Trees and herbaceous plants were the most common sources for fibres in prehistoric Japan. Wild-growing trees such as fuji (wisteria), shina (linden) and kozo (mulberry) provided material for baskets, ropes and nets and later clothing but this was a labour-intensive process. It took time for the material to be soaked and boiled enough to make them pliable but even then, the fibres could not be spun and so were tied end-to-end to form threads. Grass-bast fibres such as ramie and hemp proved to be more practical as they could be cultivated from seeds in fields and easier manipulation of the finer fibres allowed for a comparatively simpler weaving process.
It is not known precisely when silk reached Japan from China, but archaeological evidence suggests sericulture had taken hold within the country by the 3rd century. Initially, silk reeling and weaving was rudimentary and remained so until artisans from the continent brought more refined techniques in the 7th and 8th centuries. Silk garments were restricted to the privileged, at first because of the prohibitively expensive nature of production and later due laws passed in the Edo Period to prevent the merchant class from displaying their wealth. In 1872, domestic production greatly increased when the government set up a silk mill in Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture using silk reeling machines from France. Japan would become the world’s largest producer of silk at the beginning of the 20th century and the foreign revenues received directly boosted the modernization and industrialisation of Japan.
Cotton cultivation within Japan started in earnest from the 16th century onwards. It found favour amongst the commoners as a softer, warmer and more versatile fabric than those produced from bast-fibre materials. The practicality of its combination with indigo dye also proved to be popular. Technological developments in spinning wheels and looms increased production so that cotton was commonly available throughout the country by the mid 18th century, even in the colder, northern part of Japan where it did not grow. Japan became a principal cotton fabric exporter in the first half of the 20th century.
The number of climates within Japan’s archipelago has supported great diversity in vegetation and materials for textiles. The ethnic Ainu peoples made good use of the indigenous elm trees on the northern island of Hokkaido for their traditional dress. While the fibrous stems of basho, a wild banana plant, have been used for centuries to create clothing on the islands on Okinawa.