Light as the breeze, warm as the earth
Premium quality, elaborately woven silk in a night sky splashed with stars
Features of Oshima silk pongee
Authentic Amami Oshima silk pongee is a natural, hand-woven textile of a unique spiritual black color and intricate splashed pattern seen nowhere else in the world. Warm from thread surfaces encased with mud, it doesn’t soil or wrinkle easily. Its beauty earned it a ranking among Gobelins tapestry of France and Persian rugs of Iran as the world’s top three textiles.
Silk Pongee Origin and History
Sericulture, or silkworm cultivation, has a long history in Amami Oshima. In texts from around the 6th – 7th century, there is “an offering of dark brown silk pongee from the Southern Islands” recorded in the contribution ledgers of the Todai-ji Temple and Shoso-in in Nara. If this dark brown silk pongee was from Amami, it would point to the production of some predecessor of today’s silk pongee as early as 1300 years ago.
The roots of the splashed pattern are generally believed to be the ikat textile woven in India almost 5000 years ago. There are 2 schools of thought on how the textile tradition was passed to Amami. The first posits that the tradition passed on directly as it popularized widely throughout the swath of islands from Sumatra and Java to the Sunda Islands when Amami was a way station for envoys to the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century. The second is that it passed through Ryukyu and Kumejima Island.
Silk pongee first appears in the literature in an ordinance forbidding the wearing of silk cloth in the 1720 Oshima Seitenroku. The Satsuma clan that directly controlled the islands of Amami allowed senior government officials from Amami Oshima, Kikaijima, Tokunoshima and Okinoerabu to wear silk pongee, but forbade anyone of lesser social status to do so. Silk pongee, as well as silk itself, was a luxury product used to pay tribute to the clan and the textile was prohibited for wear by the general populace.
Specific reference is made in the Nantou Zatsuwa illustrations drawn by Sagenta Nagoya, a well-known Satsuma clansman exiled to Amami Oshima from 1850 to 1855. The illustrations depict abaca cloth and splashed patterns in detailed pictures.
Most silk pongee of the late Tokugawa period is plain and striped pattern fabric. To create the splashed pattern, people spun banana plant fibers by hand. Until about 1907, women did this work at night, with each household taking a turn. Young men with shamisens would gather at a home, and improvise songs, singing back and forth with the women in what seemed to be rather enjoyable work.
With the advent of the Meiji era, silk pongee that was once used to pay the government became a commodity. Winning popularity at an Osaka exhibition, silk pongee demand increased enough to develop into a generational industry to support the Amami economy.
By the end of the Meiji era, the industry evolved from hand-spun textile to use a revolutionary binding machine invented in Amami that created a fine-textured cloth of a type seen nowhere else in the world. Now, division of labor assigns expert professionals to each of 32 parts of the process to create a single bolt of the textile.
No longer limited to kimono, Oshima silk pongee is used in Western clothing and a wide variety of items used in daily life as well as a variety of creative products.
Advent of Mud-dyeing
There is a funny legend about where Amami mud-dyeing comes from. Since the islanders who wove the silk pongee paid as tribute to the Satsuma clan were not allowed to wear it, one time a farmer’s wife tried to hide a bolt of silk pongee from a clan official coming to investigate by immersing it in a mud pit. When she took it out later, it was dyed black.
Key steps in producing Authentic Amami Oshima Silk Pongee (captions)
④Yeddo hawthorn dyeing
⑧Splashed pattern adjustment
Types of Oshima silk pongee dye
Doro Oshima Mud Oshima
Kusaki Dorozome Oshima
The ancient Amamians have intertwined depictions of pit vipers, cycads, screw pines, fish eyes, stars, flower, turtles and other symbols from nature and daily life into the patterns of Oshima silk pongee.
Photo and captions / HORIZON Editorial Office