nugoo and the art of specialist craft dyers

This is article by Joe Link, Assistant Editor at World Textile Information Network (Textile Industry publisher), was published in April 2019. 

In recent years, the advantages of digital solutions have been publicised on a global scale and the technology’s influence across manufacturing industries has become increasingly apparent.

The textile market is no exception to this, but the traditional industry has been more reticent than most when it comes to implementing digital solutions. A reason being that some textile manufacturers are still benefiting financially from their tried and tested production techniques. More importantly, according to Hiroto Ohira-san – president of Graphica Company, the business behind the Nugoo brand – a demand for traditionally-manufactured products still exists.

Nugoo was established in 2006 and quickly revived the authentic art of Chusen hand dyeing. The technique is used by Nugoo to create Tenugui, which are traditional Japanese hand towels. Nugoo also manufactures Bento, a cloth range inspired by traditional Japanese lunchboxes; and square cloth, a series of scarves incorporating Nugoo’s most popular designs. Nugoo’s hand-dyed fabrics are also used to create tote bags, purses and wrap hand mirrors.

Ohira’s decision to fund a brand that specialises in traditional hand dyeing techniques doesn’t stem from a lack of knowledge, or an ignorance to technology. In fact, during the past 18 years, Ohira has worked as a photographer, copywriter, printed products designer and art director. A competent technical understanding is required to succeed in each of these positions.      

Even in his private life, Ohira enjoys and admires the capabilities and potential of new solutions. “I really love new state-of-the-art technology,” he says. “I buy a tremendous number of new cameras and PCs and I love Virtual Reality (VR) and on-demand video streaming. But even though I’m interested in the latest technology, when I first saw Chusen (pour dyeing) I was astonished.

“It was such a contrast,” Ohira adds. “It is like a living fossil, like a coelacanth (ancient fish species). I was astonished that what seemed like a ridiculously outdated method was still in operation today. I asked myself why? But when I researched it, I started to get interested in how this ‘coelacanth’ had survived.”

Some analysts suggest that the development of digitalised solutions will lead to traditional manufacturing techniques becoming redundant. As digital technology gains momentum, alongside a gradual reduction in the number of traditional textile manufacturers, consumer demand will ultimately fall away.

As a compromising measure, some manufacturers have implemented digitised solutions while maintaining their more traditional techniques in order to appeal to the broadest consumer base possible, but analysts see this as a stop gap which prolongs the inevitable outcome that digital is the future of textile manufacturing.

This ‘inevitable outcome’ somewhat stems from media attention which is focused on the digital transformation. So much so, the advantages of traditional approaches are arguably neglected.  

 

 

“If I only had the option of using new technology, I would have,” says Ohira. “But Chusen is still proudly in active service and the product is superb. That’s why we chose to use it.”

One technology that could streamline Nugoo’s supply chain is digital printing. It enables low minimums, is more sustainable and is much faster – but Ohira is not sold on the technology, despite the fact several high-profile digital textile printing OEMs are based in Japan, such as Konica Minolta and Mimaki. 

“As a designer, I’m to some extent prejudiced against digital printing because it feels like a temporary tool or a substitute used for samples or comps (comprehensive layouts),” he says. 

“It’s interesting that even large global brands like Chanel or Louis Vuitton produce one-off, customised pieces. I think they’re intriguing because they seem ephemeral or paradoxically frivolous.

“However, if the quality of digital printing improves dramatically, I may change my view.  For now, I don’t use it because it’s easy to tell when a product has been produced digitally.”

 

For that reason, Ohira-san believes that Chusen could be considered ‘anti-technology’ and unlike traditional rotary screen printing, it won’t be so easily replaced by digital. 

“In Japan, there’s a shift underway to high-speed, high-precision digital textile printing,” he says. “I think there are no more than a few hundred surviving factories using hand screen-printing (Tenassen). I say surviving, but unlike Chusen, in a few years’ time hand screen-printing may completely disappear.”

But, with traditional methods such as Chusen comes the inevitable skills shortage. As technology progresses, people study the latest solutions and trends, which diminishes interest in older systems. However, present-day machinery reduces the need for skilled labourers, therefore not as many workers – millennials in particular – are seeking a career in the textile industry, analysts state.   

“This is not just an issue for the textile industry; skilled craftsman are disappearing worldwide,” Ohira-san says. “It’s the inevitable result of pursuing efficiency and the ongoing shift from people to machines. Since the Industrial Revolution, the problem has been the progress of automation, which means that even though craftsmen are respected for their skills, they’re inefficient compared to machines, and can’t be well paid for what they do.

 

“My immediate goal is to have a stable operation that can pay craftsmen a fair remuneration for their work,” says Ohira-san. “In the longer-term, I want to create products with a next-generation cultural value that’s the antithesis of a 21st-century world fixated on the pursuit of efficiency.”

There is, however, drawbacks with Chusen. It can only be used to dye fabrics in widths of 33cm, meaning the process cannot be used to create apparel. If it was used to dye larger textiles the finished product would look like patchwork, Ohira-san explains.

On a sustainability front, Chusen – which Nugoo uses to dye cotton, linen and wool and will be adding silk to its offering in the near future – is not the most sustainable technique. Digital has been praised in the past for being greener, but even then more still needs to be done, analysts say. Because of how niche Chusen is, Ohira-san believes regulations should focus more on large manufacturers whose impact on the environment is more profound.

Ohira-san says Nugoo is doing all it can to minimise its environmental impact: “By complying with relevant laws and regulations, we are continuing to improve so that we will be able to meet international standards. However, there are cases where chemical dyes that are legal suddenly become subject to regulation under international standards.”


 

Adopting new regulations leads to price hikes and this is ultimately passed on to the customer – which can have damaging consequences for a niche market.

Chusen is a process that dates back over a century and its longevity offers consumers more choice. In Japan, the dyeing method provides something modern technology cannot match, but from a practical and sustainable point of view it falls short. It may be a cultural thing that Chusen has stood the test of time in Japan, but for how much longer no one knows.

 Ohira san was interviewed for this article published in April 2019 for WTIN, World Textile Information Network, a digital and print publishing house for the textile industry. This is written by Joe Link, Assistant Editor and is reproduced with their permission.

 

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