Interview with Tanja Lay from ITO Yarns

ITO Yarn are sponsoring July of our year-long MAL! We were lucky enough to chat to Tanja Lay, ITO's Creative Director of Europe, and ask her all the burning questions we had about the brand and their yarn! The insights Tanja provides about the difficulties facing the Japanese textile industry and the supposed juxtaposition of tradition and innovation make for an incredibly engaging read. We hope you enjoy it! 

Can you start by telling us a little bit about ITO? What inspired you to start the business and how has it grown since its inception?

“ITO – Fine Yarn from Japan” is a yarn brand founded in 2009 to bring Japanese yarns to knitters, weavers, crocheters and other fibre enthusiasts around the world. Our name comes from the Japanese word for 'thread' (糸). Today the ITO yarn collection comprises 33 yarns and we also offer needles, notions, fabrics, and dyes from Japan. We’ve also branched out into ready-to-wear items! For this, we collaborate with Japanese manufacturers to produce shawls from ITO Sensai (our silk-mohair yarn), wrist warmers from ITO Kinu (our silk noil yarn), or bags and cases in cooperation with a Japanese paper manufacturer.

We strive to promote and support the unique Japanese textile industry, and to this end, we currently work with a network of over 40 different suppliers from mills to dye houses to needle and fabric producers. All yarns and products are made in Japan by family-owned companies. We are proud to produce yarns and fibre-related products supporting traditional yet innovative family businesses in Japan.

There have been myriad challenges for businesses within the fibre industry over the last few years. We’d love to hear about your experience on this topic.   

Unfortunately, we have seen more than half a dozen of our suppliers going bankrupt during the past 11 years. The textile business in Japan is facing serious problems as labour costs and quality standards are high and, as elsewhere, manufacturers must compete with cheap products even if those products are of lower quality or unsavoury production standards.

Another problem we are facing is that of succession. Since the textile industry is not a dream business for younger generations today, they do not want to take over the business from their parents and selling the business may not be an option either. Having international partners also helps to make the business more attractive to younger people, we’ve learned. Marketing and selling ITO yarns is much more than just selling unique yarns; it is also a means to preserve textile traditions and hopefully transport them into the future.

Can you elaborate on the supposed juxtaposition between innovation and tradition?

Innovation and tradition do not have to be opposites. On one hand, the Japanese craftsmanship of multi-generational family companies is certainly rooted in tradition, but on the other, the drive to innovate and reinvent themselves keeps these companies alive.

When talking about innovation and reinvention, ITO Urugami (a wool yarn with a paper core) is a perfect example. To develop this yarn, a lot of trial and error took place! Knowing our machines and raw materials well enough to be able to carry out the concept represents the magical marriage of using traditional knowledge and dreaming of the future to come up with a totally new yarn.

Silvatica from Issue 38 which uses ITO Sensai and Urugami

Tradition meets new technologies in our everyday working practice too. For collaboration with our many partners, we rely on e-mails and WhatsApp video calls as well as a good warehouse to manage multiple stock and production flow. Also, the crafting community is global so connecting with fibre artists via social media, blogs, and Ravelry is a wonderful part of our work. Even if crafting itself is an analogue act and the joy of crafting can be a relief from tech-orientated lives, technology is equally important to connect with one another and organise. 

For crafters looking to support your mission, tell us about your bases? What makes them unique?

ITO offers 33 yarns including sewing and embroidery threads. Each yarn has a specific characteristic that makes it unique and tells of its Japanese origin. For example, ITO Sensai is a silk mohair yarn with 60% mohair and 40% silk with a yardage of 240 m per 20g. In 2009 ITO was the first company to offer a silk mohair yarn of that fineness which was very innovative and difficult to spin with such a high percentage of silk. Moreover, the mohair is sourced from a farm that is certified for sustainable farming and recognised for their excellent quality clips, making ITO Sensai exceptionally soft to the skin. ITO Kinu is a recycled, top dyed silk noil that has a tweed-like look and a super dry grip. Yet, it has all the sensational qualities of silk, such as cooling properties in summer and warming properties in winter. ITO Washi is a paper mix with linen-like qualities. ITO Shio is a superfine merino with a cool touch and heavy drape. These yarns are quite different from other yarns that are readily available. All ITO yarns can be wonderfully mixed with two or more strands to create fabrics with different drapes and properties.

Your yarns are indeed unique! Can you talk us through your development process?

Since ITO works with different companies to produce yarns, the development of new yarns, colour concepts, or other products is a timely process; however, in my capacity as ITO’s Creative Director of Europe, this is the part I enjoy the most! Usually, our partner sends us samples of new product developments. For example, if we’re working on a new yarn development, we will knit samples to see the drape and feel, test it for pilling, wash it, and knit it in combination with yarns from the existing assortment. We will also do some benchmarking to see if a similar yarn exists, and in communication with the supplier, work out the unique idea behind the development. Sometimes this leads to reworking the yarn idea in terms of composition, thickness, twist, or other properties. Once the final yarn idea is settled, we will show the new development to designers, fibre artists, and retail partners and ask them to test it and give us their opinion. Next the colour palette will be developed by Japanese artisans and the dye house. For a single colour we might get one suggestion, other times we get up to 20 different lap dips and we discuss these with our partner. Developing a new yarn can take up anything from 1-3 years and developing colour palettes is typically a 10–12-month project.

Just to give an example: most of the woollen spun yarns in the ITO collection (like ITO Shio, Rakuda or Tsuchi) are produced by our partner on an old Toyoda ring spinning machine from the 1930s. And yes, Toyoda is Toyota, the company which most people know for cars today, but nearly 100 years ago they also produced spinning machines! Worsted spun yarns (like ITO Kinu or Shimo) are spun on an equally old mule spinner. These old machines make yarns that are not perfectly perfect but have a handcrafted character which makes them inimitable.

Since ITO expanded its fibre product range, manufacturing is done by specialised companies in our network. Our partner mill has a warehouse in Japan and then we have two warehouses in Germany, one in the countryside and one in Berlin for shipping. In the centre of Berlin, we have the ITO showroom and office. If you are in Berlin, you can make an appointment to visit and shop at the showroom. We are always happy to meet fibre people in person, so please feel welcome!

Thank you, Tanja, for your incredibly detailed and insightful answers! Remember, enter our MAL before the end of July and you could win a kit to make Silvatica from Issue 38! Best o luck, Pom Pals! Xx 

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