As awesome as it looks -- this isn't actually about the mask but the elaborate pattern of the tenugui the person is wearing around his head! Made by embroidery brand Kyototo.

Kyototo: Elaborate Embroidery from Kyoto and Tokyo

How to modernise the beauty of Japanese dyeing and embroidery tradition with sophisticated design and typography? Ask Kyototo about their wordplay in scarlet letters! This embroidery brand is manufactured by a workshop in Kyoto, but designs and concept come from two sisters based in Tokyo. So for today, PingMag talked to Kayoko and Miyoko Horiba from 3min about Kyototo.

Written by Chiemi
Translated by Natsumi Yamane

First, how did Kyototo as an embroidery brand get started?

Kyototo’s stylish embroidered logo.

We were initially asked to do the website for an embroidery workshop called Duomo in Kyoto, who wanted to show the appeal of embroidery and bring new dimensions to the art. Although Duomo as a workshop had a lot of skill, they didn’t have any products to show on their site. So we thought, Why not make a new embroidery brand? And that’s how “Kyototo” started.

What’s the meaning of “Kyototo?”

We named it after the idea of artisans in Kyoto making products designed in Tokyo, which in turn is issued throughout the world. Many skilled craftsmen gather in Kyoto so that, for example, the making of a kimono alone is divided into various processes. Since traditional Japanese culture seems to be gradually fading, the absolute amount of labour is inevitably decreasing and it’s difficult to send out messages independently. That’s why we made “Kyototo” for everyone to join and do something exciting.

Two utterly delicious coin purses: “Horohoro” embroidered with the kanji for ”flower” (left) and “Pirapira” embroidered with the characters for “goldfish” (right.) The patterns are based on the delicate beauty of nature, such as the four seasons.
Simple but elegant: fabric chopstick holder “Chiuchiu” embroidered with the kanji for “sparrow.”

So you do all of the product planning over in Tokyo?

The designs are all done in Tokyo but when it comes to actually manufacturing the product, some of the designs don’t work out due to technical and cost reasons. There are times when we consult the artisans and make changes to the design. Our style is to work together and to respect each other in the process. Our Kyoto side looks after the manufacturing one hundred percent.

All of your products so far are based on traditional Japanese aesthetics. Did you have any other standard in your product design?

Basically, we try to keep the price within the affordable range for people’s presents. Also, when we did an exhibition at Souvenir from Tokyo in Roppongi in August, we created goods that followed a special concept.

The exhibition at “Souvenir from Tokyo” in Roppongi in August.

And what’s that concept?

The first item we made was a tenugui, which has a fixed size of around 37cm by 90cm. We set this size as a basic unit and designed a yukata using materials 14 times the size of it, cloth place mats using half of the unit and a Kyoto style uchiwa fans that used one third of the unit. Basically, we made all our items based on either the multiples or divisors of this original unit.

Tenugui “Kaikai” embroidered with the kanji for “Frog.” Its size is one unit to be used as standard measurement for all the other products.
A Yukata (left) made using the fabric 14 times the size of the tenugui and a small amulet (right) made from 1/24 of the basic unit.
The Kyoto style uchiwa is made using exactly one third of the size of the tenugui.

Ah, that’s what you meant by the “halves” and “thirds” we saw on your website. Also, you always use red threads for embroidered letters — does that have any meaning too?

Embroidery is created by threads. We decided to use red with the implication of connecting Kyoto and Tokyo, connecting or passing on the traditions to the future and also because red is a typically Japanese colour.

There really seems to be something special about red threads. Did you also have particularly foreign customers in mind when using kanji for your embroidery motifs?

That too, but we do wordplays with the kanji on the tenugui and its packaging for the Japanese to have fun with it as well. For example, the bottom right pattern is embroidered with the kanji for “fox” on both sides of the shrine gate motif, but its package is embroidered with the hiragana for “kuwaai”, which is an archaic onomatopoeia for the sound of foxes, often used in traditional stage arts such as Kyogen.

From their concept leaflet: from left to right, “Horohoro” depicting falling blossoms, “Zanzan” showing falling raindrops, “Wanwan” describing the buzzing of mosquito wings, and “Kuwaai” with the sound of the foxes. Sophisticated graphics!
The tenugui “Putoputo” depicts flying butterflies with its kanji; its package on the right. The translucent silhouette of the product inside has a soft and gentle feel.
Tenugui “Konkon” showing steadily falling snowflakes.

Your typography is also quite unique: What did you have in mind here?

Japanese usually find the cursive calligraphy style of writing attractive. However, when the characters are too well-written, foreigners who can’t read them perceive them more as graphic images and find it difficult to recognise them as characters. So we standardised them in a neat and tidy Gothic style font for kanji and something a little bit softer for hiragana.

Bale-shaped pillow “Horohoro,” embroidered with the kanji for “Flower.”

That’s not the only thing: You have a special way of dyeing the materials too.

Yes, we initially had this idea of dyeing the original drawings with Japanese ink to let the red embroidery stand out. We asked a Yuzen dyeing artisan if it might be possible to use the ‘Kachin’ dyeing method used by Kyoto dyeing artisans that marks the outlines of the original drawing using Japanese ink. The artisan agreed to experiment, but Kachin dyeing is not designed to dye solid images like the ones we have on some of our Kyototo items. So it was a new attempt for the artisan too and he kindly went through a long process of trial and error to dye the patterns evenly.

An artisan dyes the entire stretch of a long roll of fabric.

Thanks to your efforts, we can really feel the tenderness of the hand-dyed patterns! What are the next steps for Kyototo?

Right now, all our patterns are made by print dyeing and embroidery. However, we would like to create products that can be realised by embroidery alone. Other than that, we plan to do collaborations with temples in Kyoto and Kabuki actors as well. And at the moment, we are having an exhibition at Kyoto Handicraft Centre until the 20th of this November, which is where tourists come to shop for souvenirs.

We can’t wait to see more about it! Kayoko and Miyoko Horiba, thank you very much for Kyototo!

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    Awesome! I love the combination of white red and black or gray! Well I am looking forward purchasing some works. Thanks for publishing them!

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