There’s only one place in the world that yields the famous Oshima Tsumugi weave, a silk fabric used in a type of elaborately-made Japanese kimono. I follow Koto Natsuyagi from a career in French haut couture fashion to the humid mud fields of this tiny island to learn more about hues pulled from the earth for this story published by Seea. Written for Seea. Photos by Lucrecia O’Keefe.
Koto Natsuyagi’s fingernails are a rich shade of blue, the color of the ocean at night or a black saltwater pearl. It’s somehow distinctly Japanese in its hue, and to textile artists around the world, that’s how its known: Japan Blue.
With her hair tied loosely behind her and rubber boots on her feet, Koto is elbow deep in a basin near the window of a small wooden workshop. At her hands, the culprit of the discolored-nails mystery: a tub of garments she’s dying using the tell-tale Indigo hue.
“This color comes from nature,” she says, swirling the liquid.
Most of the colors around Koto do. In wide bowls scattered on the floor, garments soak in vats of inky black and brick red, rich hues sourced directly from the soil and plants of Amami Oshima, a subtropical southern island in the Japanese archipelago. It’s the only place in the world that yields the famous Oshima Tsumugi weave, a silk fabric used in a type of elaborately-made Japanese kimono. Which, as it turns out, is the garment that led Koto from a career in French haut couture fashion to the humid mud fields of this tiny island.
“I used to see my grandmother wear kimono, sitting in front of a mirror getting her hair done,” says Koto, who, as a child, remembers waiting patiently for the day she could wear her own Yukata (a more casual, everyday kimono worn to summer festivals and dances). “My mother was also very passionate about kimono — she would use the fabric to make other clothing.”
Koto’s fascination with traditional Japanese garments was a bridge into fashion, first to a degree program in California and eventually to a job as a haut-couture designer’s assistant in Paris, where she learned the intricacies of creating handmade garments. Then, one day as she rode the train from the suburbs into the city for Fashion Week, everything changed.
“I was on my way to a world full of glittering fashionistas when I saw lines strung up between run-down barracks drying white T-shirts,” she remembers. “I was shocked to see the social differences. From that moment, I started to think about the real meaning and importance of clothing in a world of mass production and fast consumption. I wanted to take time and make special pieces for each person.”
The image of her grandmother in a handmade kimono seared in her mind, she decided to return to Japan and study the Oshimi Tsumugi, which in turn led her to southern island of Amai Oshima. She fell in love with the place, packed her bags, and moved there a year later.
“From that moment, I started to think about the real meaning and importance of clothing in a world of mass production and fast consumption.”
“One day I found this beautiful field in the middle of wildness,” Koto says. “So I went to town hall and asked about the owner.”
His name was Akira Higo. An apprentice of mud dying at age 16, Akira has been honoring the traditional methods for dying the silk thread used for Oshima Tsumugi for more than 46 years. He agreed to teach Koto his art: deliberate, beautiful and oftentimes messy.
“The red colored soil itself contains iron,” Koto explains, peering into a basin filled with a beautiful brick-colored liquid. The color is unique to Amami Island due to the unique composition of the soil here, and is sourced by hand with buckets. “The mud field is located under the mountains by a stream. Piles of fallen leaves, which contain a lot of minerals, give the mud a very fine texture. Fabric feels so soft and smooth against the skin after its dyed with the mud.”
At the moment, Koto is weaving fabric from different types of linen to make a shirt and knitting hemp rope for a range of accessories. Some days she hosts mud dying work shops. Her goal is to present these traditional crafts in accessible ways, drawing the interest of a younger generation who, one day, may own their own kimono.
“There used to be a woven fabric in each town of Japan, but they are disappearing,” she says. “But there are still high-quality hand crafts. Once we lose them, they’re hard to get back. I’m still learning myself, but I feel the urgency to pass these techniques to the next generation while we can.”
This story was originally written for Seea. All images by Lucrecia O’Keefe.