠒繊などの字をあてる。秩父・伊勢崎などで玉糸(節のある太い生糸)や熨斗糸(絹の屑糸の一種)を用いて織った丈夫な太織を指し、普段着に用いた。明治以後は銘撰・銘仙と書かれ、他質や織り方にさまざまの工夫が加わった。明治までは縞柄が主であったが、大正以降は締切絣・縦総絣・捺染絣・珍絣・解し絣等の絣の技術が複雑化し、模様物が考案された。他糸には経に絹糸,緯に玉糸を使用したものが最も多く、ほかに紡績絹糸・人絹糸・綿糸・ナイロン糸などを用いる。主な産地は京都・伊勢崎・秩父・足利・桐生・八王子など。第二次世紀大戦頃まで、おもに女性の普段機に多く用いたほか、裏地・夜具地・丹前地・座ぶとん地などの需要が多かったが、昭和三十年代からウール・化学繊維の普及により急速に市場から姿を消した。


*In this case I’ve translated あて字 (ateji) as “written with”Ateji is a linguistic custom in both China and Japan of assigning kanji to a word for poetic reasons, or to manufacture words that can’t otherwise be written in Chinese characters. For example, a friend of mine owns a store called SO•ME, or Dye. It would normally be written as 染め (so-me), and this is actually the only correct way of writing it. However, she wanted to add a little elegance and femininity to the name of her company, so she opted to write it 染女 (so-me), replacing the alphabetical め (me) with the kanji 女 (me), meaning woman, thus indicating a dye shop owned by a woman, and very classy sounding to boot!
So, in the examples sited for meisen, each of the names has forced kanji – kanji that are not normally read meisen but can be pushed into doing so and add a little elegance, definition, or attitude to the word at the same time.

**The character 目 is used in counting how fine a weave is. In Asia, they count the spaces between the threads within a specified square measurement, rather than the warp threads themselves. In American English we might say a weave has 500 ends per inch, which means that there are 500 warp threads within a linear inch. In Japan, if you said 500目, you would be saying that there are 500 gaps (holes/spaces) in the weave within a square centimeter.