Weaving industry uses innovation to stay in business

April 05, 2012

Hard-hit and threatened by inexpensive imports, Japan’s textile industry is entangled in a cobweb of difficulties and struggling to survive.

Some companies are weaving their way out by combining traditional and modern techniques and exercising a little bit of ingenuity.

At a corner of a small factory in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture, which produces nearly 30 percent of the nation’s synthetic fiber by value, seven special looms are lined up.

They are the machines used to create the silk-like fabric dubbed “Tennyo no hagoromo” (angel’s plumage).

While they are just ordinary looms, on which cloth is woven using warp threads under tension in two-meter widths.

Before weaving, the warp and weft threads are almost invisible. But once they are woven together, the result is a transparent veil-like cloth.

It is not surprising, since the ultra-thin threads are one-fifth the thickness of a human hair.

To the touch, the cloth feels soft and smooth. When thrown in the air, it floats lightly.

Called “super organza” (super-thin fabric), the fabric is popular among the top fashion brands of Europe and is used for costumes at the Paris Opera House.

It was developed by Amaike Textile Industry Co., which has 47 people on its payroll. In 2002, Amaike Textile was contacted by officials from a major textile manufacturer.

An Amaike Textile official recalled a company official saying, “We have developed the world’s thinnest threads. Please use this in the weaving industry. Please use these threads as industrial material.”

The innovative threads, however, were so thin that they broke when applied to a loom.

Even if cloth was made from the thread, the texture was far from smooth and was easily wrinkled.

Three development directors in a row resigned due to the difficulties in finding a way to weave the thread into a usable fabric.

After many improvements in the loom, in cooperation with an ironworks company, Amaike Textile finally was ready to mass-produce the fabric in 2004.

But the major manufacturer that had requested the development of the ultra-thin fabric went bankrupt that year.

To recover its huge investment and repay its enormous debt, Amaike Textile employees had no choice but to sell the product as dress material.

It was so expensive that Japanese apparel makers were reluctant to buy it.

Amaike Textile showed the new fabric at international trade fairs, which brought it good fortune--the company received a few inquiries.

The fabric now comes in 300 types.

One fabric is created so that a pattern emerges when it is exposed to light, while in another, ultra-fine wire is added to the weave.

At Amaike Textile, sales of “super organza” account for nearly 30 percent of its annual sales, 250 million yen ($3.03 million).

“In our production locations, we have many highly skilled craftsmen,” said Mototsugu Amaike, 56, Amaike Textile president. “If we continue to produce new products with the market in mind, we can find new opportunities.”

Indeed, technology nurtured in the weaving industry is being used in Japan’s state-of-the-art industrial products.

Nishiwaki, home to the traditional Japanese Banshu textiles, is an hour by train on a single-track railway to the north from JR Kakogawa Station in southern Hyogo Prefecture.

At a factory next to a traditional Japanese house surrounded by rice fields, a metal spinning machine reminiscent of the Showa era (1925-1989) is operating slowly.

What is being spun is not cotton thread, but a resin-coated, carbon fiber-reinforced thread.

Extremely light and strong, carbon fiber is a popular material often used in aircraft; the size of its market is expected to expand.

There is a weakness in this innovative material, however--it is difficult to work with.

To create carbon fiber threads, one has to bundle long carbon fibers and soak them in liquid resin so they will adhere to each other. To make small bundles, the carbon fiber has to be cut into pieces before being soaked in the liquid, which weakens it.

If “fabric” is used, instead of threads, one does not have to cut it, as it can fit in molds.

Its potential is great for use in everything from small automobile engine parts to bicycle parts.

Tackling the technology is Kunio Fujii, 75, managing director at Toho Orimono, and Yasuji Miyata, 72, the president at Miyata Fuhaku.

They first encountered carbon fiber five years ago, when they were thinking what they could do to utilize weaving technology for the next generation.

Officials at a client of theirs, a trading company, showed them the fiber, which prompted them to develop the new fabric.

For the coating, an industrial overlock sewing machine is used. The company modified a conventional three-thread overlock sewing machine, used for hemming trousers, to pass carbon fibers through.

Like vines tangled in a tree, the polymer threads are spun over the carbon fibers.

The fabric is then heated in a mold. The polymer melts and fills in holes between the carbon fibers. Before the fabric can be commercialized, it will have to pass performance testing.

However, they have already been approached by about 30 companies, including major manufacturers, for joint research through the prefecture’s technical support center.

“I grew up listening to the sound of looms,” Miyata said. “Even more so, I want to revitalize production areas with fabrics that we have a special affection for.”

(This article was compiled from reports by Daisuke Ikuta and Saki Mizorogi.)

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An official at Amaike Texitile Industry Co. shows off the world's lightest fabric "Tennyo no Hagoromo" or "super organza." (Daisuke Ikuta)

An official at Amaike Texitile Industry Co. shows off the world's lightest fabric "Tennyo no Hagoromo" or "super organza." (Daisuke Ikuta)

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  • An official at Amaike Texitile Industry Co. shows off the world's lightest fabric "Tennyo no Hagoromo" or "super organza." (Daisuke Ikuta)
  • Yasuji Miyata, president of Miyata Fuhaku, spins special carbon fiber "threads" using a modified sewing machine. (Hiroyuki Kobayashi)

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