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A Rare Common Thread: Famous Ise Cotton

   Ren Wong & MGTO Team


Celebrated as “the spiritual wealth of the world,” the warm yet breathable, strong yet soft, wrinkle resistant cotton from Ise is a magic fabric that gets better with age. In Japan, it transformed the economy, culture, and fashion of people across classes, and turned Ise in the Central region of Mie Prefecture into an industrial powerhouse of the nation. Today, such craftsmanship has mostly disappeared from the world, but it still exists here in Mie Prefecture.

The Rich Story of Ise Cotton!

The story of Ise cotton, or Ise momen, began over a thousand years ago when brocade weaving was introduced in the 8th century. Ise, at the eastern tip of modern-day Mie Prefecture, became renowned for weaving silk and hemp. When cotton seeds were introduced in the Muromachi era (1336-1573) Ise’s fertile soil produced the best cotton in the country. The area’s silk and hemp producers adapted to this new cloth, creating fabrics such as the “White Cloud Weave” and “Ise Sarashi” that swept the country, and the name of “Ise cotton” became known far and wide. Until then, although the wealthy could swaddle themselves in silk, common folk had only hemp to stay warm in the chill of winter. Ise cotton profoundly changed the lives of ordinary people.

Usuishokufu, the only still existing Ise cotton company!

From the 14th to the 20th century, some said that Ise cotton was the “most popular textile of choice” in Japan. This cotton wave impacted lifestyles, fashion, industry, and the global economy. In the 1930s Japan became the top cotton spinning country in the world. Production of Ise cotton continued to grow, with more and more factories opening, with postwar reconstruction. However, the appearance of modern cheap, mass-produced chemical fibers has spelled doom for domestic producers until today, only one Ise cotton company still exists: Usuishokufu in the temple town of Senjuji in Tsu City.

What´s the secret process for this famous fabric?

The workshop housed in Usuishokufu’s traditional Japanese townhouse has continued making fabric in the same fashion since the Meiji era. Ise momen’s secret lies in the usage of “single” yarn wound in only one direction creating a fine, fragile thread called “tanshi”. Tanshi is made from the world’s finest San Joaquin cotton spun by the Kurashiki Spinning Company (now renamed Kurabo Group) under their “Mitsu-uma” brand, famous throughout Asia as one of Japan’s first modern exports. One by one, these threads are cleaned of dirt and oil in a painstaking, chemical free process before being dyed with chestnut peels, tea leaves, indigo, or other natural materials.

What do Usuishokufu’s factory and Toyota have in common?

The thread is strengthened by a starch coating before being wound on age-old wood bobbins stacked by the hundreds next to the loom. 250 spools are often used simultaneously, constantly replenished with up to 1200 spools used for one piece of fabric. Each piece develops with care under the watchful eye of veteran technicians who constantly fine tune the spacing between threads, as each minute another 3 cm of lustrous cloth emerges. The gradual, careful weaving of these fragile yarns creates a soft, air-filled textile. Tanshi is too delicate for modern mass production. Therefore, in Usuishokufu’s factory, Ise cotton is still woven with the same looms which have been used since the Meiji era (1868-1912). These machines, no longer in production today, are masterpieces of industrial design created by Sakichi Toyota, whose son established the world-famous carmaker.

Worn and washed over time, the starch dissolves and the tanshi yarn gradually opens, returning to its natural cotton state, becoming softer, breathable, and more lustrous while retaining its shape. Unlike conventional cottons which harden with repeated washing, Ise momen ages with grace, becoming more pleasant to the touch as time goes by.

The Fabric for the Fast Paced Fashion Industry?

What is the future of Ise cotton in the Fast Fashion era? Naruo Usui, the President of Usuishokufu, observes that today more people “seek true quality items over mass produced goods” and a growing number of young designers are taking interest in the unique quality of Ise momen. Whatever may happen, this industry, like the thread at its core, may be fragile, but also enduring. For the few skilled technicians who watch over the weave, as for the many fans who appreciate its craftsmanship and comfort, it is hoped that the thread of time, like tanshi itself, becomes more lustrous with each passing day.

Where to hunt for Ise Cotton!

Are you keen to get this soft and difficult to wrinkle Ise cotton which has excellent breath-ability and moisture retention?

Head to the Cotton Shop Ai in Ise or the Kholomo Ise Momen Usui Shokufu store. Both shops handle goods made from Ise cotton that are perfect as souvenirs or everyday use such as pouches, bags, sacoche saddlebags and hand towels.