Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture is an archipelago of 146 islands stretching between Kyushu and Taiwan whose rich culture has resulted from its topography, and regional influences. As a part of this mix, Bashofu or ‘banana-fibre cloth’, has a distinct local (and national) identity, which has altered over time with the many social, economic and cultural transformations of broader Okinawan (and Japanese) society.
As the name implies, bashofu is made from a tree-like plantain in the banana family (musa balbisiana). While characteristic of the subtropical landscape, research has proven that ‘thread-banana’, distinct from fruit or flower bearing plants (and known as ito-basho in modern Japanese), is not indigenous to the islands and that both plant and textile were introduced from Southern China.
Banana-fibre is technically a leaf fibre, found in the 'trunk' (or ‘pseudo-stem’) of the banana 'tree' rather than in the upper green leaves. This trunk actually consists of a series of inter-nesting leaf bases, which can be separated into grades. Outer sections contain relatively course fibre and the inner ones finer. In simple terms, this material is divided, softened by boiling, and then scraped (‘scutched’) to remove the waste phloem. Once dried, the resulting fibre-strips are split into desired thickness, knotted end-to-end in continuous length, spun (twisted for strength) and woven. The work is both laborious and highly skilled, but results in a distinctive cloth, both crisp and light, and cool to the skin, ideal for the regional climate...
You can read this article by Tim Parry-Williams in Selvedge issue 70.
To find out more about Japan's rich textile culture, you can order your copy of Selvedge issue 81 here.