Near the end of October, I took a very short, very last-minute trip to Tokyo and Kyoto at what ended up being a most economically unfortunate time of the year. The Japanese Yen shot up relative to my Canadian dollar, leaving me with some pretty sad (yarn)buying power. But, I did go to Japan, and I did buy yarn… but more on that in another future post.

Being in Kyoto, mere blocks away from the traditional weaving and textiles district in the city, I sought out the Aizenkobo workshop. Aizenkobo is a indigo dye workshop and retail shop that produces a number of hand-dyed clothing items using techniques such as shibori (binding and dyeing), sashiko embroidery (hand stitching), ikat and double ikat (resist dyeing and weaving) and also natural dyeing with plant dyes.

Shibori dyed Japanese cotton scarves

Shibori dyed Japanese cotton scarves

Rolls of double-ikat handwoven fabric

Rolls of double-ikat handwoven fabric

Indigo dyed and overdyed sashiko thread

Indigo dyed and overdyed sashiko thread

Sashiko on a pillowcase

Sashiko on a pillowcase

I met the third-generation indigo dyer, Kenichi Utsuki, who described how his grandfather was originally an obi sash maker and weaver and how they started indigo dyeing. His father ran two businesses — both the obi sash making and indigo dye shop — but discovered that obi sash making was no longer a viable or profitable business. Their family switched to indigo dyeing alone, sold all their weaving looms, and focused entirely on natural process indigo dyeing. He has since been invited to numerous universities around the world to lecture on natural indigo dyeing. His wife, Hisako, is the designer of many of their garments.

Kenichi Utsuki stirring up one of three dye vats

Kenichi Utsuki stirring up one of three dye vats

Frothy and foaming indigo flower on the top of the vat, after stirring

Frothy and foaming indigo flower on the top of the vat, after stirring

His naturally fermented indigo process is significantly different from other chemical indigo processes in that it results in improved colour permanence and vibrancy in the indigo dyed fabric. Whereas we use chemicals like thiourea dioxide or sodium hydrosulfite, his natural ferment process uses wheat husk powder, limestone powder, lye ash, and sake. It allows the dye vats to run continuously throughout the year. I think it gets pretty cold in Kyoto in winter, but apparently they dye through the winter too. Also somewhat controversial is heating indigo vats, and here I could see that he has a heater inserted in the vat. I even watched him taste the dye liquor… eeek.

The natural indigo process produces an incredibly vibrant, saturated and clear blue colour that does not fade. Even pieces that he brought out that were 50 or 60 years old were still a bright, vivid “eggplant” blue. For comparison, he brought out a number of chemical process indigo pieces from all different countries, and the blue colour was much less saturated… greyed. Some of their blues are so intense and deep that they come close to black. On cotton and linen, something like 15 or 20 dips are required to generate the colour range. On silk, however, the number of dips increases to 40 to 60 even. One madder-dyed scarf he showed me was dyed and washed 18 times in order to get it’s intense, beautiful red colour.

Kanoko Shibori tied fabric prior to dyeing

Kanoko Shibori tied fabric prior to dyeing

...after dyeing...

...after dyeing...

...and after steaming.

...and after steaming.

Utsuki explained how they do not do any of the shibori tying at their workshop and instead hire factories in Nagoya to do this work. He says that each family has their own tying method and pattern that they do over and over for their whole lives. They don’t switch patterns. They simple make the same pattern again and again. That kind of steadfast dedication to one thing allows them to develop true mastery and virtuosity. It makes me wonder, if you think _your_ job is boring, I wonder what they think of their jobs. If they wake up in the morning and think, ah crap, another scarf, another day of making knots… But we are grateful for their exquisite skill and the beautiful things that are produced from their hands.

If you are interested, I brought back two shibori scarves, one madder dyed scarf, and two skeins of the most gorgeous indigo-dyed silk threads that you can take a look at on Saturday at the open house. We are on from 2 to 5 pm on Saturday afternoon at #401-228 East 4th Avenue at Main Street in Vancouver. Go vote for mayor… and then come play with yarn!

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