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Japanese Obi: Woven Treasures of Japan

Japanese Obi at the Textile Museum in Washington, DC | Paint + PatternImage: Tansu LLC

Japanese obis are wide fabric sashes, usually woven in silk and worn with a Japanese kimono. When worn, an obi is a long, elaborately layered and folded piece of fabric. The Washington, DC Textile Museum display in the image above shows the long obis in their soft springtime colors, well-coordinated with the kimonos.

Traditional styles of wearing the Japanese ObiLeft: Onihide | Right: Takahashi Hiroko 

Traditionally, obis are worn around the waist and chest area to close up the kimono. As shown in the images above, they can be worn either by tying into a square shape or by leaving it hanging to show off the pattern. Japanese obi patterns and colors can be mixed and matched with kimonos, often with high contrast. To that end, girls and younger women usually wear brighter colors and bolder patterns, while the older women tend to wear more muted colors and subdued patterns.

Obis can also be used to decorate your homes. I like to display obis by draping them over a chair or a sofa, or even by running them over a dining table. They can also be hung from the walls; especially a two-story wall could be a great way to display the colors and patterns on the entire length of an obi. I even keep them folded and piled up on display shelves where you can just get a glimpse of their silken colors. They look like a stack of colorful book spines when kept that way and their beautiful patterns seem to tell stories just like books do!

Japanese-Obi-PatternsLeft: Ichiroy | Top Right: Kimono Source | Botton Right: Silk Road Gallery

Even the most intricate patterns are often woven into the fabric as brocade or tapestry. Just by imagining the handiwork that might go into designing these fabulous works of art makes my head spin! Above, is only a glimpse at the creativity you’ll find among various obi designs.

Japanese-Obi-StripesLeft: Ichiroy | Top Right: Ichiroya | Botton Right: Ichiroya

Along the length of an obi, patterns are sometimes even mixed with vertical or horizontal stripes as shown in the image below. This must be especially eye-catching when worn with a kimono.

Japanese-Obi-Scenese-Woven-into-the-FabricImage: Ichiroya

Many a times, intricate scenes from classical literature are woven into the entire length of an obi too. This usually indicates cultural awareness and the wearer’s in-depth knowledge of history.

Obis are often designed with auspicious motifs that represent good things such as longevity, happiness and fortune for its wearer. The motifs used on the obi fabrics show the Japanese beliefs through the literal and figurative power of its images. As explained by the V&A Museum, motifs were chosen to communicate the wearer’s age, status and wealth along with their individual tastes in design. Symbols can communicate various attributes of the garment wearer, or even what they aspire to become (it can be compared with the power suit and red tie concept of the American culture). Designs on an obi and a kimono can also represent the mood of the wearer and even serve as auspicious symbols for special occasions such as weddings. Nature inspired motifs are common and are often worn to reflect the current season. Botanical motifs on the obi fabric include bamboo, chrysanthemum, peony, plum and the Matsu pine tree. Animals like cranes and pheasants, inanimate objects like drums, fans and books also make for common obi patterns. Yes, books! One can also find various geometric patterns like hexagons, arabesque shapes and even medallions that have several layers of patterns within them.

Japanese-Obi-Three-Friends-of-Winter-via-One-Kings-Lane and Robyn BuntinLeft: Robyn Buntin | Right: One Kings Lane

Japanese-Obi-Three-Friends-of-Winter-via-eBayImage: Modern abstract obi from eBay seller Hakonestyle

Japanese-Obi-Three-Friends-of-Winter-from-IchiroyaImage: Embroidered Nagoya obi from Ichiroya

In spite of so many options, it’s amazing, how many designs can be created using limited motifs! Let’s take a look at some patterns themed after the “Three Friends of Winter” namely pine, bamboo and plum. Together, the three represent longevity, flexibility and renewal. This is because pine is evergreen and long-lived, Bamboo will bend in the wind, but never break while Plum is the first tree to blossom in the season of the ‘new‘ – spring. Only imagination can limit the design possibilities with which these “three friends of winter” can be visually incorporated. Take a look at the obi patterns in the images above that show the three friends in very different ways. Tell us in your comments below if you can spot the pine tree, the bamboo and the plum in any of these.

There is a whole world of imagination that has created these works of fabric art over centuries. If you’d like to see more obi designs, visit our Japanese Obi Pinterest board.

18 comments

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