The beauty of the Kihachijo silk characteristic of the Japanese island Hachijo-jima is the product of the island’s nature and history. Kihachijo silk was sent to Mainland Japan as tributes during the Muromachi period into the Edo period. Thus, the silk’s quality has been maintained and well-preserved over the years.

Hachijo-jima is located 287-km south of Tokyo Bay and is a 50-min airplane ride from Japan’s capital. The calabash-shaped island was formed from the eruption of two submarine volcanos in ancient times. Nakanogo of Hachijo-jima is the area most well-known for Kihachijo silk, and here, the married couple Fumiko and Homare Yamashita, whom we interviewed, has their atelier “Kihachijo Meyu Kobo”. The Yamashitas are known for combining innovative designs with traditional techniques.

Fashion Headline (FH): Kihachijo silk is made with materials from Hachijo-jima correct?

The Yamashitas: Yes. Kihachijo silk is dyed with Kariyasu grass, which creates a distinct yellow color. Another type of weave, the Tobi Hachijo, is created with plum dyes taken from the bark of the Machilus plant. Kuro Hachijo is created with black dye made with the dried bark of Castanopsis trees. All these ingredients are grown in Hachijo-jima. We combine these three dyes to design the fabrics.

FH: The color combinations and patterns created with these three basic colors are amazing.

The Yamashitas: The late Yoshitaka Yanagi used to say that, ‘Kihachijo silk is made with only three colors. Everything about Kihachijo silk is completed with just these three colors. That’s what makes it so special’. We use different contrasts of the three colors to create an endless number of patterns. Kihachijo silk is the only weave in Japan that does not use kasuri or aizome techniques, and I'm grateful for this. Kihachijo silk only uses straight lines and three colors. People often say to us that it must be tough for us to work with such limitations, but I find that these limitations are what make Kihachijo silk extraordinary.

FH: It seems that the joys of not having too many choices are reflected in the natural lifestyles of those living in Hachijo-jima.

The Yamashitas: Yes. Here in Hachijo-jima, we live off what we have because nothing comes into the island. In Hachijo-jima, we tend not to have what other people have. And the same can be said about Kihachijo silk. We make the most of what we have.

FH: The loom for creating Kihachijo silk is very powerful. What thoughts come to mind when you are creating the fabrics?

Fumiko: It’s best not to think about anything when weaving. Some people say that they think about the person they are making the fabric for, but I tell my students not to think about anything. I think it’s up to the wearer to find meaning in the fabrics. Kimonos are worn on memorable occasions, and I want each of the garments purchased by our customers to have special meanings to them. It’s not up to the creators to interpret the clothing.

FH: How do you go about creating the subtle gradation of colors onto the fabrics?

Fumiko: I don’t really plan the process. I go with my instincts. If I see my husband dyeing the threads a certain color and I like it, I will use it on the spot.

FH: It’s the result of the marvelous teamwork between you, in charge of the weaving, and your husband, in charge of the dyeing.

Fumiko: Yes that’s right. We take care of the entire creation process together, which is quite unique. We are very lucky and at the same time, we feel an enormous amount of responsibility on our shoulders.

FH: How did you acquire the traditional techniques from your predecessors?

The Yamashitas: We learned directly from our predecessors. We went and talked to them to create design references of each weave. We were very curious, and wanted a go at designing each weave at least once.

FH: You told us that the color of the yellow dye was unsatisfactory these past few years, which is why it wasn’t being used. Can you tell us why the color wasn’t up to its usual quality?

The Yamashitas: The quality of the Kariyasu grass wasn't very good these few years.

FH: So the natural environment of Hachijo-jima really does have a huge impact on your career and lifestyle.

The Yamashitas: Yes it does. The typhoons also had something to do with the poor quality of the yellow dye. Whenever there is a typhoon, the salt in seawater falls onto the ground and destroys the plants growing on the island. The salt makes the leaves of plants brown. During the Edo period, soil salinity was so bad that all the crops died. Until sweet potato cultivation began on the island, many people would starve to death. Even today, all means of transportation become canceled during bad weather, causing the supermarkets to become completely devoid of food.

More to come in Part 2.