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When she was a young girl, Kaizawa Yukiko turned linden and elm bark into thread for pocket money. Now in her eighties, she is one of the last remaining attus weavers in Japan. Attus is the Ainu name for the cloth and clothing made from weaving elm and linden bark thread.

You know Yukiko’s textiles are something extraordinary when she says weaving is the “fast” part of the process. The slow part is harvesting, splitting, and dyeing the bark to make the tricky threads for her loom.

Kaizawa Yukiko weaving in her workroom surrounded by bark thread in various states of hand-processing.

Attus is one of several hand crafts mastered by the Ainu people of Hokkaido on display as part of a major exhibition at Japan House in London.

Japan House is one of those places which could easily be missed when one’s itinerary is packed with massive museums and historical sights. But with an exquisitely curated calendar of free exhibitions and special events throughout the year, many with a focus on textiles, Japan House always inspires me.

Elm bark in its journey from tree to thread.

The Ainu are an indigenous people, living mainly in Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan. Historically, they have suffered discrimination and marginalization to the point that their language and traditions almost disappeared.

“Ainu Stories” brings together more than 200 works, many of which have never been seen outside of Japan, as well as a collection of newly made videos which tell the story of the Nibutani—a community of about 300 of Ainu descent in Biratori Town.

This community both acknowledges the past traditions of their forebears while maintaining and expanding on these traditions as living culture. This encompasses architecture, woodcarving, music, dance, ceremonies, embroidery, and weaving.

Bag handwoven from linden bark fibre. Made by Ogawa Shigeno (1921-unknown).

Along the Saru river, they’ve always had plenty of elm and linden trees. From tree bark, with tremendous patience and time, you can create thread.

When the long bark fiber becomes the width of a flat noodle, you can dye it with native plants like marigold and madder. Then you can divide it into threads and on a backstrap loom weave it into obi, the stiff sashes worn around the waist of kimono.

Wosa, a heddle, and pera, a paddle, used for weaving attus. Below the tools you can see several completed lengths of attus cloth.

Before Ainu people could access cotton from nearby Honshu, many of their clothes, vessels, and mats were made from elm and linden bark. This is perfectly illustrated by one of the amip or embroidered ceremonial robes in the collection. This robe is part attus, part cotton.

This attus amip was made by Osanai Sachiko for her brother Kaizawa Mitsuo (1939-2022), an important member of the Nibutani Ainu community.

As cotton became accessible to the Ainu, the attus part of the robes became smaller until it disappeared entirely. Attus is so time consuming to make that few people weave it anymore, whereas cotton is now widely available.

Despite the shift from attus to cotton in the construction of amip, embroidery still remains an essential decoration. Most of the embroidery is chain stitch which allows the design to take center stage. Curves, elliptical and spiral, meet and arch away from each other. White against blue. Natural thread against indigo.

Two kinds of amip, or robes, the cikarkarpe of blue and white in the foreground with the back of the attus and cotton amip in the background.

Since the late 1800s, amip makers have also used a technique not unlike Hawaiian appliqué, which involves laying an intricately cut, white design over a dark background. Then the embroidery plays across the white surface in a dark thread.

Ito, or wood carving, for which the Ainu people are famous. It’s beautiful to see the connections between the patterns in the wood carving and embroidery.

The embroidery patterns are of a piece with the ito woodcarving for which the Ainu are also internationally famous.

Like so many crafts that speak back and forth between needle and knife, cloth and wood, for centuries carving, weaving, and sewing grew from the presence of the trees that surrounded the Ainu people.

Though cotton has made an inroad and buildings may be made of concrete and metal rather than reeds tied with wild vines, the Ainu people of today celebrate their unique place in Japanese and island culture.

Horippa or dancing where cikarkarpe (cotton robes with white embroidered strips) are worn today.

Their children learn to sing in Ainu language. They gather to dance and enact ceremonies. They meet to discuss how to protect the land, water, and trees that formed their particular crafts and sustained them across centuries.

What they could use more of are attus weavers and thread-makers. Now in her eighties, Yukiko says, “If it were easy, there would be more of us. Its hard, so most people dont take it up. I want all sorts of people to do their best so this weaving doesn’t die out. I don’t have long left, so I want young people to give it their all.”

Ainu Stories at Japan House, London, runs thru April 21st.

You can also learn about Ainu life and craft through the series of videos produced by Japan House including a video of Kaizawa Yukiko.

About The Author

Jeni Hankins is an American performing artist, writer, and maker living in London and Lancashire. Since 2008, she’s toured extensively throughout the USA, Canada, and the UK. Find her recordings on Bandcamp and catch up with her musings on Substack.


  • Enable the next gen! Agree- with Fiber.

  • Wow, fascinating! And fantastic photographs – thank you so much, Jeni. Such beautiful fiber creations, and a reminder of yet another indigenous culture struggling to survive while at the same time they work to preserve their environment. Why can’t we learn from such inspiring work?

    • We are too busy cutting down trees!!

  • Fascinating and beautiful. I love the connection between wood carving and embroidery. Thanks for the virtual visit to Japan House.

    • Thank you for this article. I’m heading to London in two weeks and am putting this on our must see list.

  • This is wonderful. Thank you so much.

  • Another super interesting article. I open yours immediately now. Thank you. It is heartening to see efforts to safeguard indigenous heritage in this world of homogenisation.

    • Thank you, Francesca! You’ve made my week! I’m so pleased you enjoy my articles.

  • Thank you for including this beautiful and fascinating piece of textile history in the MDK daily column. I had never before heard of this type of textile and I love knowing about it. If I ever get to London I will definitely visit this museum.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this interesting and beautiful craft.

  • I had never heard of this before – fascinating and beautiful. Love the connection between embroidery and wood carving.

  • This is lovely. I so appreciate the history of this ‘lost art/craft’. Thank you.

  • Well, now I’ve added something to my to-do list for visiting London. Thanks for shining a light on such an interesting place!

  • Such a lovely little trip to start my day! Beautiful. Inspiring.

    Thank you MDK and Jeni.

  • Thank you for this lovely and informative piece.

  • Thank you for this wonderful post! I certainly hope that there will be younger people stepping forward to keep this beautiful work from disappearing.

  • This looks fascinating. We have Hokkaido on our list of travel spots, but maybe getting to London would be easier. Thanks for this wonderful insight.

  • Thanks for sharing! I LOVE reading the variety of content which is shared in this space :).

  • Lovely article, thanks so much for sharing.

    I live in Costa Rica, where we see similar efforts to preserve indigenous traditions of weaving & dying. And again it’s the grandmothers doing it.

  • Thank you Jeni for this wonderful article. I sincerely hope that this form of weaving doesn’t die out.

  • All I can say is Wow!! Thank you for this amazing article.

  • As a weaver who is next month joining a textile tour in Japan, I found this article fascinating. Thank you. Please note that in the fourth photo down, the top object is a “reed,” not a heddle. Reeds separate the threads evenly across the fell (the edge of the weaving during the process) and the heddles, held in frames called shafts that go up and down, hold each thread. The going up and down makes the shed through which the shuttle is passed back and forth. For those interested in weaving, which plenty of knitters also do, check out your local guild. I participate in the Seattle Weavers Guild and fund the friendly community so generously helpful. Weaving is also a good way to use up stash faster too!

    • I apologize for the error regarding heddle vs reed. The object is labeled as a heddle in the exhibition and I followed their lead. Thank you for clearing up the difference for us! And I wish you well on your trip which sounds completely wonderful!

  • Beautiful weaving and learning about the Ainu people. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you for another wonderful museum visit. Off to watch the video!

  • This is so amazing and inspiring, thank you! Always great to learn about a new to me textile tradition. I intend to investigate this one more thoroughly. Their embroidery inspires me to figure out how to translate those gorgeous curves into knitting color work. So beautiful!

  • What an intriguing article, Jeni! Your eye for the art of the unexpected and your ear for stories are both in evidence here.

  • I had the opportunity of seeing these extraordinary Ainu textiles in a 2022 exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art – Dressed by Nature. Simply breathtaking in their beauty.

    We need to be able to compensate artisans properly for their work and skill, or we run risk that these incredible traditions will be lost forever.

  • Very beautiful. Really Really very hard work.

  • Abolutely fascinating! The ingenuity is mind boggling to me.

  • WOW.

  • Thank you all for the wonderful comments on my article! I knew when I first saw the exhibition that the skill and dedication in these hands would be loved by folks here on MDK. I am so grateful for your beautiful responses!

  • Thank you for this great article…I am blown away by the mindful detail and pattern and wish to be instantly transported to Japan!

  • Thank you for sharing these beautiful traditions.

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