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[Kimono Style] Enter a World of Blue

Indigo is often associated with the color blue, and with denim blue jeans. But this natural dye is much more healthy and versatile than these common associations would have you believe. Read on!

Sheila Cliffe

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Asai Roketsu is a small dyeing workshop in the west of Kyoto. The Asai family dye the grounds of kimono in many colors, but they also have another speciality. It is dyeing in natural Awa indigo, from the Tokushima area of the island of Shikoku. 

Shikoku was the first area of Japan to grow indigo, but it spread from there all over Japan, from Tohoku to Okinawa. The indigo plant is an annual, so seeds must be sown every year. The young plants need lots of water and sunshine, and it is easy for them to become choked with weeds. They must be carefully looked after. The harvest each year is dependent on the weather and the care of the farmer. 

Sheila Cliffe
Example of Indigo Dye

Indigo leaves are naturally alkaline and they are not readily eaten by insects. Among other things, this property means that indigo-dyed cloth protects the wearer from insect bites, and so it has long been favored by Japanese farming people. 

Alkaline is also cleansing, so it is considered healthy to wear indigo-dyed cloth. It was once used for diapers for babies for these reasons.

It Takes Time to Achieve the Beautiful Color

Example of different gradations of blue

Indigo leaves can be used as they are, (nama ai), but the color produced is a pale blue. In order to get a solid deep blue colorーsuch as the name is famous forー the indigo leaves are crushed and heaped up. Water is poured onto them and they begin to ferment. The reaction gives off a lot of heat. They are kept damp and the fermentation continues for several weeks. The fermented indigo is stored in large straw containers, which the Asai workshop has sent from Tokushima, the capital of the Shikoku region. 

Example of heap of fermented indigo stored in straw containers from Tokushima

At a dyer’s workshop it is very common to see an indigo pot as a hole in the ground. However, these do not usually have enough capacity to dye a whole kimono evenly and generally leave darker and lighter patches on the cloth. 

Example of one of the tanks
The feeding process

Instead, the Asai workshop has three specially made tanks, each holding about 1 ton of water. Kyoto water is alkaline, but ash is added to the water to increase the ph value to 11 or 12, and then the fermented indigo is poured in. The mixture is then fed with sake. It continues to ferment for at least two weeks, and what is called ai no hana, indigo flowers, which are clumps of bubbles, begin to develop on top. If the color begins to dull, more sake is added and the dye becomes stronger again. If it is properly fed, it can be used for up to 3 months.

Asai workshop has about 500 rubber rollers with traditional Japanese celebratory patterns carved into them. These are used for applying wax to kimono fabric to make roketsu, or wax-resist patterns. They are then dyed in the huge tanks. The fabric is repeatedly dipped and then held in the air, as the moment of meeting with oxygen is vital to development of the blue color. 

After drying and washing off the excess dye, the wax is removed to leave a white pattern on the dark blue ground of the kimono cloth. Collaboration with a kimono dyer who has painted the trees in wax, has produced the homongi with the design of woods rendered with two layers of wax resist, which give depth to the image. See how the process works, here.

Creative New Projects

Another venture is a collaboration with Horii Makoto of Tokyo, who is originally a bag maker. Asai and Horii have created Sukumo leather

It is a unique company. After years of experimenting they have succeeded in indigo dyeing leather hides without causing the leather to become hard and brittle. In fact, Sukumo lambskin indigo dyed, feels as soft as silk to the touch. 

Example of Leather

The leather must be soaked before being put in the dye bath, and then dyed similarly to fabric, lifting it periodically in order for oxidation to take place. After dyeing it is sent to a tanner for a final wash and is dried slowly and naturally in fresh air. Finally it is shaken repeatedly in order to make the leather soft. 

Not only have Sukumo managed to indigo dye the leather, but they have also succeeded in applying the traditional fabric-dyeing techniques of roketsu, wax-resist and shibori, tie-dyeing to leather. This unique leather can be used for making apparel, such as shoes, jackets or belts, and also for bags, computer cases, and other accessories. 

This indigo dyeing technique also has applications in the creation of beautiful and long-lasting unique interior fabric. It can be used for covering chairs, sofas or benches. 

Sukumo’s superb luxury products have been picked up by leading European fashion brands at the Premiere Vision exhibition in Paris, because they are outstanding examples of staying true to natural materials, Japanese traditional techniques and also innovation and originality in product production.


Give It A Try

The end of the workshop!

If you are looking for a once in a lifetime experience and want to create your own indigo dyed items, it is possible to partner with Sukumo at Asai workshop in Kyoto to produce your own, luxury, indigo dyed goods. 

After practicing, which you do by dyeing a simple cotton handkerchief, items of your own clothing such as shirts or other items of natural fibres can be dyed, and finally a large piece of leather. This can then be used to create your own bag, chair cover or other leather item, that will last you a lifetime. 

Private groups of between two and six people can try this unique experience. Sukumo offers this VIP experience on weekday evenings or Sundays. For details (in Japanese) learn more about the company through their website here, or contact them at makoto@sukumojapan.com

Author: Sheila Cliffe

Find other columns on kimono by author Sheila Cliffe, here.

Sheila Cliffe was born in Plymouth, England in 1961 and relocated to Japan in 1985. She gradutated from Suzunoya Kimono Gakuin and received a special award for her work in spreading kimono culture from Minzoku Ishou Bunka Fukyuu Kyoukai. She wears kimono regularly, and has taken a PhD in the study of kimono trends. She teaches kimono culture and dressing, and studied dyeing under Sassa Reiko. She has spoken in Japan and in many other countries on kimono culture, and have published a book and articles in many journals. She has worked tirelessly in events in Japan and abroad to increase cultural understanding of Japan through spreading knowledge of kimono culture around the world.