Tenugui (Japanese towels)
Next to a building in a typical downtown area of Tokyo, stretched-out rolls of air-drying cotton cloth (men-tanmono) fly like flags in the breeze. This is the factory of Tokyo Iseyasu Senkosho (Iseyasu Dye House) in Matsushima, Edogawa Ward, experts in the venerable art of dyeing traditional yukata (casual kimono) and tenugui (Japanese towels).
There used to be many more such factories in this area, due to its location near the Arakawa River. But along with the arrival of mass production and disposable goods, the factories disappeared one by one. Now, there are only five such dye houses in the Tokyo area.
The Iseyasu factory employs a hand-dyeing method called chusen. Unlike machine printing, this method dyes the threads of the fabric, rather than just the surface of the cloth. This allows superimposition of delicately illustrated images, refined expression of color gradations, and double-sided reproduction of images — all quite different from machine printing. Most important, no two pieces of dyed fabric are exactly alike, producing subtle taste variations in every dyeing job.
During today’s visit to Iseyasu, the process of dyeing tenugui towels is in progress. Labor is divided into different jobs, including such handiwork activities as itaba (drawing pictures), somé (dyeing), mizumoto (washing), and shiage (finishing fabrication). The factory is filled with workers, who are silently concentrating on their individual tasks.
This work is observed by the previous chief, who allowed his son (a fourth generation representative of the company) to succeed him several years ago. He comments on positive new business trends: “Some time ago, many craftsmen worked here, living together in the facility. Maybe because tenugui have attracted attention and are enjoy a revival, young people now come to work with us. Even in these modern times, this work has not been changed much from old times, and mastering it takes time. However, these young fellows come here to learn because they want to make something beautiful. This is a wonderful thing indeed!”
Yukata and tenugui are gradually gaining popularity in countries outside Japan. When buying one for yourself, please pay careful attention to the pictures and the back side of the fabric. You’ll see the passion of true craftsmen running through the threads.
Location: Iseyasu Dye House