I'm reading a book on the history of Japanese fashion at the moment and came across the (unreferenced) statement that until the use of cotton became widespread 'linen from flax had been the most popular fibre' . This is not correct! (And of course makes me wonder what other factual errors there are in this book.) Cotton production didn't begin in Japan until the late 15th century and even after its use had become widespread in the Edo period (1603-1868) there were still people who couldn't afford or access cotton, especially in the north where it was too cold to be grown. People in these areas continued to rely on the plant bast fibres which had been used before cotton became available. As well as hemp and ramie, which were both cultivated, wild plants and trees such as wisteria, linden and paper mulberry were used for textiles. In some remote areas production of these textiles continued up until the middle of the last century. I don't know to what extent these skills have been handed down to the present generation. In Okinawa a type of fibre banana or plantain called basho was also used to make fabric and the indigenous Ainu people in the north of Japan used elm bark (ohyo). However, linen from flax was not one that was grown or used! I think the confusion probably arises because these various plant fibres are often referred to under the umbrella term 'asa'. Technically linen/flax is also a kind of asa - and probably the most well-known kind of asa in the west - and so asa is sometimes mistakenly translated as linen.
Here are some asa examples from my collection. If you're interested in this topic I'll put some references at the end as well.
This is a large linden fibre (shinafu) noren that hangs above my bed. (Accompanied by members of my sarubobo collection - which I also mean to write about at some point). Close up:
Bast fibre textiles weren't exclusively worn by the rural poor. Often they were producing fabrics (for example very fine 'jofu' ramie) which were intended for the urban market and which they themselves couldn't afford to wear . This would be true of this kasuri asa kimono. I have always thought that it was ramie but it may be hemp. It isn't always easy to tell - which is why garments in catalogues and books will often be simply labelled 'asa'.
The lining is itajime kasuri. This is a type of kasuri developed in the 19th century in which instead of binding the threads before dying they are clamped between two carved boards (similar to print blocks) which creates a very detailed resist for dyeing and a fine, precise design when woven.
The last one is piece of bashofu from Okinawa woven from fibre banana:
Some useful references:
Louise Allison Cort, 'Bast Fibers' in William Jay Rathbun (ed) Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: Traditional Japanese Textiles, Thames & Hudson, 1994 (If I could only have one book on Japanese textiles this is the one I'd choose!)
Riches from Rags: Saki-ori and other Recycling Traditions in Japanese Rural Clothing, San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum, 1994 (This has clear photos of various bast fibre jackets)
Anna Jackson, Japanese Country Textiles , V& A Publications, 1997
Goro Nagano & Nobuko Hiroi, Base to Tip: Bast-Fiber Weaving in Japan and its Neighboring Countries, Shikosha Publishing, 1999 (This is in Japanese with some English, but lots of photos and diagrams for people interested in technical details . It's appears to be available on Amazon Japan - but it isn't cheap!)