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Lover of detail strives to keep a kimono-dyeing art alive

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

As an expert dyer of Edo-komon-style kimonos whose repeated, especially intricate patterns are often so tiny as to be almost microscopic, Emika Iwashita is a mistress of subtlety and the tiniest detail.

The independent Tokyo-based artist’s specialty is stencil-dyeing, which requires just the right amount of constant pressure with her right hand as she glides a wooden spatula across the paper stencil covering a 13-meter-long, 30-cm-wide roll of heavy silk fabric.

“If I change my pressure, even by just a little, it affects the shades of colors,” Iwashita, 39, said recently at her studio as she demonstrated her hand-dyeing techniques.

“The work is so delicate that it’s affected by the weather, and my health condition. And I must finish one kimono in one day, because if I wait until another day, the paper stencil pattern I use will get dry and shrink.”

In addition to being one of a declining number of the few remaining dyers of kimonos in the style of Edo-komon — also known as Tokyo-some komon — Iwashita is one of very few women in the profession. In fact in 2007, she became the first-ever female dyer accredited by the government as a dentō kōgeishi (traditional craftsperson) in the field of Tokyo-some komon — a title given only to artisans with top-notch skills.

Edo-komon’s traditional patterns are diverse, and are inspired by everything from plum blossoms and sprinkles of salt to sharkskin. They are so tiny, though, that the textiles often appear at first glance to have been dyed in uniformly plain colors. Only upon close inspection does the delicate work of the dyer reveal itself.

Nonetheless, because of the almost obsessively detailed patterns and the muted single colors such as gray, pale blue or light purple, Edo-komon — which originated as formal attire for high-class samurais during the Edo Period (1603-1867) — is considered by some to be bland and old-fashioned.

In contrast, Iwashita, who is among the youngest artisans in the aging community of kimono dyers, says she sees unlimited creative potential in her field.

“Edo-komon kimono were originally worn by bushi (samurai) when they gathered at Edo Castle as part of the sankin kotai (alternate-residence system) imposed and enforced by the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate (which moved the political capital from Kyoto to Edo [present-day Tokyo]),” she said.

“When daimyo were called to the castle, each one wore a kimono featuring specialties of their home areas as motifs. That way, when they passed by each other they could tell who the others were.”

Over time, though, the artisans’ pride took over from that recognition function as they started showing off their skills by producing finer and finer designs, Iwashita explained. Then, as the Meiji Restoration in 1868 ended the Tokugawa family’s 265-year rule and Japan embarked on pell-mell Westernization, including in dress, kimono traders found themselves in trouble.

At that time, however, ever-finer patterns started to become more widespread as a means of artisans adding value to their products to compensate for the drop-off in sales, Iwashita said.

“But such a pursuit (of technique for its own sake) is pointless for people who simply want to wear a stylish kimono,” she said. “I want to create kimonos that attract people today.”

Yet as was clear from visiting her studio, Iwashita isn’t in the business of riding roughshod over traditional techniques. To begin with, the compact workroom is dominated by three 7-meter-long dyeing boards, each made from the timber of one fir-tree trunk more than 100 years old.

Iwashita spreads a white silk kimono over a board and tapes both its ends. Then she moves the stencil pattern little by little, until about 7 meters are dyed. At this point she lifts the 50-kg board and flips it over so she can roll out the rest of the kimono on the other side and continue dyeing.

“I guess the work is so physically demanding that people have assumed it’s not suitable for women,” said the petite, soft-spoken artist who graduated from the textile department of Musashino Art University’s Junior College of Art and Design in Tokyo. She went on to explain that when she finished high school she was set on becoming a textile dyer. It was only after college that she became serious about pursuing a career in the genre of Edo-komon, she said. It was also her only option.

“I had been enchanted by kimonos from early on, as my maternal grandfather ran a kimono store in Tokyo,” she said. “But the store dealt only in Kyō Yūzen kimono (a mainstream genre dyed in Kyoto that often features large, extravagant patterns). I had never heard of Edo-komon back then.”

When she graduated from college in 1993, she went looking for work as a dyer in Kyoto. But at that time, the bubble economy of the late 1980s had just burst, and every kimono factory was struggling financially, she said, noting that her being a woman didn’t help her employment prospects, either. In the end, the only job she could find as a dyer was at Tomita Some Kogei, a 90-year-old Tokyo factory specializing in Edo-komon.

It was during the following 14 years she worked there — for the first several years practicing dyeing on sheets of plywood — that she became “mesmerized” by the profound craftsmanship involved in Edo-komon, she said.

Since she became an independent dyer in 2008, she has been experimenting with modern designs. Currently she markets her works through as a brand named Sui-rin-ka, whose kimonos combine traditional techniques with an infusion of her own sensibilities involving a nuanced use of colors and tweakings of traditional designs.

During that recent visit to her studio, Iwashita also demonstrated “resist dyeing” — a crucial process in her work that entails applying a sticky gray substance to the white silk fabric through a paper stencil. Rather earthily, it turned out that the sticky gray stuff she had in a bucket is made from glutinous rice powder, rice bran and charcoal — but its great attribute is that it cannot be dyed over.

The beautiful gray-flower pattern that she prints on the material through an elaborately incised square paper pattern about 30 cm × 30 cm is like a negative image of a picture; the gray parts end up uncolored and remain white after the sticky stuff is washed off at a plant to which she sends the fabric after she’s done all her dyeing. There, a background color is also applied and the fabric is steamed to fix the dye.

Iwashita went on to explain that the paper used for the stencils — whose manufacture is also a government-designated traditional craft — is called Ise Katagami (Ise Pattern Paper) after the Ise district of Mie Prefecture it comes from. She buys sheets of the paper from traders in Suzuka City in the prefecture, which is the only place in Japan where such paper is still sold.

Iwashita said that she sometimes commissions engravers there to create new designs. However, stencil patterns, made by gluing together several sheets of traditional washi paper, are a constant expense for her as they are fragile and each pattern only lasts for about 10 to 15 kimonos, she said.

More than any of this, though, Iwashita finally revealed the biggest challenge for dyers. “Can you see the dots, here and there?” she asked, pointing out two almost invisible dots at each end of the pattern paper. “We match the dots when moving the pattern paper, so as to not create a gap between patterns. And look at its design … it’s engraved in such a way that the patterns flow throughout the fabric.

“It’s because of the pattern engravers’ techniques that I have been able to practice my skills,” she said.

Asked about her future aspirations, she said that all she wants is to continue dyeing. That, however, could turn out to be a daunting challenge in the grim economic climate, and with many kimono textiles, Edo-komon or not, now being printed on machines. Clearly aware of her trade’s vulnerability, though, she added: “To be honest, I will be happy if I can keep on dyeing every day for another 10 years.”

Simply, as she well knows, her future as a hand-dyer of kimonos hinges on people continuing to buy into her idea: Small differences make all the difference.