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Aizome (Indigo Dyeing) in Japan

The study of indigo dyeing and of Japanese textiles and clothing has been gaining in importance over the past twenty years. Silk kimonos with their colourful designs and elaborate embroidery have long been the focus of art studies and much was written during the 1970s and 1980s. Less has been written about clothing and textiles from an anthropological or sociological viewpoint.

Indigo dyeing (aizome) has been a focus of study recently as an example of folk art and interest in natural fibres and textiles in clothing has been instrumental in the establishment of companies exporting such textiles to the world.

Since ancient times, indigo has been used as a dye in many places in the world. The earliest example of Japanese indigo dyed fabric is in the Nara temple Hôryûji and dates from about 620 AD.

Indigo dyed material was restricted to use in clothing for the aristocracy during the Nara period (710-794), but with the advent of vat dyeing it became accessible to common people. Now, ironically, it often colours the material used in workers' clothes.

The earliest known method of making indigo was crushing the leaves of tadeai - Polygonum tinctorium Lour - in water and straining the liquid. This makes a pale blue colour. In vat dyeing, the leaves are fermented and pounded into a paste, to which water, lime and starch are added. This results in the ability to dye greater quantities, to create more shades of blue and to extend the dyeing season.

The introduction of synthetic dyes in the 20th century all but finished the indigo industry. Some traditional dye houses still exist, but many mix true indigo with synthetic colours.

A selection of aizome fabrics include examples of weaving and dyeing techniques:

Aizome Related Web Sites

http://www.kippo.or.jp/culture/water/tour/awa_e.htm Describes the importance of water in creating the dye itself and in the dyeing process. A brief description of the dyeing process is given. (In English)

http://www.siz-sba.or.jp/takuminokai/aizome/index.htm The home page of a Shizuoka aizome workshop, Masuda Aizen Kôbô. Shows their products and offers information about purchasing, learning to dye, and exhibitions. (In Japanese, some English)

http://www.straw.com/sig/dyehist.html A site detailing the history of dyeing from 2600 BC. Written by prominent quilter/dyer Susan C. Druding. (In English)

http://www.textilemuseum.org/ Home page of The Textile Museum in Washington DC, USA. (In English)

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