Linden trees have heart-shaped leaves and a precious bark that may be woven into fabric. Shinafu holds this promise of finding the supple within the toughness of a tree.
It is one of 219 métiers d’art officially recognized by the Japanese government and is produced in Niigata and Yamagata, north of the main island Honshû.
In Japan, plant textiles and spinnable fibers have been produced from the bark of trees such as mulberry, elm, glycine, kudzu, ramie, and hemp since the Jômon period (dating from 15000 BC). Shinafu, literally meaning “linden weaving,” is among these ancient traditions. In France, linden fiber extract is named teille and used for ropes, mats and other thick weavings.
During the Meiji period (1868-1912) spinning technology made cotton a popular material, causing a decline in traditional textiles. Many regions thus stopped producing, but shinafu resisted – it remained useful for agricultural gear, fishing nets, mosquito mesh, home linens, and storage bags.
Japan’s economic development and modernization lowered demand and called the future of this artisanal practice into question. And while shinafu was worth maintaining for a production recentered around personal items, it was not until the 1970s and 80s that the craft truly rebounded. Government support was fruitful; the Densan law was put into effect in 1974 with the goal of conserving and promoting traditional Japanese skills. The Ministry of Economy, Commerce and Industry lists these crafts and enforces strict criteria.
The raw material comes principally from Shinanoki, Japanese linden, and Ôbabodaiju, another indigenous species. These trees grow along the mountainous coastal regions of Japan. Even today, their processing from bark into textile remains a manual task. The threads are obtained through a series of steps beginning in June when the fibers are harvested and ending the following March with weaving on handlooms and pedaled looms. The official website for Shinafu offers a comprehensive schematic for all of the steps (though the site is available exclusively in Japanese).
This hardy material, with its rough and dry texture, is used to create everyday objects like obi, sandals, bags, and hats, which retain its naturally beige coloration. Once rustic objects, shinafu products today have become refined accessories.
Niigata prefecture has produced beautiful videos showcasing the 16 métiers d’art of their region. Here, you can find the one dedicated to shinafu, featuring master Hako Ôtaki.