Like many things imported from the West, the Japanese have embraced, improved on and made handkerchiefs an indispensable part of their everyday life. In fact, Japan is now the number one market for handkerchiefs in the world and Japanese-made handkerchiefs are renown for their quality and exquisite designs. Recently, I was treated to a glimpse of what goes into creating these works of art during a factory tour hosted by Blooming Nakanishi, the leading handkerchief brand in Japan.
Founded in 1879 at the Nihonbashi Ningyocho district of Tokyo, Blooming Nakanishi has been making high quality handkerchiefs for 140 years. To see how Blooming makes their handkerchiefs, we were invited to a factory in Yokohama where we met two officers of the company, Takuji Goko, General Manager, and Kumiko Kiryu, Executive Officer. There, we were shown how the bulk cloth is actually printed with their multi-colored designs prior to being sent in for cutting and sewing into individual handkerchiefs.
Depending on the complexity and intricacy of the design, quantity to be produced, and cost constraints, one of three manufacturing techniques can be used. Surprisingly, hand printing is actually the cheapest method and is often used for non-symmetrical designs and custom artwork commissioned by freelance artists for relatively small quantities of handkerchiefs. For more symmetrical designs that need to be produced in mass quantities, fully-automated printing machines are used that can successively lay down any number of color images in perfect alignment, kind of like a mechanized version of ukiyo-e printing. Finally, for the most complex and intricate designs like reproductions of paintings by the masters commissioned for museum gift shops, industrial digital printers are used. Using digital printing is the most expensive printing method for a reason that may not come as a surprise: the high cost of the printer cartridges!
The sample we saw being machine-printed was comprised of eight different colors, but designs incorporating over ten colors are not uncommon. After the cloth is printed, we were shown how it is then fed through a machine that uses special adhesives and very high temperatures to cure the cloth and make the printed designs permanent. Still in bulk form, the printed cloth is then carefully inspected, and if given a pass, it is sent to Aomori for cutting and sewing. Why Aomori? Apparently, Blooming settled upon Aomori because it found the sewing skills of workers there to be superior due to the long tradition of sewing and mending intricate fishing nets! After sewing, the handkerchiefs return to Yokohama for final finishing and inspection before delivery to Blooming Nakanishi and its customers.
At the end of our factory tour, we were all given a beautiful sample handkerchief as a memento of our visit. I was struck by how the packaging was as elegant as the handkerchief itself. No wonder more and more foreign tourists are picking up these wonderful gifts from Japan at the “Classics” retail stores that Blooming Nakanishi has opened in Roppongi Hills and Coredo Muromachi in Nihonbashi.
I will never cease to be impressed by the quality and care that goes into the manufacture of Japanese products. Although not an invention of the Japanese, the handkerchief has definitely found a home here and is well worth being re-discovered by visitors from the West.