Indigo Unraveling – Kyoto Blue 京都の藍

What is it about indigo textiles that bring up so many sensations? The depth of blue, new or faded; the stiffness of the fibers from repeated dips in the dye vat; the fuzzy nap of fabric from years of use; all of these add to indigo’s allure. It’s alchemical, magical, practical, and deeply, vividly, a part of our human experience whether we are aware of it in our modern world or not. Think of the popularity of blue jeans even now, 140 years after their invention.

I came to Kyoto in part to meet Takeshi Udo of 1883. The son of a dyer,  Takeshi san is carrying on the family tradition of botanical dyeing. His work ranges from vivid to subtle, depending on the dye, fabric, and technique he uses for each piece. Weather conditions, relative humidity, and the different seasons in general also come into play.

We agreed to meet at Shimogamo shrine, a four mile walk from the ryokan where I was staying near Kyoto station. I could have taken a bus or the subway, but sometimes it’s nice to get out and see a city on its own terms.

Walking through a quiet part of town along the way to the shrine I caught a telltale blur of blue from the corner of my eye.  A shop across the street from me called out to be noticed, indigo blue dyed clothing hanging in the window. I’d stumbled across Mimijiyan.

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Inside the tiny shop space I found more clothing, accessories, umbrellas, and even bags of leftover scrap fabric dyed in deep blue or persimmon brown (kakishibu).  I could have spent the afternoon there looking at everything, but I was less than halfway to my destination, so after a long chat and purchasing a few items, I promised to visit again when I could.

mimijiyan_kasa1

Umbrellas are vital to have on hand during the summer in Japan. While California won’t see rain again until at least October, June signals the start of the rainy season throughout Asia. When it’s not raining, an umbrella is a very effective parasol. My tiny travel umbrella felt dowdy and underwhelming compared to these.

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Several more stops along the way (no more indigo, just curious dawdling) and the road gradually narrowed from busy urban traffic to quiet, treelined pathways. I had reached the Shimogamo torii and Takeshi san.

Enjoying tea in the shade at an open air tea shop near the torii, we spread out Takeshi’s work and discussed his dyeing techniques. Before becoming a dyer, he worked for a textile design company for four years. His mother had been dyeing for 30+ years and hoped to pass on the tradition, so they brought their textile skills together.

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Takeshi works with a variety of botanicals including thyme (yellow-green), madder (red), rose (gray), and various other plants and mordants in combination with indigo. When I asked him which of the plant dyes he preferred, he replied, “I like indigo the best.” Why? “Because of the color, because it’s beautiful,” smiled. “It’s really special. Sometimes indigo makes the fabric stronger and avoid bugs.”

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Takeshi thought for a moment. “It’s like… science,” he said. “It’s like magic!” I interjected. He laughed.

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“My mother told me dyeing is like a kind of magic. The color is changing little by little. It depends on the weather and temperature, humidity. Especially indigo; on a fine day indigo is good to dye.”

While Takeshi lives in Kyoto, he does his dyeing in Takayama, up in the mountains where he grew up. He works in solid colors, revealing the potential chemistry of each combination of botanical dye and mordant, leaving the last bit of magic up to the weather.

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If you are interested in acquiring one of these delicious hand dyed scarves, you can click here to reach Takeshi by email.

Nishijin is the long-famous textile district of Kyoto, but today it appears more industrial and filled with tall, gray concrete buildings than the short, wooden homes known for housing families of weavers and dyers. I took a spin around the blocky, large Nishijin Textile Center but was not terribly impressed. It’s a good resource with weaving demonstrations and a museum, but it has a significant amount of floor space devoted to shopping for souvenirs and snacks, not exactly what I was looking for.

Aizenkobo is tucked away down a road I walked past several times on my first trip to Nishijin. On my second trip I had a map, and I still went down the wrong street a few times before I found it. Ducking into a cozy coffee house I ask the man behind the counter if he could help me with directions, and he said of course, the dyer is a neighbor and they know each other well. He pointed me in the right direction and armed with my map and his instructions, I was off.

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It was still early when I arrived, a little before 10:00 AM when they officially open, but they were welcoming and I was given a brief tour by Hisako Utsuki, wife of the dyer. She showed me her design work, clothing and fashionable scarves, and one especially caught my eye. “That design is firefly,” she told me. We don’t have fireflies in California, but that didn’t stop me from deciding to take it home.

Kenichi Utsuki, third generation indigo dyer, was silent for the first part of my visit. He spoke up after I handed him my card and he saw that my business was in Japanese textiles and I work with sashiko. He also noticed that I kept eyeing his shelves of sashiko thread as if they were candy.

He took me to the back of their shop where he does the dyeing and showed me around his indigo vats, discussing fermentation, oxidation, and other parts of the dyeing process. I am not a dyer, but I took notes as well as I could.

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Their indigo dyed shibori fabrics were beautiful, but more than I had budgeted for. I politely declined. The prices you can see in the photo are per meter, not per bolt, and averaged around US$40/meter for solid indigo to US$80/meter for the shibori.

aizenkobo_thread

The thread, on the other hand, was within my financial grasp. I stocked up on as many colors as I could, plus the indigo scarf. Mrs. Utsuki mentioned the firefly design again, but Mr. Utsuki shook his head. “No, that’s ‘Beating Heart’. New design, maybe from 35 ago.” Either one works for me.

These botanically dyed cotton threads, best used doubled for sashiko as they are thin, measure 160 meters per skein and the fiber is incredibly soft. All of the blues and greens are dyed with natural indigo, the other colors are dyed with nut shells, bark, and other plant materials. My current stock is very limited and currently available only in person, but will also be available online soon.

More to come, including Hiroshima and a visit to the Tulip Needle factory.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. SANDRA MUSASHI says:

    Carol, You have a real talent as a travel writer. You should consider writing more. I love to read these posts. Sandy >

  2. devapnek says:

    So nice to discover your post! I too am a Japanophile and now travel to Kyoto about 3 times a year. It’s a delight to read about your discoveries there. I have posts on my Japan travels and lots of other things too, but your might find the Japan travel blogs of interest. http://www.notoutyet.com. I look forward to following and reading your posts!

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