Embroidery is believed to have been introduced into Japan during the seventh century by Buddhist monks, who later took it to Korea and China. Stitched banners of Buddha figures were used in public temples and private shrines. During the Edo period, embroidery became a fashion accessory, rather than a religious one. At first available only to the Imperial Court and the samurai class, embroidered clothing became attainable by a wider range of Japanese society as imported Chinese silk became more available. Although designs changed, professionals continue to produce kimono and obi (sashes) into the twentieth century.
Fearing that traditional methods of embroidery would be lost as demand for the elaborate garments declined, one of these professionals, Iwao Saito, started a community that grew into a workshop and school for traditional Japanese embroidery, Kurenai-Kai. Students wishing to become professional embroiderers live and study here for an apprenticeship of five years, and some remain to work and teach the newer apprentices.
Shuji Tamura was working in his family’s computer business when he visited Kurenai-Kai, a visit that changed his life. He studied with Master Saito and eventually married the Master’s daughter, Masa, also a talented embroiderer. When the Embroiderer’s Guild of America invited Saito to exhibit his work in the United States in 1980, Mr. Tamura was sent instead. After 10 years of visiting the U.S. twice a year to teach, the Tamuras moved to the U.S. and established the Japanese Embroidery Center in Dunwoody, Georgia (outside Atlanta). The first classes were held there in 1991.
The Tamuras produced a textbook in English and French and have developed a ten phase system of study for teaching traditional Japanese embroidery outside of the apprenticeship system. As students progress through the phases, they learn more techniques and refine their skills. A student can be certified to teach others after completing 9 phases (at the Center or with their own teacher) and the Phase 10 class at the Japanese Embroidery Center. There are now classes available all over the United States and Canada, as well as in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and France.
2: Metal couching and braided cords are introduced
3: Superimposed designs are introduced
4: Intensive work with metal threads
5: Intensive work on braided cords
6: Intensive work on short stitch holding and superimposed work
7: Realistic effects (long and short stitch)
8: ‘Fuzzy’ effect
9: Review of phases 1-8
10: Use of all 46 techniques in a large, complex piece