Indigo dyers singing the artisan blues

by Mami Maruko

The deep blue color of aizome (indigo dyeing), is often referred to as the color of Japan. Made from the ai (indigo) plant, a type of tade (smartweed) grown in Japan, aizome has also gained a great deal of popularity worldwide. Although indigo comes in an array of hues, the most popular is one that is commonly called Japan blue or Hiroshige blue in Western countries. The name originated from the unique indigo blue of the sky and sea that the Edo Period artist Utagawa Hiroshige frequently used in his woodblock prints.

Natural indigo dye can be traced back to ancient Egypt. However, the indigo used in Japan was originally said to have been exported from China. The golden age of indigo was during the Edo Period, when people used it in everyday life, from tenugui to working clothes. Indigo-dyed items were considered to be very sturdy, and were even said to be less likely to get eaten by months.

The most famous of the indigo dyes is Awa-ai from Tokushima, where most of the indigo plants are grown. However, even though plants no longer grow in the Kanto area as they once did, Bushu (today’s Saitama) aizome is still made using original methods of dyeing. Unfortunately, since the Meiji Period, chemical dyes, which do not have the subtle gradations and texture of natural dyes, have become popular and have replaced some of them.

Making Bushu aizome is a time-consuming process. First, the indigo leaves are gathered. Then, they are dried in the shade and turf is made from them. The next step is to ferment the turf, adding lime, wheat bran and sake accordingly. This process is called ai wo tateru (to brew indigo).

During the process, the temperature of the liquid is always kept between 30-40 C. If the temperature is too high the turf will decompose; if it is too low it won’t ferment. When the fermentation is successful bubbles appear on the surface of the liquid, which is called ai no hana (indigo blossoms). The dyers must be near the container all day long, stirring the liquid several times a day and checking the temperature, color, texture and smell of it. This is the stage where experience and good intuition are particularly needed. Referring to the process of keeping watch, Yoshio Kitazume, one of the traditional craftsmen of Saitama, says it is like “taking care of a baby.”

In the dyeing process, first a roll of white thread (in cotton, linen, silk or wool) is gently put into the vat of indigo dye and carefully pulled back up. The color changes to ocher at this stage, and when it is squeezed in air immediately changes to green then blue due to oxidization. This process is done repeatedly, depending on the shade of indigo the dyer desires.

The dyers used to dye the thread in a big round jar and squeeze the dyed thread using their hands. However, now that they’ve started mass-producing, they have introduced machines to squeeze the thread and a bigger container to hold the liquid.

When the dyeing is done, the thread is washed several times and dried naturally in the sun. Then it is ready to be sent to the weavers.

Kitazume is one of the two dyers who work at Kumai Shoten, in Gyoda, Saitama, where Bushu aizome items are sold by mail order. There are more than 50 items available, ranging from Japanese clothes such as samue, hanten and haori, to interior goods such as table cloths, cushion covers and noren. Noren and shirts cost about 12,000 yen and samue are 28 yen,000-30,000 yen. When they opened the shop in 1938, only samue for men were sold, but they have added more items as customers’ needs have expanded. They now even carry socks, which are said to be good for the prevention of athlete’s foot, and also have fundoshi dyed in indigo.

“These days, the chemically dyed indigo, as well as cheap indigo dyes from China, is becoming popular, and our business is struggling,” says Koichi Murajima, the sales manager. “However, we want people to know the good qualities of Bushu aizome, and eventually we would like to sell the items abroad, if we manage to find the right avenue.”

For Kitazume keeping the art of indigo dyeing alive is a challenge he welcomes.

“Blue is the color of challenge. In boxing, the winner wears red and the challenger wears blue,” says Kitazume. “Also, during the Warring States Period in Japan, the warriors wore a suit of armor of indigo color. In the same way, while I dye the thread in indigo, I feel like I’m challenging myself.”