The Ainu (pronounced “eye-noo”) People of Japan were the indigenous culture who lived mainly on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. There is still some debate over their origins, which range from the South Pacific to Siberia. The Ainu have a cultural heritage quite distinct from what we tend to know about the imperial history of Japan, and well worth learning about.
Traditional Ainu clothing was not a traditional Japanese kimono, but more of an over-robe called an attush, made from the soft, inner fibers of elm bark, though they did use sashes similar to an obi. Men’s versions were shorter than women’s, but all typically feature wide appliquéd bands along the edges with embroidered geometric shapes. Some more elaborate robes were appliquéd and embroidered throughout. The stitching techniques were nearly lost as the modern world took its toll on the mother-to-daughter skill transfer. But since the 1980′s the Ainu have had a cultural resurgence that has bolstered the focus on preserving the traditional culture.
It’s nearly impossible to find authentic Ainu textiles for sale on the open market. Auctions for private collectors may offer display pieces for hundreds — but usually thousands — of dollars. Your best chance of seeing Ainu textiles is in a museum, and even those exhibits are rare. Some artifacts are part of The Boone Collection at The Field Museum in Chicago, but they may not be on display continually. In Japan, there is a small museum at The Ainu Association of Hokkaido in Sapporo and an Ainu cultural village museum on Lake Poroto on the southern coast of Hokkaido.
In recent years, several artisans have reintroduced the old patterns and techniques of the Ainu with clothing and accessories that incorporate these almost-lost traditions. One example is the work of Tamami Kaizawa, a creator/designer in Hokkaido. She copies patterns from old attush and has done a lifetime’s worth of research with Ainu elders, hoping to capture “the essence of her ancestors’ designs in modern contemporary fashions”.
We do offer, while supplies last, a book on Ainu textiles from the Shoin Kyoto Collection.
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