Janine and I have spent a short time in Japan. We are on our way to the UK via Korea, so decided to spend a week or so in Kyoto on our way to break the trip. We love Japanese culture and often visit Kyoto when we go to Japan as it is a favourite of ours. While in Kyoto we do all the usual ceramic related things, and spend time in the Higashiyama pottery district, looking at the ceramics, galleries, potteries and Museums, I have written a lot about this in the past so won’t bore you with it here. However, on this occasion, we also take a little bit of time to explore the north-west of the city and the fabric district.
I have had an interest in indigo dyed fabric for many years and always go looking for old second-hand indigo dyed fabrics when we visit the antique markets that are held towards the end of the month in the temples around Kyoto. I usually organise our visits to Kyoto to coincide with these markets each time. Some years ago, on a previous visit to Japan, we spent some time traveling in the north of Japan and found a very old indigo workshop that had a 600 year-long history. It was in a very beautiful old building constructed from twisted and bent beams, all mortised together in that unique Japanese way with amazing craftsmanship. Janine bought a lovely fine shiburi patterned top on that occasion. She still wears it often and has actually brought it along on this trip.
We take the subway to the north and then walk half an hour across town to the west to find a small indigo dyeing workshop called ‘Aizenkobo’ hidden away in a very tiny back street, or possibly more properly described and a lane way. The workshop wasn’t particularly well-marked on the day that we first arrived there, as it was a bit overcast and showery, so there were no signs out. I knew that we had found it however, because I took the liberty of looking it up on the internet before we left, so I had an idea of what I was looking for. On subsequent visits, the day is clear and the signs are out, but I already know where I am on these later occasions.
We are welcomed in by the owners, a husband and wife couple, possibly our age or a bit older? Janine gets to try on a 100 year old patchwork coat and an amazing fireproof, indigo dyed and hand stitched, multi-layered old fireman’s jacket and hat.
Janine buys a scarf that has been tied in the amazing shiburi style of micro tying technique and then dyed in multiple different strengths of indigo. A truly astonishing piece of work. We get to handle the product in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ states.
Before and after. This generous scarf which started life at 1.5 metres long, is reduced to 400 mm long after all the shiburi knots are tied, but before dying.
We are taken for a tour of the workshop and get to see the dying vats and hanging and drying areas out the back.
One vat is slowly fading, as another is in full bloom, the older vat will be cleaned and re-charged with a new batch of indigo. It takes about two weeks to get the fermentation going and up to full strength. A vat lasts about a month, so the process is repeated on a regular basis to keep a continuous supply of fermenting indigo ready for use. As the traditional method requires a natural ferment of indigo, the temperature is critical to keep it alive and active. In the winter, the vats have to be kept wrapped in a doona-like cloth to keep them warm.
The workshop uses 4 x 60kg = 240kg packs of local composted and dried Japanese indigo leaf ‘cake’ each year.
Indigo is a very ancient dying technique and has been developed on most continents independently through time, with each continent using a different local plant material to obtain the blue dye. However, the resulting technique is remarkably similar. Washing the fresh leaves in water and thoroughly oxidising the watery mix, then reduction through fermentation, which is when the dye becomes active. The dye only affects natural fibres. So indigo is only used on silk, wool, hemp, cotton and/or other natural plant fibres. I saw one piece of cloth that had been stitched with nylon thread, so that after dying, the cloth was dark blue but all the stitching on the seams was stark white. I didn’t think that it was particularly attractive look, but I’m sure someone will love it. I didn’t.