A mysterious world of animals wrapped in gold spreads out behind these zabuton cushions.
Rats, oxen, tigers, bulls...Twelve species align splendidly in this Zodiac-themed zabuton series.
These dazzling cushions use “kinran” - gold brocade usually reserved for Buddhist altars, to depict the twelve signs of the Chinese Zodiac.
The masterminds were a weaver and designer who sought to redefine the zabuton cushion.
Together, they have painted dreamscapes on the canvas of the zabuton, and all of them are beautiful.
So, what’s your sign?

A Student’s Idea, Materialized

In Fujiyoshida, a region that originally produced fabric for haori and suit lining, the fabric you produced depended on the wholesaler you partnered with. It was no different for Tanabe Orimono, which was established in 1946, one year after the end of World War 2. They originally produced suit lining and umbrella fabrics, but after partnering with a wholesaler, their focus shifted to producing bedding and duvet fabrics.

“Gold thread” generally refers to a gold leaf that’s been pounded onto washi paper, then finely cut into thread. It was used for bedding in large quantities to create a feeling of luxury. Adding such dazzling thread into a fabric would immediately leave an impression of bright extravagance. However, weaving with gold thread is far tougher than you might imagine. Tanabe Orimono was not only adept with gold thread but also polyester, cotton, acrylic, and more, regularly producing fabrics of varying types and thicknesses on the same loom.

After their wholesale partner began selling zabuton cushions, Tanabe Orimono also gradually shifted priorities. Back then, brides would have as many as 20 cushions for their weddings. Since celebrations and parties were all held inside the home, this meant that they were an indispensable part of every household.

Takehito Tanabe, the company’s second-generation owner, also joined the company in 1983, during the steady bubble era when zabuton cushions sold at a surprising rate. Besides zabuton for everyday use at home or ryokan, they also sold “kinran” - dazzling cushions that are spread out in front of Buddhist altars. These were skillfully woven through with copious amounts of gold thread, which they’d used plenty of times during their bedding days. However, this would not last, as Mr. Tanabe recounts; after the bubble economy collapsed, the company felt the steady decline of incoming orders through the years. The loss of business was attributed to many reasons, including the westernization of houses and traditional inns, which brought about a decline in people who used zabuton cushions.

Even if they’d kept making the same thing until now, it would be hard to bring in business. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Tanabe Orimono was the kind of company that could meet any demand. It’s how they’ve always been. On the other hand, it hadn’t been necessary to “start from zero” until now.

Most weavers undoubtedly found themselves in similar dire straits. Twelve years ago, the Fujiyoshida production region teamed up with professor Masaru Suzuki of Tokyo Zokei University, to request a collaboration with some of the students. Weavers came together with the students after pledging not to restrict the students’ ideas, as well as stocking their goods for sale.

Professor Suzuki, rather than let them team up as they wished, created the teams himself and sent the students to different workshops, where they would leverage their strong suits to design and present their products. The concordance between the skilled weavers and innovative students proved successful.

For the weavers who wanted to make new products, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Development and production were already paid for, but that served to further motivate the students even more. It also delighted them to know something they’d been involved with would be put out into the world for sale. Spreading the word about Fujiyoshida through social media to other young people - something the craftsmen were not so adept with - also proved very fruitful. Many brands have appeared in these past 12 years, creating new and hot commodities. Tanabe Orimono has also developed and sold new brands in collaboration with students up to the present, such as “Maison Sushi” and “cocioroso”.

The “Zodiac Zabuton” series was created together with Haruka Yamamoto, who was a first-year student in those days. Development began when she saw the brilliant gold brocade fabric and heard someone say “gold thread is very beautiful, but it doesn’t appeal to young people.” Ms. Yamamoto then drew cute caricatures of animals, and to convey the calming presence endemic to zabuton cushions, she decided to theme the series after the Chinese Zodiac.

The techniques used to weave the Zodiac Zabuton series were the same ones used to make kinran cushions. Ms. Yamamoto created twelve designs, then came on day trips from Tokyo to work with Mr. Tanabe in the studio. They faced the loom, worked the threads, and created three designs in the first year, with the remaining nine completed in the second year. It was a constant process of trial and error, combining threads of three different colors including the gold thread, again and again, to match the design they’d created. They discussed things like which colors to highlight, and amended the design repeatedly until both of them were satisfied. Mr. Watanabe happily recounts: “When we achieved the color combination we wanted, we felt so accomplished!”

The Zodiac Zabuton series was selected as a Hometown Tax contribution and sold very well, with many people ordering all twelve pieces. If you have the opportunity to visit the atelier, we encourage you to sit on one of these dazzling cushions. From the design to the weave, to the gold thread - everything about them is impactful.

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