Town of Artisans: Katakai-machi

Katakai cotton developed in Ojiya City’s Katakai-machi in Niigata Prefecture. Before its merger in 1956 Katakai-machi was a town in the Santō District of Niigata. Due to its proximity to the Sea of Japan, the area had access to diverse materials from across the sea.

Katakai-machi was once under the direct control of the Shogunate during the Edo period. Many artisans settled in Katakai-machi, because of the abundance of work. Among them were many blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, and sake brewers. At the time, there were four or five dyehouses, but the Konni Dyeing and Weaving Workshop is the only still in existence.

Dyed Goods from the Konni Workshop

The Konni Dyeing and Weaving Workshop, which works with Katakai cotton, was founded in 1751. Because the dyehouses at the time worked primarily with indigo, they came to be called “kon-ya” (dark blue shops).
Originally, the Konni Workshop dyed cotton from the Shinano River basin and produced order made items such as short winter coats (hanten) and shop entrance curtains (noren). Working increasingly with raw materials, Konni began to make clothing for farmers and laborers. They shifted to handling the entire production process, from weaving to dyeing.
Konni dyes its cloth using five main dyes: indigo, pine soot, vegetable, chemical, and pigment. Their artisans’ skill is especially demonstrated in the use of indigo dye. Because the shade of indigo changes day-to-day based on temperature and humidity, intuition and many years of experience are required to work with this plant. Every morning, the process of indigo dyeing starts with opening the floorboards and inspecting the indigo. An artisan can predict the final state of the dyeing through factors such as foaming and hue.
The technique of using pine soot for dyeing is another point of pride for Konni. Pine soot is used in dyeing kimono. While it is often used to help the indigo dye to better attach to the fabric, and enhance the darkness of the color, when it is alone as a dye, pine soot can create a natural, serene hue.
The process of dyeing begins every morning with the preparation of kojiru. Kojiru is made by soaking soybeans in water overnight, mashing them in a stone mortar, and removing the strained lees from the resulting soy milk. Kojiru is applied to fabrics before dyeing; it helps the dyes attach to the fabric and achieve a deeper color. Because soybeans, which are high in protein, easily spoil with the passage of time or changes in temperature, kojiru cannot be prepared in advance. Using fresh soybeans every day is the starting point of good dyeing.

The Origin of Katakai Cotton

In 1925, Sōetsu (Muneyoshi) Yanagi—a philosopher of aesthetics—began to promote what he called “Folk Crafts (Mingei)” and established the “Folk Crafts Movement,” which sought to celebrate the beauty in goods used in everyday life.
In the 1940s and 50s, Konni’s dyeing and weaving techniques caught the eye of members of the Folk Crafts movement, who traveled around Japan to discover examples of traditional folk craft. These connoisseurs recommended that Konni take advantage of its techniques to create original textiles.
They said, “Soon, it will become unnecessary to dye work clothes. Instead, make something more casual and elegant.” Taking such opinions to heart, Katakai cotton was created.
It is woven using three thread types of differing widths. This weaving method makes the best use of the natural properties of cotton. Because cotton fabric has a flat surface and is highly absorbent, it tends to adhere to the skin. By using three different thread widths, Katakai cotton breathes, allowing the wearer to feel refreshed throughout the day. “The quality of the threads is best expressed when the thicker threads are interwoven with the thinner threads.” This is something we learned from Sōetsu Yanagi.

Natural Katakai Cotton

Katakai is woven from cotton threads that are lightly spun and untreated. This allows for a woven fabric that is both fluffy and breathable. When the thick and thin threads are interwoven, the thick threads act as a kind of backbone. Because of this, no matter how many times the fabric is washed, the threads return to their original state. The fabric does not lose its shape and is resistant to wrinkles.
The woven fabric is hung from the ceiling from poles and gently air-dried. Cloth woven from vegetable fibers is very absorbent; when it is machine-dried, it is prone to shrinkage. When Katakai cotton is left to air-dry overnight, it shrinks gently, and remains fluffy and soft. The more you wear Katakai cotton, the more it fits your skin, making it comfortable.

Cotton Woven with Love

The production methods of Katakai cotton have changed little over the years. Because Konni uses untreated cotton threads in their natural state, threads often come loose or break during the weaving process. That alone makes the fabric difficult to control, resulting in much time and effort. However, pursuing efficiency also would result in disadvantages. Konni’s artisans, having used the same tried-and-true methods for years and years, believe that this is the best way to weave cotton, as it imparts a gentle texture. Despite its inefficiencies, they will continue to be faithful to their traditional methods.
Although craftsmanship involves the daily repetition of tasks, according to Hitoshi Matsui of Konni, “the expression of the artisan is always present in the finished product.” No matter how the world changes, good quality will always remain. Therefore, even if it takes time and effort, Konni will remain true to its traditional weaving methods for the sake of its customers who demand genuine Katakai cotton.