Your tsuka needs a new wrap but you can’t decide which tsuka-ito to use?
There are basically seven choices available from suppliers: silk, cotton, synthetic silk (chemical fiber), leather, nubuck, suede and synthetic suede(Tsunami). There are also synthetic leathers and rough cut suede lace but these are not made traditionally and are often very low quality and also do not perform or endure well, so will not be included here.
This is perhaps the most commonly used ito throughout history and of course, still very popular today for good reason. Pound for pound, silk is the strongest natural material, so would make a great obvious choice for a cord that is pulled very tightly to wrap a tsuka. In addition to having the highest tensile strength of all the ito materials, it also has a decent abrasion resistance.
It can be dyed an almost infinite choice of colors and possibly above all, is very soft and comfortable on your skin and to be honest, it just feels luxurious and exotic. Silk is more expensive than cotton but costs less than leathers. It’s moisture absorption is moderate and it is fairly easy to clean and maintain. The typical width for woven fabric ito for katana is 10mm (about 7-7.5mm stretched) but can also be found in 8mm, 6mm and 4mm widths from a few suppliers, the smaller sizes being better for wakizashi and tanto. For something traditional and beautiful as well as durable and comfortable that will last a very long time with care, silk ito is always a great choice.
Cotton is a great natural material and comes in many bright colors from most suppliers. It’s soft and comfortable and reasonably durable as well as reasonably priced and will last a good long time, provided you take proper care of it. It doesn’t have quite the tensile strength of silk but it is not too far behind. Cotton has the best moisture absorption, which can aid grip but can also get dirtier faster; luckily it’s also easy to clean. Overall, cotton’s comfort, vivid color choices, ease of care and price make it a perfect choice for regular daily use on all levels of katana. Be aware that there is a lot of cotton ito sold that comes out of China and this is often not the same quality as Japanese cotton ito, it typically tends to be rougher or fuzzier or even not 100% cotton. Cotton ito comes in 10mm, 8mm and 6mm widths, from what I’ve found.
Synthetic Silk/ Chemical Fiber
Synthetic silk ito is not so easy to define since it can be made of various materials, depending on the manufacturer. This also means the overall quality can vary quite a bit. The cheapest of the synthetics can feel like rough shoelace and can look like “Cousin It” after a tumble in the dryer on high heat… super fuzzy!
I have heard some people complain of “rug burn” when handling chemical fiber ito for too long and there are also versions that many find to be a little too silky and slippery, which isn’t great for keeping your grip on a 3 foot razor blade.
Nylon fibers can be very strong, resilient and practical, potentially making this type of ito a good choice if overall durability, ease of cleaning and lowest cost are factors for you. Synthetic silk ito comes in a variety of colors and as mentioned above, is usually the most affordable of all ito choices. It is offered by many suppliers of diy katana supplies as well as found on ebay and amazon. Some people have allergies to nylon and other synthetic materials so be sure it won’t irritate your skin before choosing this type of ito. I’ve only seen synthetic ito in the standard 10mm width.
Genuine leather ito is typically made of cowhide but can also be made from a variety of other animal skins, including pig, goat and others. Leather ito has all the same qualities that many people desire and appreciate in a good leather jacket, couch or car upholstery. It’s soft yet strong, bold yet classic and there is also that undeniable bond you feel with it when it’s broken in just right. The available colors are limited, especially when compared to silk and cotton, usually offered in only brown and black with a choice of a semi-gloss or matte finish.
As with most of your other favorite leather items, it gains character as it’s used but can tend to need a bit more care than silk, cotton or synthetics to keep it clean, supple and healthy. Depending on the finish and quality of the leather ito, it can be more fragile than the woven materials so take care not to expose it to anything sharp or rough and try to keep it dry, out of prolonged direct sunlight and conditioned when possible. Most leather cleaners and conditioners work fine on leather ito but always test on scrap pieces or somewhere discreet first.
One downside of leather ito is that unlike woven fibers, it is assembled out of separate segments which are fused together, resulting in visible seams. These seams can be visually undesirable to some and depending on the manufacturer, can also provide a weak point in the overall tensile strength. Another aspect some don’t like about the texture of leather ito is the glossier the finish, the more slippery it tends to get. Using a rosin or applying a thin coat of wax to it can help add a bit of tack. Leather ito is available in 8mm width.
Despite some of the possible downsides listed above, if you’re really a leather person, there is no substituting it and nothing else will satisfy.
If you’ve ever had a pair of nubuck shoes or a nubuck jacket, you already know how this differs from standard leather. It’s super smooth, supple and warm to the touch, almost like if leather were made of butter. It is typically thicker than woven fabric ito so it also provides a measure of padding, making it incredibly comfortable to grip. It absorbs moisture quicker and better than leather but because it is much softer, it can have a fairly fragile surface. Once it’s used enough, the surface will start to glaze, giving it a little more protection.
Many of the same qualities, plus some of the negatives, listed above for leather will also apply to nubuck. Nubuck ito can be found in a multitude of colors however, including a beige or natural color, which is great for custom dying. Nubuck is about the same price as leather and is typically 8mm wide.
The thickest and fuzziest of all the ito materials, suede ito is like nubuck with a thick perm. Soft, comfortable, extremely grippy, what isn’t to like about that? Well, I guess for one thing some may like a more refined looking ito, especially when it comes to the more intricate styles of tsukamaki and in some cases, suede would just be too thick and hard to maneuver to accomplish this. Using thicker ito while maintaining a comfortable tsuka girth typically means the wood core would have to be thinned to accommodate the extra thickness and sometimes it may need to be thinner than recommended, depending on your tsuka and fittings.
Suede ito is available from a few of the regular suppliers in 8mm width but in limited colors such as brown, black and beige, beige being good for applying dyes to.
As with the other leather ito, it is assembled from separate segments and fused together at seams, which normally isn’t too much of a big deal but suede ito tends to be uneven in thickness and width and if it’s the thinner parts that have the seams, it could make it more fragile than usual. I’ve had suede ito snap on me twice while in the middle of a wrap. Once it’s on however, the danger of snapping is negligible. Suede ito tends to be higher priced from some sellers than leather or nubuck ito.
The best quality synthetic suede ito is made and sold by Fred Lohman company and has been named “Tsunami”. It is very much like the natural product it was inspired by in many ways but is 100% man made and comes with a plastic strip enveloped within. This strip prevents it from stretching and makes it considerably stronger and drastically cuts the chances it will break while applying pull force. The same element that makes it a strong ito is the same that can make it difficult to work with since the plastic reinforcement is rigid and likes to stay flat.
Unlike real suede ito, it is available in many colors and is quite durable overall, being resistant or impervious to moisture and dirt and can be cleaned fairly easily without the same risk of damaging it. I’m not exactly sure how it ages compared to the real thing but I haven’t heard of a failure due to age yet. It’s also a great alternative to animal products, if you’re concerned about that. All of the pile, none of the weaknesses yet while it may be fuzzy, it’s definitely not as warm and natural feeling as genuine suede. Tsunami synthetic suede ito is available in 8mm width.
If you like a streamlined, traditional looking tsuka with great comfort and durability as well as a wide choice of colors, you would likely be happiest using silk.
If you like most things about silk but are on a tighter budget, or maybe you have an allergy to silk or synthetics, perhaps give cotton a try.
If you’re budget is super tight or if you are just beginning to learn tsukamaki and want a cheaper alternative to silk or cotton for when you make a lot of mistakes, synthetic silk may be your best bet. It can give you a general feel for silk ito without paying the same price for it.
If you are a leather kind of person already and know about that special bond I mentioned earlier, nothing will beat the raw masculinity and toughness that leather ito brings to the table. Plus, it just goes better with your leather boots; cowboy, biker or otherwise.
Leather is great but your hands desire something more refined? Don’t be ashamed to request the gentle luxuriousness of nubuck ;) You may never go back.
When only the tallest pile will do, and you still haven’t ripped up the shag carpet in your living room that’s been there from the ’70’s, nothing will compare to the long, soft forest that is suede ito. Grip it, caress it, walk around on it and make fists with your toes, works every time. For a less authentic fuzzy experience but also with less worry involved, synthetic Tsunami ito picks up where suede may leave off.
I hope this at least gave you a slightly better understanding of all the different types of ito available and will hopefully make it a bit easier to choose :)