'Blanket town' IZUMIOTSU
History of the blanket
Sanada weaving and cotton weaving resulting in blanket technology
Yukimura Sanada was a famous warlord in Japan who was defeated at the Sekigahara battle around 1600. He was then confined at Kudoyama, near Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture. He came up with a technique called Sanada weaving, which he sold off to make a living. The technique of Sanada weaving was eventually transmitted to Izumiotsu, and many makers who use Sanada weaving were born there.
In addition, cotton cultivation has been popular in this area since ancient times. During the Edo period, cotton cultivation was actively conducted, as much of the planting area for rice and cotton is the same. Therefore, cotton-weaving technology was also developed during this time.
Izumiotsu has now become a “blanket town” because Sanada and Cotton weaving technologies have taken root in this area.
"Aka-Get" = Countryman?
In the Meiji era, Western-style culture spread rapidly. This led to an increase in the import of expensive blankets called “Aka-get” (red blankets), which became popular among the common people.
At that time, blankets weren’t used as bedding but as clothing. People who went sightseeing in the heart of cities such as Tokyo were sure to walk over the Aka-Get. In Japanese dramas, when a countryman of this time visits Tokyo, he often appears covered in Aka-Get.
Blankets were made for the first time in Japan in 1887
In 1886, Sanada weavers had the desire to produce a long-awaited Aka-Get in Japan. Thus, they gathered to establish a large company called "Shinseisha", and for the first time a Japanese-made Aka-Get was made in Izumiotsu.
The imported Aka-Get was made of wool. Locally, however, wool was not readily available during this time so cow's hair was used instead. There was a great deal of trouble trying to make Aka-Get using short, hard, and stinky cow hair.
Moreover, the clothes produced from Aka-Get sold poorly due to their firmness and the smell of the cow's hair. In the following year, Shinseisha was dissolved. However, the weavers’ idea changed to "If the clothes are not good, the next step is to make bedding". Subsequently, the first blanket was completed in Japan in 1887.
Global export of cotton blankets made in Izumiotsu
After 1887, the cultivation of cotton, which had been originally popular in this area, continued. This enabled the development and production of cotton blankets. Many Sanada weavers switched to blanket factories at this time.
Since cotton blankets can be made relatively cheaply, they spread to China and Russia in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War. Blankets made in Izumiotsu began to be exported across the world.
Cow’s blankets were still being produced continuously, but they declined as a result of the production of Sanada weaving around 1920.
The number of Izumiotsu-made cotton blankets exported to the world reached 1.55 million in 1917. The production of the woolen Aka-Get made in Europe declined with the Industrial Revolution . Once it became difficult to obtain the long-awaited European Aka-Get in Japan, alternative Japanese woolen blankets emerged.
Production of blankets in a division of labor system
At that time, Izumiotsu dominated 75% of the Japanese blanket share. The production of blankets continued to thrive in a division of labor system, and many blanket factories appeared on every street of Izumiotsu.
However, the size of factories was often similar to the size of a large house, and factories were integrated with the structure of the house and with nature. The blanket manufacturing process is complicated and requires excellent craftsmanship throughout each process.
In particular, the technique of pile-raising was then considered one of the most important, illustrated by the saying: "The good and bad of the blanket follow the way of raising-pile".
This is why it was essential to establish a division of labor system and have a different craftsman for each process.
This system was established in 1842 and it’s now considered as the beginning of Japan's earliest manufacturing.
Each process in the technology to produce blankets has improved because the division of labor system has been established for a long time. The high quality of Izumiotsu blankets has been recognized by the world. Peak production rates before World War II reached 10 million pieces a year.
Post-war blanket pandemic
After World War II, an era of poverty where people could not afford blankets came to an end. The demand for blankets increased rapidly as individuals became richer starting in 1949.
Since then, the development of blankets has progressed. For instance, tuft blankets have been developed and various products have emerged including electric blankets, Kotatsu blankets, night clothes, rugs, and so on.
Eventually, blankets were exported widely across the world leading to a price fall due to overproduction. The volume of production therefore decreased after a production peak in 1971.
Issuing the “Q mark”
From the 1990s, cheap Chinese blankets entered the market and were imported to Japan in great numbers . The volume of imported Chinese blankets exceeded Japan’s domestic production in 1995.
In addition, the number of blanket factories in Japan decreased. Although there were five companies in integrated factories, only two integrated factories remain now: one of woven blankets and one of Mayer blankets. Furthermore, in 2017, the blanket-dyeing factory also went out of business and only one screen-printing machine remains (out of 14 original machines).
In 2015, the Japan Blanket Industrial Association issued the "Q mark" as proof of safe and secure domestic products in order to inform people across the country of the quality of Japanese-made blankets. The Q mark is permitted only for products that have passed independently established quality standards.
For instance, knitting, dyeing, finishing, and sewing must all be processed in Japan. The Q mark is attached to each blanket with a printed serial number. This Q mark represents the years of tradition and high quality of Japanese blankets.