Plant fibers spun one by one into twists of thread are woven into cloth. It has been called“Nature’s cloth”— a fabric that has been made for thousands of years with astounding effort. Ojiya-chijimi is a textile with a history, and it requires a unique process of snow-bleaching as part of its production. Tough yet soft on the skin, this textile also exudes a refined artistic beauty.
It was after several days of snowstorms that spring finally arrived, and the contrast between the blue sky and snow fields bathed in spring sunshine was especially dazzling. Rows of light-colored kimono cloth—finished woven cloth made from thread with three months of painstaking effort —were laid out rainbow-like on the snow, almost like some modern art installation.
The final stage in producing Echigo-jofu and Ojiya-chijimi textiles requires exposing them to snow, a process which makes use of the bleaching effect from ozone produced when snow evaporates in the sun. The wisdom of ancestors has been passed on through this method that removes excess dye, loosens snarls in the threads, and gives the cloth a light, soft finishing touch.
“Yarn is formed in snow, woven in snow, rinsed in snow-water, and bleached in snow. There’s cloth because there’s snow…. You could say snow is the parent of this cloth.”
This is a line from Hokuetsu Seppu (Snow Stories of North Etsu Province), written in the Edo period by Bokushi Suzuki, a man of letters from Shiozawa. He went to investigate Echigo province and the people of the snow country personally in order to write and illustrate the book. That passage was also used by Nobel prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata in his novel Snow Country, to create layers of imagery depicting the cleanliness which the main character—a man from Tokyo—finds so attractive in the lover from Echigo whom he has travelled to meet.
The people of Echigo certainly do have a disposition that is snow-like in its purity, along with a tenacity acquired from having to live with heavy snow. No one could survive by themselves in such an environment, and the people have a deeply-rooted spirit of mutual support.