February 10, 2023
MEISEN SILK: the intersection of Japanese and Western cultures
Meisen silk and the kimono made from it between 1910 and 1950 illustrate the intersection and interconnection of Japanese culture and Western culture, the influence of Japanese aesthetics on Western modern art and the impact of Western technology on Japanese textiles. Meisen silk was embraced by the modern Japanese woman because it was bold, inexpensive, colorful and Western looking.
When I first began learning about Japanese vintage silks, the meisen silks caught my attention and were my first “must have”/”cannot get enough of” favorites. Traditional kimono are decorated with flowers, landscapes and traditional symbols. Meisen silk looks like modern art on fabric with blocks of bright colors, wavy lines and modern images. The Impressionists and other modern art movements were heavily influenced by 19th century Japanese wood block prints with their two-dimensional perspectives, bold outlines and flat regions of color. The Japanese in turn were influenced by Western modern art in designing the meisen kimono. Meisen designs brought the Japanese-Western –Japanese art influences full circle.
During the 19th century, fine silk could only be worn by the nobility and upper classes and was woven from pure white cocoons. The long unbroken silk filament of a single cocoon might be as long as a mile in length. The common classes could wear silk if it were tsumugi silk, made from the discarded cocoons with broken, discolored fibers that had to be joined or spun by hand and dyed dark colors to hide the color imperfections. In the 1880’s a Japanese delegation went to Lyons, France and learned how to use machines to spin short fibers into thread and to use synthetic dyes.
18th century French Ikat silk that was later produced in Lyons, France by printing directly on the warp threads
Meisen silk is a double ikat weave where both the long threads (warp) and the cross threads (weft) are dyed first and then woven into a design. Needless to say, ikat weaving is exacting and time consuming. The Japanese term for an ikat weave is “kasuri” which means to blur. An ikat design has blurry lines because of the difficulty of perfectly aligning the colors of the weft and warp threads. The Japanese delegation to Lyons, France in the 1880’s also studied the French Ikat fabrics and the machine processes that produced them where the French printed the patterns directly on the warp threads. Applying and modifying the industrial techniques learned in Lyons, the Japanese make meisen silk with stencils, one for each color, dying the weft threads separately from the warp threads. Once the design has been imposed on both sets of threads, these are woven on a machine driven loom into the meisen fabric. By applying Western textile technology to the meisen silk process, the Japanese were able to substantially reduce the time and expense of making the silk. Urban department stores took over the process of making these meisen kimono, rather than using the regional cottage silk industry. As a result of all of these new efficiencies, meisen silk kimono was affordable for most women. Traditionally made kimono were very expensive and in the first half of the 20th century cost thousands of dollars in today’s currency. In contrast, Meisen kimono cost in the range of $150 to $250.
Dying warp threads with stencil Loom set up after warp and weft threads have been dyed
The innovative designs of these modern kimono in turn influenced western fashion and are still celebrated today. Meisen silk was produced in quantity between 1910 and 1950 but there are now very few Japanese companies that produce meisen silk. As a result, vintage meisen silk in good condition is highly valued but hard to find.
If you are interested in learning more about how meisen silk is made and the fashions that used this silk, you might enjoy these YouTube videos:
What is a Kimono? geisha, history, tradition, making process (jump to 22 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHwg7t9UeKM
Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk (jump to 3 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz1AzscxHjk
The Story of Meisen Silk (1 minute) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB7PJk6-MEk
Unboxing Meisen Silk (1.5 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUEfJ-gs7gY
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