Embroidered necklaces bring together cutting-edge Japanese technology and traditional artisanry
The city of Kiryu, located in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, is known for its many sawtooth roof structures. Sawtooth roofs are created by lining up multiple down-sloping pitched roofs fitted with glass panels on the north-facing sides, and are said to have first been used by English spinning mills during the Industrial Revolution. The design, which resembles the teeth of an upturned saw, enables buildings to take in natural light from the north throughout the day so that workers could check the color of the fabric. These roofs first appeared in Japan toward the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and became quite popular in Kiryu during Japan’s post-World War II textile manufacturing boom.
Many sawtooth roof mills remain to this day in Kiryu. One of them is now busy turning out a one-of-a-kind fashion accessory: the embroidered necklace. At first glance, these necklaces appear to be made of metal. But closer inspection reveals they are woven entirely from threads. Light as a feather, they retain the soft and supple feel of thread and are allergy free. They are also available in a nearly limitless array of colors and when stained, they can be cleaned with ordinary laundry detergents.
The maker of these unusual necklaces is Kasamori Corporation, which was created in 1877 as a manufacturer of Japanese kimono obis (sashes). The firm shifted to embroidery work in 1962 amid the gradual decline in the textile industry, when it adopted a Jacquard embroidery machine. Named after its creator Joseph Marie Jacquard, the particular stitch-weaving machine enables the manufacturing of complex embroidery patterns.
It was around this time that the current president of Kasamori, Yasutoshi Kasahara, was called back to the firm by his father. Kasahara, having majored in computer science, was working at a major consumer electronics firm checking online systems. However, his career in consumer electronics lasted only a few years, as he returned to join his father in running the family business.
At first, the firm’s sales grew steadily, backed by strong client demand. But from around the year 2000, when manufacturing bases shifted abroad, Kasamori started to see a gradual decline in sales. “The market just seemed to shrink,” said Kasahara, who recalls traveling across the country, such as to Yamagata and Nagano Prefectures and to Tokyo, to dig up new business.
He also made it a point of actively participating in local business seminars, in search of new ways to improve his business. In 2003, he participated in SME Support, JAPAN’s 5-year textile industry support program, which provides support to small and medium-sized enterprises seeking to emerge from subcontractor status by breaking into new business areas. Until then, Kasamori had only conducted wholesale and retail business with intermediaries, but Kasahara used the program to look for ways to branch out into the area of direct consumer retailing.
His first thought was to target high-end fashion brands in Europe. To do so, he put his embroidered fashion accessories on display at various international fashion trade fairs held regularly in Paris, Frankfurt and New York. The intricacy and fine craftsmanship of his products gradually caught the attention of famous European fashion houses, which started to introduce Kasamori products into their creations.
In 2010, Kasasmori launched its original “000: Triple 0u” brand of products. The 0, or zero, stands for unlimited possibilities, said Kasahara, who added that the firm’s younger employees came up with the idea for the brand name. “The three zeros signify a figurative resetting of the counter, allowing us to embark on a new form of manufacturing, entirely from scratch.” For the new brand, the company tested various products such as bags and furoshiki wrapping cloths, before settling on necklaces.
The Triple 0u products are created by using a specialized sewing machine, which weaves thread into a cloth foundation. The machine starts off by creating small points of thread, gradually increasing the size of the embroidered points to create a sphere-shaped “ball” of threads. Once one ball is made, the machine moves on to weave the next one in a similar manner, creating a string of embroidered thread balls, in essence, a necklace with embroidered beads. The thread balls are then processed in chemicals, which dissolve the foundation cloth and leave only the embroidered threads. The products are then dried and undergo a manual check by seasoned craftsmen, who carefully look for any signs of fraying and make final adjustments to complete the three-dimensional product.
The painstaking care and effort required to manufacture the Triple 0u products make mass production difficult. While the time span may vary slightly due to different designs, the necklaces take at least one full day to complete. The three embroidering machines also need to be fine-tuned daily to adjust to the surrounding temperature and humidity, which affect thread condition. The finishing process is also done completely by human hand.
“Our entire manufacturing process, from product design to shipment, is done in-house and is not suited for mass production or mass consumption,” said Kasahara. “We want our products to be used by consumers who appreciate quality and who tend to use products for a long time.”
Given the target consumer, the distribution of Triple 0u products is conducted mainly through special fairs at department stores. But despite the time and effort spent in the manufacturing process, the pricing is reasonable, with one necklace selling from around 3,000 yen. “We wanted to set the pricing at an accessible level,” said Kasahara.
For a cost, the products can also be repaired when damaged. Yoichi Katakura, the manager of the Triple 0u division, notes that while the necklaces look dainty, they are actually quite resilient. “Even if snagged and apparently damaged, they can be repaired, and thus can be worn in a casual manner,” Katakura said.
Triple 0u is unrivaled in the domestic market. Usually in the world of manufacturing, when a new product is introduced, it is soon replicated abroad and similar products start popping up in abundance. But the Triple 0u has yet to be copied. “It seems to be something that can’t be replicated elsewhere,” Kasahara said. Triple 0u is a truly original, one-of-a-kind product and a triumph for Japanese manufacturing: a combination of advanced technology honed and perfected over the years and the experienced hands of seasoned artisans.
Kasamori has reported profits for three fiscal years in a row. Of the firm’s total sales, some 25% came from Triple 0u in the previous reporting year, with the figure set to rise to 35% in the current year. The product is gradually becoming a staple for Kasamori, overtaking the firm’s mainstay original equipment manufacturing (OEM) business.
Kasahara is now considering extending the firm’s distribution to the foreign market as the Japanese market is expected to shrink amid a declining birthrate and aging population. “Our goal now is to be carried by foreign museum stores, which specialize in unique, hard-to-find fashionable items,” he said.
He adds that he is always looking to conquer new horizons. “It’s not enough to keep doing the same thing. We need to adjust with the times,” he said. The firm has various technologies at its disposal, such as laser processing, fabric printing and embroidery for Japanese kimonos, making the sawtooth roof factory in Kiryu a potential launching pad for new brands to join the Triple 0u lineup.
Last year, Kasamori celebrated its 140th anniversary. Kasahara, the fourth generation head of the firm, currently has two children, a son and a daughter. While he would like for his son to take over the business, he doesn’t fixate on ensuring the firm will last forever. “Right now, I’m just aiming for around 200 years,” he laughed.