These noren were unadorned; designs and lettering were innovations that would come much later. What historically set Kyoto apart when it came to textile production was the availability of different colors of dye, which in turn attracted weavers and dyers and helped establish a nascent textile center in the city. Production has survived until this day, most notably in the labor-intensive production of kimono.
Noren ranks below kimono in the unofficial hierarchy of textile production, but they are inextricably linked through their production processes and personnel. Kyoto-based noren maker Miwako Nagano, 67, set up her business after apprenticing in the dyeing industry. Nagano spent 15 years making kimono using the yuzen-zome technique, an elaborate dyeing process invented in Kyoto around the end of the 17th century. The intensity and long hours involved in making kimono wore down her health and, ultimately, she decided to get out of the industry.
However, utilizing her experience in the dyeing trade and tapping the creativity that appears to run in the family — she shares her studio with her son, a furniture maker trained in Finland — she decided to try her hand at noren. Nagano says that producing a noren is similar to making a kimono, if less intricate.
First, a design is created and then sketched onto the fabric. Following this, the noren maker will paint over the design with wax. After the wax has dried, the fabric is dyed. To remove the wax — which brings out the design — the noren is typically steamed, then left to dry, before being ironed and altered in the tailoring stages.
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Different steps might be repeated along the way depending on the design of the noren, or if more than one color is used in the dyeing process. Noren makers have traditionally favored working with fabrics such as linen or cotton; hemp is occasionally used because of its durability. A set of noren, depending on its size and the number of people working on it, can typically take anywhere from three to 10 days to complete.
Upon visiting her atelier, Nagano was in the process of making a large four-curtain noren for Nakamura Tokichi, a year-old teahouse in the city of Uji on the southern outskirts of Kyoto. Takai says the standard noren featuring lettering and logos that are ubiquitous across the country today first appeared in the early part of the Edo Period Curtain makers moved away from producing plain noren once the military government moved to educate the masses and improve literacy.
Crossing the threshold: A woman walks through hanging curtains to enter Daigokuden, a sweets shop in Kyoto.
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Noren makers were quick to catch on and started incorporating characters on their curtains, in the process turning the hanging fabric into something akin to a billboard. Linen has over time been replaced by cotton as the base fabric of noren, something that has catered for greater flexibility and creativity. For a long time, however, curtain makers and businesses still had to abide by certain rules with regards to their color and size.
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Only a limited range of colors existed before the beginning of the Edo Period — white, reddish brown, brown and navy blue — and shops were required to follow color codes. For example, dispensaries and sweet shops used white noren, while sake shops were identified by navy blue curtains.
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