I’ve been exploring the Japanese plant dye process kusakizome (草木染め) over the last few months, challenging myself with loosening a lot of the dyeing methodology I’ve become familiar with over the years and embracing the sometimes complex Japanese method. The abundance of available natural dyestuffs in Japan is staggering, and the different process used to extract colour just as diverse. Between Japanese language reference books and the occasional workshop I’m able to squeeze in, I’ve been working my way through tonnes of mind-bending vocabulary and straddling the line between two basic plant dye processes: pre-mordanting and middle mordanting (the Japanese way).

Mordanting involves soaking fabrics in the metal salts (mordants) which then form a chemical bond with the pigment, allowing it to permanently stain the fabric. I began my experimentation using quite common, cheap and readily available plant material, inspired by what I used during my visit to Ohara Koubou with fellow textile artists Sara Lindsay and Yuko Sugie late last year. Koubou is a wonderful spinning, dyeing and weaving studio in a rambling old farmhouse north of Kyoto, and during our day of creating colours from scratch, we worked with madder (茜), Japanese pagoda buds (槐) and a blend of evergreen oak leaves (樫) and indigo to create basic shades of red, yellow and green. A good place to start.

Most of the plant material Ohara Koubou use in their dyeing they harvest themselves, on their own property. Our process began with a sickle being thrust into my hand as we foraged through the neighbour’s hedges for chunky branches of oak leaves. The natural textile dyeing method, for those who aren’t familiar with it, follows a general set of steps that are a combination of science, cooking and atmospheric surprises. You need to boil down the plant matter to extract its colour, then heat to the required temperature so as to aid the fixing of the dye to the fibres, being careful not to crank the heat too high lest it ruin your colour or your cloth. A mordant is added either before the fabric gets submerged in the dye bath, after, or during. You continue to soak and move the textile around in the dye until you’re happy with the colour, and then you rinse it out – that’s pretty much it. Various auxiliary agents, natural or synthetic, can be added either before of after that strengthen or alter the shade of colour and aid light and washfastness.

 

Natural dye baths cooking over gas stoves.

Boiling the plant matter down to create the dye bath.

 

Straining enju husks

Straining the chunky stuff.

 

View of the outdoor dye studio at Ohara Kobo

The perfect, seasonally adaptable workroom.

 

Dyeing cotton in enju dyebath

Dyeing plain cotton and overdyeing indigo dipped cotton with enju.

 

Rinsing cotton thread that has been dyed in madder

Rinsing the madder-dyed cotton skeins.

 

Cotton after being dyed in madder, enju with iron, kashi and indigo, and enju.

The results!

 

The ‘middle-mordanting’ process that had left me baffled after many a roughly-translated book passage and quizzical conversation with experts suddenly, like most things, made a lot more sense when I saw it in action. It’s quite intuitive and feels a little more like mixing paints, working your way up to a shade instead of just buying the colour you need. Fixing the dye in between colour dips feels like it gives you a little more control and pace over the entire process. Like many long-running methods of laborious traditional production in Japan, the means beget the excellent results. I’m still waiting to check out the light and washfastness of my experiments over the next few months, but for the most part I’ve been thrilled with the results I’ve achieved so far, and I’ve some excellent palettes to manipulate into new artworks.

More process and result posts to come!