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This content is taken from the Keio University's online course, The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 2 seconds Over the last few steps we have studied various ways to decorate paper, but books can be made of more than just paper. The books I have here, for example, all have covers made of fabric. At the fact that the Japanese word for “book cover” (hyōshi) contains the word “paper” (shi) suggests, paper was the standard material for book covers. In some cases, however, fabric was used instead. Some very ancient scrolls and other such precious items have covers made of fine silk gauze (ra), which has the characteristic of being extremely fragile.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds With the rise of interest in the tea ceremony (sadō) between the late-Muromachi and and the early-Edo periods (late 16th, early 17th c.) there was also a surge of interest in fine silks and other expensive items from China Before long, silk began to be used on book covers Luxurious new silk covers were also applied to old books to replace covers that had been damaged or soiled. The first item we have here is an Edo-period book that has a cover made of ra or usuginu (silk gauze). This material was used to make book covers since early times. An example of a book with a fabric cover that was added later as a replacement is this one here.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 seconds The book itself is a Muromachi-period text (14th~15th century) and it is very likely that originally it had a paper cover. However, because it is a very valuable book, some time later, in the Edo period, the owner decided to replace the old cover with one made of this very fine kind of silk with pattern woven in gold thread called kinran. The three books here all date from the Edo period. By this point it had become common to put silk covers on expensive books. The cover of the first example here is made of donsu (silk damask). The designs are made using not gold thread but threads of different colors instead. Moving on to this example here, it is exceptionally lavish.

Skip to 2 minutes and 49 seconds The cover is made of an extremely intricate, expensive brocade called kinran-nishiki (golden brocade) made of gold thread of various tones. This item here also has a cover made of expensive, multi-color brocade (nishiki) Several things suggest that these two books were made by people close to the emperor and it was in such elite circles that these expensive silk book covers were used. The world of traditional textiles is as complex and interesting as that of paper and would require its own course. In the past, I have written on textiles in books for or about the tea ceremony, so please take a look if you have a chance.

Fabric book covers: kire

Book are not always made only of paper. Book covers, for instance, were often made of fabric. Kire (fragments) are scraps of ancient fabric.

In the video, the following types of fabrics are introduced:

  • Ra or usuginu (silk gauze): Some Heian examples of books with covers made of ra survive.
  • Kinran : silk with pattern woven in gold thread. The first examples were imported from China in the Kamakura period (1185-1333); production in Japan began in the Muromachi period.
  • Donsu (“silk damask”): silk with designs created by using threads of different color for the warp and the weft. Like kinran, it was initially imported from China and then production started in Japan.
  • Nishiki (“brocade”): General term for embroidered silk. The earliest examples date from the 5th century; produced in Japan since the Nara period (710-794 CE).
  • Kinran-nishiki (“golden brocade”): silk with pattern woven from gold thread of different tones.

Before the 16th century, fabric covers were made of silk gauze (ra or usuginu) or something close to it. Silk covers were used in such exceptional books as scrolls to be presented to the emperor. The development of the tea ceremony in the 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama period), led to a fad for Chinese silk and other expensive imports from China, and before long different types of silk began to be used to make book covers. In addition to new books, silk covers were also used to replace damaged or soiled covers of pre-16th-century books.

Watch the video to look at some examples.

Books introduced in the video

books on the table

Let’s find a book with a fabric cover

Do you have a book with a fabric cover? What kind of fabric is it? What kind of book is it? Do you know the history of the book? Please share your findings and story in the comment area.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books

Keio University