Although knitting is not a great part of the historical Japanese culture, Japanese knitting has definitely made its mark in the fiber arts world.
We have the beautiful nature based yarns from Noro, the simple but complex textures of yarns and fabrics from Habu Textiles and the wonderful animated crochet world of Amigurumi just to name a few. I always found the word Amigurumi hard to pronounce, but you can learn HERE.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), Japan deliberately isolated itself from the outside world in order to allow their culture to bloom and develop without outside influences. This probably accounts for the lack of historical knitting examples.
There was a very small amount of trade permitted with the Dutch and Chinese in the city Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu. It’s the same Nagasaki that suffered a nuclear attack in August 1945.
It’s thought that hand knit stockings, gloves, clothing and some knitting techniques were allowed into Japan through Dutch trading. The root of the word ‘Meriyasu’, is still used in Japan today and means ‘a piece of knitting’. It was first used at the end of the Edo period, making sense that trade was responsible for the introduction of knitting in Japan.
The arrival of the American naval officer, Matthew Perry, in 1853 signaled the end of Japan’s long isolation. Perry came with a with a letter from the President of the US asking for access to the country. It was granted a year later.
Radical social changes were starting to take place within Japan’s military structure. Because of these changes, the need of the Samurai warrior was waning. A new military was being formed based on the influences of the west, (remember this transition was the basis of the movie ‘The Last Samurai’ starring Tom Cruise) and they needed knitted gloves and socks.
Guess who supplemented their dwindling income as warriors by knitting split toe Tabi socks for the military? Yes, the Samurai.
Modern Japanese Knitting
With trade routes opening up, Japan was more susceptible to western influences. Starting around 1873, Missionaries assigned to convert the Japanese to Christianity quickly opened schools that taught English, Western Culture, Art and Handcrafts (dress making, embroidery and knitting).
The Japanese Ambassadors and their wives began traveling frequently to other countries and returned with teachers from Holland, Germany and England to open schools that also taught knitting as part of its curriculum.
The most powerful influence to modern Japanese knitting was a man called Izo Matukawa. He learned to knit from Christian missionaries in 1880 and took knitting to another level. The beginning of the Japanese method of making hand knitting patterns with charts can be traced all the way back to him.
He held workshops to teach this technique which were based on the markings used to create embroidery patterns. In 1886 Matukawa published his own handbook, titled ‘Step by Step Knitting Patterns’. Click the highlighted text to be taken to a website that can help you decipher Japanese knitting symbols.
When Less is More
The essence of the Japanese minimalist aesthetic is a concept called ‘MA’ (pronounced “maah”); meaning the pure, the essential & the void between all things. The kanji for Ma is 間. As I understand that it; Ma explores the power of the negative. It’s basically the less is more philosophy which states that: a well placed pause between something like words will have a greater effect than non-stop words. Ma is the purposeful white space that separates sentences into paragraphs.
MA in essence is what makes minimalism possible. It’s in the quiet time we all need to make our busy lives meaningful. It can find it in the silence between the notes which make music. MA is what creates the peace of mind (called ‘heijoshin’ in Japanese) we all need.
MA represented in knitwear when a design only emphasizes one element. Such as shape, color or a single stitch pattern.
I LOVE the simplicity of Japanese design and I hope you enjoyed discovering the history and aesthetic of Japanese knitting and will incorporate some of these principles into your designs.
Click HERE for an opportunity to be inspired and explore the essence of Japanese design through 250 objects, ranging from bento boxes, calligraphy brushes, and Shoji sliding doors. Have a look at this craft paper printed book that’s bound in traditional Japanese style. Let me know when some these principles and inspirations find their way into your beautiful designs.
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Sticks & String,