Aizome (藍染) Indigo Dyeing Part Three

Welcome to the third and last post in this series on aizome (indigo dyeing).

For the first post in this series, on the process of creating the dye, check here.

For the second post in this series, on the aizome museum near my home, check here.

The entrance to Ai No Yakata.

The entrance to Ai No Yakata.

When you first enter the museum Ai No Yakata (藍の館), you have the option of buying something to dye. They have a range of products starting from handkerchiefs at 500 yen to scarves at 3000 yen. After that, you enter the museum and find the building that houses the dyeing facilities. If you’re not sure which building it is, just follow your nose. Aizome dye has a distinct, fermented odor that is very, very, strong.

When you go in, you put on an apron and gloves, choose your design, and away you go!

There are eight different designs that you can choose from.  The staff will help you to create your design.  I choose number five.

There are eight different designs that you can choose from. The staff will help you to create your design. I choose number five.

Here's my handkerchief being prepared for the dyeing.  I had to wrap it around a stick and secure it with a rubber band.

Here’s my handkerchief being prepared for the dyeing. I had to wrap it around a stick and secure it with a rubber band.

All ready to go!

All ready to go!

The first dip.  each dip took one minute.

The first dip. each dip took one minute.

My handkerchief just after the first dip.  It looks green right now, but it eventually turns blue when it gets oxidized in the air.  I had to squeeze out all the extra liquid and wait for one minute before dipping it back in.

My handkerchief just after the first dip. It looks green right now, but it will eventually turn blue when it gets oxidized in the air. I had to squeeze out all the extra liquid and wait for one minute before dipping it back in.

This is after the third and final dip in the dye.  It's a lot darker than it started and definitely looks more blue than green.

This is after the third and final dip in the dye. It’s a lot darker than it started and definitely looks more blue than green.

The next step is to rinse the handkerchief under running water to get rid of the extra dye.  When the water runs clear, you know you're finished.

The next step is to rinse the handkerchief under running water to get rid of the extra dye. When the water runs clear, you know you’re finished.

A little modern technology here in the form of a spin dryer to help get all the extra water out.

A little modern technology here in the form of a spin dryer to help get all the extra water out.

While my handkerchief was spinning, I spotted this picture of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako doing their own aizome.

While my handkerchief was spinning, I spotted this picture of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako doing their own aizome.

The final step is ironing.

The final step is ironing.

The final product!

The final product!

Textiles that have been dyed with aizome have a lot of characteristics attributed to them. At the moment, I have no idea which ones have been proven scientifically and which ones are just folk knowledge. According to Mark Wisniewski in his book Dyeing To Dance, the benefits of aizome include…

  • Aizome can prevent skin irritations, athlete’s foot, and infertility (I’m pretty sure that last one is an old wives tale).
  • Aizome can protect against insect infestations and the bite of a mamushi (a poisonous snake).
  • Aizome has antiseptic and disinfectant properties that make it good for preventing colds (just the seeds), treating poisoning by blow-fish, or using indigo dyed cloth as a run of the mill bandage. It’s also effective in the treatment of insect bites.
  • Aizome can act as a sedative so it is a popular dye for futon and bedding material.

I’d be really intrigued to see how much truth there is in each of these claims.

 

 

Don’t sweat the small stuff!  But if you’re interested, check out my facebook, twitter, and instagram for the small, spur of the moment ideas, articles, and activities that I find and do related to kimono!

http://www.facebook.com/readysetkimono
http://www.twitter.com/Readysetkimono

http://www.instagram.com/readysetkimono

 

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Aizome (藍染) Indigo Dyeing Part Two

Welcome back! This is the second post in a series of three about aizome, indigo dyeing. If you missed the first part about the process of making the dye, check out the post here. This post is about the aizome museum that’s about 30 minutes from my house.

The museum is called Ai No Yakata (藍の館) and it’s located in the town of Aizumi, Tokushima.

Aizumi.

Aizome.

Aizumi.

Aizome.

Connection? I thought so, and I asked the locals about it (Thanks Jen!). Mukashi mukashi (a long, long time ago) there were two towns in the area called Aizono and Sumiyoshi. Aizono was the home of indigo dyeing. When they combined the towns, they took the ai (藍) from Aizono and the sumi (or zumi 住) from Sumiyoshi and put them together to get Aizumi (藍住 translates to “the place of indigo.” The first kanji means “indigo” and the second kanji means “to reside”)

The museum itself has several different areas.

First, there is a modern museum that houses the admission area, the gift shop, and different textiles dyed with aizome.

I apologize for the all the glare from the camera flash by the way, Taking photos was difficult.  

A gorgeous antique houmongi dyed with aizome.

A gorgeous antique houmongi dyed with aizome.

I was absolutely drooling over these obi!

I was absolutely drooling over these obi!

An antique futon dyed with aizome.

An antique futon dyed with aizome.

Second, there is a lovely, traditional Japanese house on the property. This house was the home of the Okamura family and it was built in 1808. The Okamura family was one of the original ai-shi (sukumo or indigo dye makers) and dyers. The business originally started in the late 1600’s and focused on making the dye only. However, in the early 1800’s, the sixth generation of the family decided to expand the business. He set up subsidiaries in other parts of Japan, but kept the headquarters in Aizumi. He also expanded the business to include brewing sake. In the Meiji era, the company also expanded to Tokyo, however this expansion coincided with the introduction of cheap chemical dyes to Japan and resulted in a decline in business. Finally, in 1989, the buildings and property were donated as a museum.

Statues representing the steps of creating aizome.  In the background, you can  see the original family home.

Statues representing the steps of creating aizome. In the background, you can see the original family home.

The family home is not the only original building on the property. There are three other original buildings that were used for creating the sukumo (indigo dye). They still have their uneven, packed dirt floors, and you can really feel the history behind them. Nowadays, they are used for exhibits. One houses small dioramas outlining the process of aizome from planting the indigo, to dyeing the cloth. One houses some of the old tools used in the process and has some sumuko that you can examine. Finally, there is a building that is rented out the local artisans to sell their wares. When I was there, there was a woodcarver who had set up shop. He even had some pieces that had been dyed with indigo, including a table!

A miniature diorama of kasuri dyeing.

A miniature diorama of aizome dyeing using a stencil.

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Examining sukumo

Examining sukumo

A full table dyed with aizome.

A full table dyed with aizome.

The last building on the property is more modern. It’s a facility where people can do their own aizome dyeing. For more on that, check out the last post in this series, here.

Ai No Yakata’s Japanese only website can be found at

http://aizome-tokushima.jp/?mode=f4

 

Don’t sweat the small stuff!  But if you’re interested, check out my facebook, twitter, and instagram for the small, spur of the moment ideas, articles, and activities that I find and do related to kimono!

http://www.facebook.com/readysetkimono
http://www.twitter.com/Readysetkimono

http://www.instagram.com/readysetkimono

Aizome (藍染) Indigo Dyeing Part One

I live in Tokushima Prefecture in Japan. It’s not a well-known place. It’s on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan, and it really only gets well known during the annual four day awa odori festival in August.

It has other claims to fame that the locals are fiercely proud of like sudachi (a citrus fruit) sweet potatoes, whirlpools, and its own version of ramen (which is delicious by the way). But there is one claim to fame that is of particular interest to kimono fans; aizome (藍染) also known as indigo dying.

My home happens to be very close to the local indigo dyeing museum, Ai no Yakata (藍の館). I went there recently to watch a koto concert and I’ve been researching aizome ever since (and dreaming about owning an aizome kimono, but I don’t think my budget can take it!)

This post will be the first in a series of three posts about aizome. In the first post, I will outline the process of creating the dye. In the second part (here), I’ll talk about the actual museum, and in the third part (here) I’ll talk about my experiences in aizome dyeing and some of the benefits of aizome.

The Aizome Process

Begin Japanology has done an incredible video on aizome and I encourage everyone to check it out. It outlines the history of aizome and the process of creating it.

For those of you who don’t want to watch the video (seriously, watch it!) Here’s the process of making aizome.

Aizome uses the fermented leaves of the indigo plant for a dye. The whole point of the long fermentation process to make the compound in indigo plants that is responsible for the colour, indcan, water soluble. The final fermented dye is called sumuko and it can take a year to go from planting the seeds to dyeing the first batch of cloth in the finished product.

The seeds are first planted in March after the threat of frost has subsided. Two months later in May, the seedlings are transplanted into the fields. The mature plants are harvested just after the end of the rainy season in July. The leaves are separated from the stalks and the leaves are dried in the sun. About a month later, a second batch is harvested. This second batch, once it’s been sorted and dried, is stored separately from the first batch to be used in the fermentation process later on.

When it comes to the fermentation process, everything is big, and it takes a long time. I’ve outlined the process to make sukumo below. The information is from an essay written by Isamu Nii, an ai-shi (sukumo maker) that still uses the traditional methods. His essay was published in a book called “Awa No Kusazome; Namida Iro” (The Dye Plants of Awa; The Color of Tears) written by Seiko Akiyama and translated into English by Ann K. Nakamura.

 

Please note, every step in the process occurs in 5-6 day intervals even when it’s not explicitly stated. 

Ichi-ban mizu (一番水) 1st water application
Approximately 1000 kg of dried indigo leaves are arranged in a pile about one meter high and sprinkled with water.

Ni-ban mizu (二番水 2nd) water application
This occurs about five days after ichi-ban mizu. At this point, the leaves are starting to generate heat and the bacteria are starting to break down the leaves. About 500 kg of the second harvest of indigo leaves are added to the pile. Everything is mixed, sprinkled with water, and piled up to one meter again.

San-ban mizu (三番水) 3rd water application
This occurs 5-6 days later.   Everything is mixed and sprinkled with water.

Yon-ban mizu (四番水) 4th water application
Again, 5-6 days later.   Everything is mixed and sprinkled with water.

Go-ban mizu (五番水) 5th water application
A second batch of 750 kg of dried indigo leaves is added. Everything is mixed and sprinkled with water.

Roku-ban mizu (六番水) 6th water application
A third batch of 750 kg of dried indigo leaves are added. Everything is mixed and sprinkled with water. At this stage, the pile of fermenting indigo is about 3000 kg.

Nana-ban mizu (七番水) 7th water application
This occurs around November.   The temperature drops and the indigo is covered with straw mats called futon to keep it at a constant temperature.

Hachi-ban mizu (八番水) 8th water application
By this stage, the smell of ammonia can be overwhelming.

Kyuu-ban mizu (九番水) 9th water application
Clumps of indigo are broken up at this stage in a process called to-oshi. This ensures that oxygen and moisture are evenly distributed and the indigo is exposed evenly.

Jyuu-ban mizu (十番水) 10th water application
By this point, the indigo is uniformly composted and fermented. The high temperature makes walking over the indigo difficult and the smell of ammonia is overwhelming. Straw bags called kamasu are placed inside the fermenting pile to stop the temperature from going too high.

Jyuu-ichi-ban mizu (十一番水)  Jyuu-ni-ban mizu (十二番水)  Jyuu-san-ban mizu (十三番水)
11th, 12th, and 13th water applications

At this stage, approximately 80 days have passed. The indigo leaves stick to the floor and new straw mats have to be put down to protect the indigo from excess moisture.

Jyuu-yon-ban mizu (十四番水) Jyuu-go-ban mizu (十五番水) Jyuu-roku-ban mizu (十六番水) Jyuu-nana-ban-mizu (十七番水)
14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th water applications

This time is when the experience of the ai-shi really shows. Instinct will tell the sumuko maker when to make the next application of water. He makes his decision based on the amount of water used, the smell, and the temperature of the leaves. When the ammonia smell mellows out, it’s a sign that the indigo has officially become sumuko.

Jyuu-hachi-ban mizu (十八番水)  18th water application
This is the final application. Cold water from underground wells is used. Prayers are said to ensure that the sukumo will give a good colour and sake is sprinkled over it. It’s now the middle of winter and time for the craftsmen to think about planting the next crop in a few months.

completed sumuko

completed sumuko

Now that we have sumuko, we need to make it into the dye. Again, the “Begin Japanology” video does a great job of explaining the process, but here’s a rundown.

The dye’s basic ingredients are sukumo, lime, ash lye, and sake. Everything is mixed in the dye vat and left to settle. It must be kept warm, stirred every day, and examined for signs of fermentation.   Anywhere from three to ten days later, the dye will have started to ferment and will look noticeably different. Large bubbles form that don’t vanish and a metallic sheen covers the top of the dye. At this point, a second batch of lime is added. After a day, the third and final batch is added. The dyer now starts looking for the indigo flower (ai-no-hana 藍の花) to form on the top of the dye. This indicates that they dye is ready to be used.

The completed dye.

The completed dye.

 

TL;DR? Here’s a short video with the highlights of the process.

That’s all for this post. Check the second installment here.  The third installment is here.

 

Don’t sweat the small stuff!  But if you’re interested, check out my facebook, twitter, and instagram for the small, spur of the moment ideas, articles, and activities that I find and do related to kimono!

http://www.facebook.com/readysetkimono
http://www.twitter.com/Readysetkimono

http://www.instagram.com/readysetkimono