Dyeing to Live: Moving Towards the Future by Embracing the Past
Japanese traditional textiles and fabric dyeing is an art that is heavily reliant on the visual perception of color. How these hues, tones, shades, and textures adhere to the textile and give it life, will wholly define the aesthetic impact of the base textile and its eventual finished garment. Generations of Japanese craftsmen dedicated their lives to developing these traditional dyeing techniques, and through this process they were able to establish unique color palettes using locally available materials.
Traditional Japanese textile dyeing is largely characterized by the use of botanical dyes, i.e. dyes which utilize natural, plant derived, and often local ingredients to create unique and dynamic colors. These dyes and dyeing techniques have existed in Japan since well before the modern era. However, as modernity and modern manufacturing techniques were introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, these traditional dyeing methods became somewhat threatened by the emerging efficacy of new chemical dyeing processes.
During the Meiji period, Japanese dyeing and weaving techniques were confronted by a wave of new manufacturing technologies from the Western World. Japanese traditional textile development methods at the time were incomparable to the productive capacity of a textile industry that had become totally industrialized, and thus found their existence seriously threatened. Craftsmen did not hesitate, however, to respond to these new developments. They actively adopted many advanced manufacturing techniques and started importing chemical dyes and power looms. The success of modernization, however, represented a major problem for the future of Japan’s natural and traditional techniques of dyeing and weaving. Although manual techniques did not lend themselves to the needs of modern industry, they had a long history of development that had begun well before the introduction of modern manufacturing.
The modern continuation of hand dyeing and weaving in modern Japan is not only a preservation of tradition, but a means of exploring uniquely Japanese artistic sensibilities.
Until now, even many traditional dyeing crafts in Japan had stopped using natural dye materials as chemical dye materials were easy to use and less costly. These changes impacted not only Japanese craft and culture but that of many cultures all over the world, with the loss of traditional skills of dyeing with natural dye materials. However, in lieu of these developments in large-scale chemical dyeing, the traditions that once began to fade have become reborn in the heart of Japan’s textile manufacturing center.
Tinted hands emerge from the vat, covered in trickling beads of fermenting natural dye. The sun is shining in Kojima, but a few stray clouds bounce spots of shade on the vat’s surface as a freshly dyed canvas shirt emerges from the dark liquid. While we watch, the color seems to change as the dye oxidizes and is hit intermittently by rays of sunlight.
This shirt has just been imbued with all the properties of Kakishibu; a dye made from fermented persimmon juice. The tannin that lives within this dye will not only give this garment a beautiful, rust-like color, but will also give it unique insect deterrent and anti-mold properties. This is the first dip in the vat, one of ten, where the shirt will be hung to dry in the sunlight each day. This completely natural dyeing process, one which has been in use since the 13th century, lives on today in a quiet, mountainous section of Okayama Prefecture's Kojima district.
If Kojima is the holy land of Japanese textiles, then the Howa dyeing factory is sacred ground.
Through a narrow side street, and up a steep mountain road, is the Howa factory’s main building. Since its founding in 1965, Howa has been a leader in the textile industry, specifically as a company that preserves and utilizes traditional textile dyeing and washing techniques. Howa, like many of the manufacturers in Kojima, got its start in denim production. They were the pioneers of the now prevalent stone washing technique; one where jeans are washed with pumice in a large rotating drum. They soon moved on to developing their own dyeing techniques. Owing to the prevalence of high-quality denim for which Kojima is known for, artisans at Howa began to do extensive indigo dyeing. While keeping with the long-standing manufacturing traditions of the region, they also began innovating and experimenting along the way. They developed their “Super Black” processing method, dyeing blue jeans in black dye, adding a long stone wash, and eventually creating a totally unique color that is a subtle but startling combination of deep blues and shades of black. This, along with their invention of a more environmentally friendly “Eco-Bleach,” solidified them as innovators in the space while also maintaining the traditions and ideals of the region.
Today, they are fully embracing the long held traditions of Japanese botanical dyeing. Craftsmen at Howa, via their recent partnership with canvas brand SEUVAS, are now integrating all natural dyes derived from materials such as madder root for reds, betel nut palm to produce browns and greys, as well as different kinds of mordants which combine with the dyes and fixes them to the desired material. We were able to witness the hand-dyeing of a SEUVAS jacket in persimmon dye firsthand. This persimmon dye, or kakishibu, was made nearby in Nara Prefecture, while many of the other botanical dyes are made on-site straight from their raw material. With Kakishibu specifically, the craftsmen at Howa painstakingly balance the depth of the color of these naturally dyed garments by controlling the amount of time the dye is exposed to sunlight and air. The more exposure, the darker and deeper the color becomes. This is fully in line with the methods of the past, but ensures the garment is beautifully crafted and the color is fundamentally unique to each garment. This reintegration of the old techniques is in many ways a breakthrough within the modern industry, while also rejuvenating the methods of the past to create a more sustainable future.
This shift to natural dyeing is a push towards more eco-friendly practices and a move away from the chemical dyes of mass production. Howa is a group of artisans which is teaming up with other local artisans to revive and preserve historical production techniques which also facilitate a cleaner world for the future. This presents a fundamental change in how textiles are being produced for the modern market. These current collaborations and innovations of old manufacturing processes are a future-facing shift in ideas that are front running many other domestic textile projects. Particularly with SEUVAS, local and sustainably produced canvas garments are now being integrated with these incredibly beautiful botanical dyes, pushing this new wave of textile development from within the local community, while also inspiring other craftsmen to innovate in the same way in both Japan and abroad.
Story by Jack Goldman