Natural Fabrics are Pleasant Because of Their Gentle, Cool Touch
The cool, pleasant touch of natural fabrics on the skin is a blessing in hot, humid Japanese summers. Even now jofu and chijimi textiles are produced during the snowy months from December to March, as they always have been. Natural materials don’t respond well in environments where the temperature is artificially controlled by air conditioners, since ramie itself is a living thing.
“If the humidity is not right the thread snaps and gets offended,” said one weaver. A true child of the snow indeed!
Ramie yarn is made from Boehmeria nivea, the scientific name for choma, or false nettle in English. This thrives in hot, humid summer weather. Since far back in the Jomon period (about 10,000 to 300 BC) in the days before there was any cotton in Japan, this plant fiber was used for many other purposes besides clothing. Nowadays you can see it growing everywhere mixed with weeds, but according to the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), in 693 the Empress Jitou issued an imperial edict stating that that the people were encouraged to cultivate this plant.
Since ancient times cloth made from ramie has been the standard, used not only for Echigo-jofu and Ojiya-chijimi textiles, but also for Noto-jofu, Omi-jofu, Nara-sarashi, Miyako-jofu and Yaeyama-jofu textiles. Its history in Echigo-jofu is said to go back 1200 years. The medieval text Azuma Kagami (Mirror of the East) records that Echigo cloth paid as tax in kind during the Nara period (AD 710-794) was stored at the Shoso-in, the treasure house belonging to the Todai-ji temple in Nara, and that the Court nobles of Kyoto were pleased to receive it as a gift, under the name Eppu, during medieval times.
Kenshin Uesugi, a daimyo during the Warring States period (1467-1568), eventually pushed his enemies to cultivate choma, sending it as a gift to Kyoto, selling it and making an enormous profit when its high quality was acclaimed in the capital. It was highly prized because of its resilience to sweat and thus used as a lining in armor and helmets. It also did not let arrows penetrate and was used for camp enclosures. Showa-mura in Fukushima prefecture, the only place in Japan where choma is produced, also has deep ties with Kenshin Uesugi.