When you speak of Okinawan Textiles, the most famous technique is probably bingata stencil dyeing (which I recently posted about) and I would guess that a close second goes to basho-fu, a kind of hand-woven fabric from the Japanese banana fibre plant.

beautiful bashofu with it’s distinctive beige colour and intricate dyed thread patterns

“From the what!?”, I hear you say? Yes, a mostly female group of workers farm basho fibrous banana trees, hand process the fibre into thread and dye and weave it into a wonderfully light but strong beige fabric called basho-fu. The small village of Kijoka in Ogimi, Okinawa, is most well known for basho-fu production thanks to efforts to maintain and revive basho-fu production by Taira Toshiko, a nonagenarian designated as a so called “living cultural treasure”in the year 2000.

ito-basho or fibrous banana plants being cultivated in Ogimi. They are grown until the trunks are about 1-1.5 metres tall. 大宜味の芭蕉布会館前の糸芭蕉。

As you drive into the Ogimi area, the signage boasts not only of Ogimi’s basho-fu production but also that it is a region famous for shikwasa citrus, for bunagaya fairytale creatures (see here) AND of long life. Indeed, the numbers of centenarians living in Ogimi means it’s population is touted as having the greatest longevity in Japan! These older members of the community attribute their good health to exercising and farmwork, to their positive attitude towards life and to staying involved in the community. One such community that elderly women remain active in is the group work environment required for basho-fu production.

I think it should also be noted that the eldery population in Ogimi has a healthy sense of humour too. These daikon radish people were on display at the local produce centre. 大宜味村の人もユーモアの感覚も元気に生きている。大宜味産の物を売っている道の駅にこの赤土大根人間も見かけた。

Check out this nice video about Okinawan longevity made by some foreign students in Japan. I especially like the old lady singing at the very end. Too cute! この留学生に作られたビデオは大宜味の「おばぁ」と「おじぃ」の生活を紹介している。最後に歌っているおばぁがすごくかわいい!

Last month I visited the so called “Ogimi Village Basho-fu Hall” which is a working facility where basho-fu is made by hand. They have a display of basho-fu examples and equipment on the first floor with an informative video running and you can go upstairs to see the women working away on looms, on low tables, sorting threads, stretching cloth and whatever processes they happen to be working on that day.  

plaque outside the Bashofu Hall, tells of how bashofu knowledge was something passed from mother to daughter.

The process of turning banana plants into fabric fit for wearing is long and involved and you’d be forgiven for wondering how anyone has such patience to pour that amount of effort into one roll of fabric. But see the final product in real life and you can appreciate that the group effort involved in its making results in something hand-crafted and wonderful that is unique in the world.

According to a brochure I bought at the Basho-fu hall, the process goes something like this:
-Farming the fibrous basho plants and then harevsting at approximately three years when the trunks are over 1 metre long.
U-hagi Stripping the concentric layers of pale fibrous material from the felled trunks and classing into 4 ranks based on softness.
U-daki Boiling fibres in lye to soften them
U-biki Dividing the strips into finer fibres by running a bamboo scraper down the length of the fibre. These fibres are sorted according to softness and colour.
-Once dried, fibres are wound into fist-sized balls called chingu to assist in the next step.
工程を下手な日本語で説明するより、もう丁寧に書いてあるサイトを見た方がいいと思います!この二つは分かりやすいと思います:こもれび工房 & 芭蕉布事業協同組合

On the left a small bunch of these softened fibre strips. These will split into even finer strands to form the thread. On right a swatch of the fibre as it first comes off the stalk. 手に持っているのは、「うびき」の工程が終わったもの。これから、また細かく分けて、糸にする。右は木から剥がしたままの素材。

-Which is, U-umi or forming the thread. The chingu balls are soaked in water, and split into even finer threads with a knife then the individual lengths (remember the tree trunk is only around a metre long, so the fibres are too) of fibre are knotted together end to end with TINY knots to form skeins of basho yarn.

Did I mention the knots are TINY?! see that little knot on my fingertip? This is the most time consuming and skilled step of the production. Tension will be placed on the threads when on the loom so the knots must be strong but not form large bumps in the fabric surface. 小っちゃいと言ったよね!?指先に見える結びは一番手間がかかる工程らしい。織るときは糸が張力も必要から、結んだ所が強かないといけないし、できている布に目立たないように小さく結ばないといけない…

-The yarn is lightly spun to prevent fraying when it gets woven
-After measuring off the lengths of warp and weft required for the fabric to be woven, this is softened in lye again.
-The distinctive patterns in the fabric are dyed at this point by tying resists on the threads and dyeing in hawthorn (for a terracotta colour) or Ryukyu Indigo.

LIving National Treasure Toshiko Taira dyeing threads that have been selectively tied with tight resists also made of basho.
人間国宝の平良敏子が糸を染めている。白い部分は染料が入らないところですね。イメージは 芭蕉布事業協同組合 からです。
Threads before the resists have been removed. the tightly wrapped white sections will be unwrapped to reveal the pale natural colour of the basho fibre.
平良敏子。イメージは 芭蕉布事業協同組合 からです。

-The threads can now be setup on a loom, ensuring dyed patterns stay in alignment and threads kept supple with moisture.
-The fabric can finally be woven. Because of the fragility of the threads, rainy season is best and it can take one weaver roughly 3-5 weeks to weave one bolt of fabric for kimono (!!!)
-The woven fabric is again boiled and soaked, pressed under a weight, stretched by hand to it’s correct width, and correct length by a tug of war type effort by two workers.
-The surface of the fabric is polished with the rim of a ceramic cup and the process of stretching is repeated.
-After final ironing and checking for faullts, the bashofu cloth is finally finished.

We saw this step in progress when we visited the Bashofu Hall. Workers at each end of the fabric give the fabric a few strong pulls to bring it back to it’s correct length..

PHEW! what a process.

I admire the strength of purpose of 94 year old Taira Toshiko who I mentioned above. She has really dedicated her life to making sure that basho-fu is kept alive and carried on for future generations. You can see her big personality in this Japanese news feature:

Link to Toshiko Taira Interview (in Japanese) Toshiko Taira

To finish let me share this quote from Toshiko Taira that was on display at the Bashofu Hall.

bashofu-making is a priceless tradition and skill that our mothers and grandmothers and ancestors have safeguarded and passed down here in our homeland through many centuries. If we break this chain, bashofu will cease to exist. The thought of what a betrayal that would be has kept my colleagues and I going, despite many challenges.
 While in recent years our work has begun to be recognized around the world, the future is still far from assured. Our members at Kijoka are aging.  In particular we have fewer people able to perform the u-umi task of joining basho fibres to make thread, so that even securing a high-quality supply of this most essential material is becoming difficult.
…My goal is to have as many people as possible come to know this local heritage and see its value and understand, too, what we here at Kijoka are trying to accomplish. If more would step forward to join in the effort bashofu will live on for generations to come. That is our dearest wish.  Toshiko Taira, March 2013