Survey: Iwatate Folk Textile Museum



Iwatate Folk Textile Museum (Tokyo, Japan)

I want to share with you a universal, unchanging beauty.

Although it's a bit small to be called a "museum", it's not very often one can see a collection of this volume and quality exhibited in one place. On the contrary, it's likely that even the best museums in the world would be hard-pressed to imitate the amount of time and single-minded dedication that was spent building this collection. The Iwatate Folk Textile Museum is located in a small building a few minutes walk from Tokyo's Jiyugaoka Station, and houses approximately 7,500 textiles collected from all around Asia over the span of 45 years by director Hiroko Iwatate.

The exhibition theme changes three times a year, and features pieces that were produced before the industrialization of textile production (pre mid-twentieth century), with a fair number of items exceeding 100 years old. The vast majority of the textiles were sourced in their native countries by Ms. Iwatate.

Ms. Iwatate was born in Tokyo in 1930 and under the tutelage of textile-dyeing artisans Yoshitaka Yanagi and Samiro Yunoki, studied dyeing at Joshibi University of Art and Design. "At that time, the era of hand-making goods was already over. There wasn't any work when I graduated university, and I really had no idea what I was going to do. I became very enamored with Andean textiles from the Inca empire, and in 1965 I traveled for two months to New York, Peru, Mexico, and Guatemala. What I discovered during my travels was an unchanging, universal beauty. I decided that from that point on, the focus of my work would be searching the world for this beauty."

The pursuit of a fundamental, universal beauty, unaffected by the changing of the times.
Ms. Iwatate made her first visit to India in 1970, and encountered textiles used by the local people. "Natural materials were spun by hand, sewn into cloth, and dyed, and then made into veils or sarees. When the cloth became old, usable parts would be torn off and sewn onto another garment for reuse. This sort of traditional handwork shouldn't have been exclusive to India, but the worldwide obsession with increasing profits and efficiency rendered handwork of this nature virtually obsolete. That being said, when I began visiting India and the Middle East in the 70's I could still find such items at the bazaar, and was able to meet people who were still pouring their energy into reviving handwork and vegetable dyeing.

Although Ms. Iwatate is a fervent collector of textiles, and is fascinated by the traditional handwork that is slowly disappearing in light of expanding industrialism, she cautions that her attraction cannot be explained by simply proclaiming "This thing is old, so it is good" or "This technique is advanced, so it is good."
"These things are not designed with one's head, they are born out of a certain meaning, a concept. I feel that these kinds of things will not grow old...that there's a timeless attraction to them. For example, take the Turkmenistan "camelback decorations." Women would go around to their neighbors and ask for pieces of fabric from old brides clothing, and would sew the fabric together in little triangular shapes. Triangles are actually considered the "prayer shape" by these women. I find this absolutely adorable. Don't you think it's much more attractive than those stiff, gaudy decorative pieces?"

In a time when information on India and the Middle East was still very limited, Ms. Iwatate continued her visits to those far off places, eventually creating a map of textiles. In 1984, she published her fieldwork in a book called "Desert Village, Life and Crafts" (Youbisha). The year after, she opened a gallery and exhibited the items she had collected up until then.
"There is no meaning if only I have access to these precious items. By sharing them with the world, I'd like people to hone their senses, and understand that which first captivated me. Old and young, male and female, many different people come to visit, but of course we also see many clothing design students. There were even some exchange students from China that visited, and were surprised to find garments from Chinese minority tribes in our collection - "We had no idea that such amazing things came from our own country!" Surely they returned with a newfound appreciation for the beautiful things made in their homeland."

This collection naturally features items of Japanese origin as well; notably traditional noragi and hanten pieces. Forty-five years since her first visit to India, Ms. Iwatate continues her pursuance of universal beauty, and is still actively collecting today.
"You can find good 'material' anywhere. If you thoughtlessly proclaim that 'this generation isn't interesting at all,' then at that point it's all over. Maybe if people thought that 'these [traditional textiles] are good', maybe the world would change a bit. Even synthetic materials have improved over time, and I don't think there's anything wrong with incorporating these convenient things into your lifestyle. The important part is to figure out, with our hands, how to create our interpretation of beautiful things. It is for this purpose that I am happy to share these charming, old objects with everyone."

* These pictures were taken from the "Suzani Magnificent Embroidery" exhibition, which ran from August 6th ~ November 14th, 2015. Suzani was a type of embroidery that started in the 18th century Central Asian oasis city of Bukhara. This embroidery was hung on the walls and bed during wedding celebrations, and featured large, brilliant flower designs.

* 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.


03 3718 2461
Open from Thursday to Saturday during the exhibition period

Upcoming exhibition information

Exhibition #7
Woolen Textiles of North India - Wrap-around Garments in the Himalayan Mountains -
2015/12/3 - 2016/3/19 (Open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays)

An exhibition focused on sun protective blankets used by desert nomads from Northern India, displaying the unique handiwork of Indian wool.

edit & text: Kosuke Ide
photo: Keisuke Fukamizu