Nishijin is the name for weaving that developed around the Kyoto region of Japan around the 5th century. The weavers there were originally from the Hata clan, and were employed by the Oribe no Tsukasa (Governmental Textile Office). The skill of the weavers was highly desired, and they made items for court nobles and the Imperial Palace through the Heian era. During the Heian period more and more Nishijin weavers decided to set up their own shops. With the introduction of new dyeing techniques from the Sung dynasty in China, the weavers improved their skills and went to make money outside of the Imperial court.
In 1467, the Onin War broke out across Japan. Almost all of Kyoto was detroyed or burned to the ground. During the rest of the war (another 10 years), the weavers moved to the city of Sakai in the Osaka prefecture to continue working. After the war, the weavers returned to Kyoto and settled into different groups. One group set up shop where the army of Yamana Sozen was camping during the war; west of the city. This is where the name Nishijin came from; it means literally "person of the west". The two major groups are : Nerinuki-kata, which means "silk thread of the lagoon" and Otoneri-za, which means "Position of the musical silk thread". Both names indicate which side of Kyoto they lived on.
During the next few centuries, advancements in weaving techniques made the Nishijin weavers even more successful. Sorin Izeki of the Otoneri-za group invented a new way of weaving patterns on cloth in 1557. Kinran (gold brocade thread) and donsu (damask silk) were imported from China beginning in the late 1550's. During this time, the Imperial court began to fund weaving again, and the Nishijin were also supported by wealthy samurai. During the mid 1700's, the demand for textiles was so large that the Nishijin opened schools to teach new weavers in the city of Kiryu.
The mid-1800s were fairly bad all over Japan. Crops did poorly and the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. This nearly killed all of the Nishijin weaving industry. The government felt that technology might help the industry, and sent 2 men to France to study new techniques. Tsuneshichi Sakura and Ihee Inoue returned from their trip with new weaving looms and techniques. With the help of the government, they founded the Nishijin Textile Company in 1898. Competitions of Nishijin weaving became very popular in the early 1900s and even were exhibited in New York museums. Today, the Nishijin district of Kyoto is still known for its weaving. They create the most beautiful (and expensive!) obis in Japan, and are also well-known for their kimono patterns.
http://www.nishijin.or.jp has more info on their textile work and was used in compiling this node. If you're interested in HOW Nishijin weaving works, please see my Nishijin weaving technique.