Survey: Ainu Culture vol.1



Garments and Embroideries of the Ainu People (Hokkaido, Japan)

The culture of clothing inherited through generations in the northern lands of Japan.

Following the hunter-gatherer culture of the Jomon period and the Zoku-Jomon (post-Jomon) period which succeeded it, the Ainu culture was developed in Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island which has been inhabited by people since tens of thousands of years ago, from around the 12th or 13th century. The Ainu people's garments were primarily made from the hide, fur, and skin of wild animals such as deer, bears, dogs, seals, salmon, and trout, but eventually the use of plant fibers such as bark and grass woven into textile fabrics later became the norm.

In Curious Sights of Ezo Island, written in 1799 during the late Edo period by northern explorer Shimanojo Murakami, the Ainu people are depicted as wearing various types of garments, including "bird skin" garments made of bird skin stitched together with the feathers still attached.

Attush fabrics from over 100 years ago (Held at the Hokkaido Ainu Center in Sapporo)

The most typical type of clothing worn by the Ainu, the "attush" fabrics, were made from the fibers from the inner bark of elm (ohyo) and Japanese linden (shinanoki) trees and woven into textile fabrics for dress-making. The attush cloth was typically worn as work clothes, but was also used to make formal garments that were decorated with patterned embroidery. Cotton thread was commonly used for their embroideries, but because the low temperatures of the Hokkaido region made it difficult to grow cotton plants, a plant native to tropical and subtropical regions, the Ainu people, who had always actively exchanged goods with those from surrounding regions, obtained large volumes of cotton through trade with the mainland Japanese people who lived in Honshu (main island of Japan).

During the late Edo period, obtaining cotton became much easier, and soft cotton garments decorated with patterns embroidered by the women became a popular style of formal wear among the Ainu people. These cotton garments can be categorized into the following four main types.

Ruunpe: Garments with tape-shaped thin cotton and silk cloths on cotton fabric ground (elaborately embroidered with delicate applique).
Kaparamip: Cotton garments which feature embroidered patterns made with a large volume of white cloth.
Chikarkarpe: Cotton garments which are decorated with black or indigo fabrics and embroidery.
Cijiri: Clothes which are directly embroidered without applique.

Kaparamip (1/2 sized fabric made for educational purpose. The same goes for the following three fabrics.)


Ruunpe (left), Cijiri (right)

Both men and women wore the same style of formal attire, which featured distinct shapes and embroidered patterns depending on the region that they inhabited.

The rope patterned embroidery designs featured on the collars, cuffs, and around the hems were believed to have worked as a talisman to prevent evil from entering the body of the wearer. Even today, these types of garments are worn as traditional formal attire during festivals and other ceremonial rituals.

The Ainu people, who never had a writing system of their own, typically passed down the applique designs and embroidery stitches through word of mouth from mother to daughter.

In Nibutani, an area in the town of Biratori in Saru District, Hokkaido, you can find the "Fujitani Mingei Shop", run by Rumiko Fujitani, one of the last few practitioners of traditional attush weaving techniques. Fujitani learned the craft from her mother during her childhood, and took over the task of weaving when she graduated from junior high school.

Attush fabric made from scratch, from the cloth-making to the embroidery process, by Rumiko Fujitani.

"In the past, making everyday items like baskets, bags, and rope from the fibers of Japanese linden trees, and clothing from elm trees was a very common practice. Up until around 1975 (Showa 50), there were many tourists and traders coming and going through this area, and they were a valuable source of income for the weavers in this region.

When I was younger I thought that this job was thankless and tedious, but when I entered my late 20's and learned the entire manufacturing process, starting removing the fibers from the bark to creating the attush cloth from scratch, it became much more enjoyable."

Attush fabrics are made from fiber that is obtained from the endodermis of elm trees that have been aged about 40 years, which are then stretched out and dried, soaked in hot water for many hours to soften, and then washed with water and dried out in the sun. Following this long process, the fabric is then woven on a weaving machine called a "back strap loom" a type of loom that consists of two sticks or bars between which the warps are stretched using the weaver's own body weight to tension the loom.

Using the back strap loop, up to one meter of fabric could be produced per day. Attush fabric is light, durable, and provides good ventilation and water-resistance, which made it an important necessity for everyday life. The garments, which required a lot of effort and time to make, were worn with extreme care and passed down through generations.

Nobuko Tsuda, a garment specialist who currently lives in Sapporo, continues to conduct research on traditional Ainu garment culture and works to pass down the production methods to younger generations. Born in the town of Shiraoi, Hokkaido, her grandfather was a well-known Ainu "bear hunter", and she was raised with traditional Ainu attire in her home growing up.

It wasn't until she entered her 40's that she started to become more interested in her Ainu background and identity, and at the age of 68 she earned her doctoral degree for her thesis in the transition of embroidery techniques in Ainu clothing. For the past 20 years, she has served as a curator at the Hokkaido Ainu Center in Sapporo.

Nobuko Tsuda's grandfather aboard a traditional Ainu boat holding a harpoon. Around 1887 (Meiji 20).

Unlike many of her researcher peers, Tsuda's research focused on the techniques of Ainu garment culture from the perspective of a "maker".

She has traveled across Hokkaido to visit the homes of elderly Ainu families who had spent years making their own traditional garments, and conducted extensive research about the transition of the materials, sewing techniques, and patterns of Ainu clothing from documents archived in libraries and museums throughout Japan and overseas.

"I studied intricate details such as how the patterns were made and what parts of the garments they were featured on, as well as how the embroideries were stitched and the directions of the seams. Older garments were weaved using cloth made from nettle plants, but eventually cotton was introduced and the types of fabrics used and stitching techniques began to evolve over time. You can also see the transition of the patterns from straight dotted-lines to curved lines over time.

I traveled to museums in Holland and Germany to see the various attush fabrics that were collected and brought back by people like Jan Cock Blomhoff, who was the director of a Dutch trading colony during the early 19th century, and German ambassador Max von Brandt during the late Edo period. You can tell by looking at old garments that the makers possessed extremely high levels of sewing techniques."

Reproducing 18th century Ainu garments that have been housed in a Russian museum.

How did Ainu people create detailed patterns at a time when tracing paper or copying machines didn't exist?

In addition to studying old documents about traditional Ainu garments, Tsuda learned about the craft herself, picking up principles of traditional Ainu patternmaking such as how "the curved lines should intersect at the halfway point when the fabric is folded in half" and how measurements were taken using the length of various body parts such as the palm of the hand, fingers, and arms.

"Today, using tracing paper to create Ainu embroidery patterns has become the norm, but in the past Ainu women utilized their own bodies and other techniques to produce beautiful patterns. Thanks to modern conveniences it has become possible to replicate and create perfectly symmetrical patterns, but the embroideries made using traditional methods have slight misalignments and unevenness.

I feel a sense of attraction to these natural "imperfections", and you can't see the true quality of the older garments until you actually feel them with your own hands. That is why I want to preserve and pass down the traditional techniques to future generations."

Passed down traditional Piuchiopu (flint tool) and Emsiatt (blade-holding strap) reproduced by Nobuko Tsuda.

Sample depicting the production process of the embroidered patterns on a traditional Matanpthy (headband).


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Survey, defined as: to examine or inspect. In these features, we will be reporting on things, people, places, or cultures that inspire us in our daily work of making products.

edit & text: Kosuke Ide
photo: Keisuke Fukamizu