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Textile shop in west Japan turns kimono material into cool masks for summer

"Hiyakai" masks that are cool to the touch and have a wide variety of designs including traditional Japanese patterns and Western-style pop designs are seen at the textile shop Ikebe in the western Japan city of Ise, Mie Prefecture, on July 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshihiro Ozaki)

ISE, Mie -- A variety of cool fabric masks made by a Japanese textile shop in this western Japan city have been growing increasingly popular since their full-scale launch in June.

The "hiyakai" masks are sold by Ikebe, a kimono fabric shop that was established 58 years ago and is located in the city of Ise, Mie Prefecture. The masks have been in high demand through the online store and have been well-received on social media. An order of 1,000 to several thousand products has also apparently been made by a railway company-affiliated department store in the greater Tokyo area.

The mask consists of two layers of an external fabric and lining. It uses cotton, silk, and linen -- all-natural materials. Special cloths, which work to stop the temperature inside the mask from easily rising when breath is exhaled and easily cool when air is inhaled, are combined. The name of the product "hiyakai" comes from a word in the local dialect of the region meaning "cool." The chill sensation of the mask can vary depending on the cloth used for the lining and how it is woven.

Tetsuro Yamaoka, 33, the fourth-generation head of the company, commented, "The material that is most cool to the touch is linen. But masks that use "kinukobai," or fabric that is woven in a grid pattern using cotton and silk, do not stick so much to the skin because of the rough surface of its material. These masks fit lightly and the coolness is enhanced. But their prices are a bit on the high side."

Yamaoka suggested in a company meeting in February that the textile shop create masks out of the pile of surplus fabric supply originally intended to be used for yukata casual kimono for the summer. At the time, a novel coronavirus group infection had been reported on a cruise ship that was quarantined at the port of Yokohoma. But numerous voices of objection were raised against the idea, such as "I can't believe you're thinking of cutting kimono fabric into small strips," "I'm absolutely opposed to the idea," and "There's no way that such a product will sell well."

However, Yamaoka went forward with the mask production in spite of the opposition of those around him, as he thought, "This shop will be finished unless we sell fabrics as processed products other than yukata." Sales of the fabric masks soon surged, as the timing coincided with when non-woven fabric masks could not be obtained easily in stores. The masks were so popular that manufacturing could not meet demand during April and May.

The mask products are all handmade and created by local residents. The textile shop temporarily hired about 80 people from the area, with the cooperation of hotels and eateries that had refrained from operating their businesses amid the pandemic, and had the workers create the masks at home.

The masks are said to differ in quality, depending on how they are woven, including their lightness, texture, and other factors, even if they are made from the same material. There is a wide variety of patterns, such as a plain design, traditional Japanese patterns and Western-style pop. The product comes in five different sizes of small, medium, and large for adults, as well as small and medium for children. Prices vary depending on the fabric material, and the masks cost from 400 yen to 3,800 yen each.

The masks are designed to prevent droplet transmission, and come with descriptions, including a warning that says sanitation cannot be ensured as the product is not a surgical mask. The masks are sold through the company's website at https://ikebe-kimono.stores.jp/ (in Japanese) where it also shows a video introducing a method to combine surgical masks sold at stores with the fabric masks to enhance their function.

(Japanese original by Toshihiro Ozaki, Ise Bureau)

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