The City of Traditional Dye Craft

The Kimono is a traditional Japanese garment. The Kimono’s fascinating beauty relies on the skills of the craftsperson, and the art of dyeing silk fabric is one of those skills. Dyeing requires pure, clean water and you can probably imagine that you would never find this kind of environment in the center of Tokyo. However, to my surprise, there is an area of traditional craft centers in Ochiai, Shinjuku-ku, where is not too far from the urban core of Tokyo. In this area, tradition has been passed down since Edo period.

Amazing! “Ochiai Hotaru”, the group of people who is supporting and maintaining these traditions, held an open house a week ago. Since it is only a once a year thing, I couldn’t miss this precious chance to see the process of dyeing Kimono fabric.

I got bowled over by how delicate and detailed the process is! The pattern is not printed (of course not!) In order to make pattern, you have to cut out a paper template first. You then put a special glue on where you don’t want to dye, and then dye the whole fabric. This is the basic process of dyeing. But each process is so delicate that it takes at least one month to complete. If you includes making templates, it takes a few more months. Of course, to create an object of beauty, you must be patient.

The dyeing method called “Edo Sarasa (calico)” and it originated in India (where it is called “Chintz”). Therefore, the pattern used in “Edo Sarasa” is somewhat exotic. If you want to make this pattern (as you can see on pic #10), you have to use 40 or more templates of the same pattern. With each template, you can only a single color. Then you dye them one by one. If you are into computer graphics, think of it as if you are making 40 layers (one color each), then combining them to make a final image.

“Edo Komon” is another method of dyeing. Japanese paper dyed in persimmon tannin is used for this method. Punching a bunch of small holes in paper, you create a delicate, perforated pattern. You apply glue over the holes and dye the fabric. Then you wash glue away with clean water – the part that you applied the glue to will not be dyed, thus a pattern appears. Komon was originally used for daimyo (feudal lord) ceremonial garments. Later on, the patterns made with playful spirits got popular among common folks. The pattern of “radish and grater” (as you can see on pic #13) is one of them. (“radish actor” means lousy actor in Japanese. And grate a radish in Japanese sound same as bring down lousy actor.)

If you wish to know more about Komon, here is info on Komon

During the period of sakoku, (which means to break off relations with other countries) fabrics were dyed with everyday things you could find at home such as persimmon juice, sticky rice or plants. When you steam the fabric, which is one of the processes, the factory is filled with a scent that stimulates your appetite.

I asked one of the craftsmen, “how long you’ve been doing this?” He said, “50 years.” There are poeple who have cherished and loved working in traditional dyeing even in this fast-pased city, Tokyo…. “Change” is not all that matters. Accumulation of experiences matters more when it comes to carrying on the torch.

These are the words from manager of “Matsu-tsuna,” an old, well-known establishment Kimono store. “We have to adapt the needs of the age in the Kimono world as well, though. Even though it is retro-flavored, nobody wants to take rickshaw to go to Osaka anymore, you know?”

The simplicity, speed and efficiency matters more these days. It must be tough to pass down the tradition and skill of dyeing, because it is against recent trend. However, I experienced the real thing today at the craft centers!

Written by YO-CO
Translated by Kyoko

  • melissa and nadine

    I am doing a project on the inderdependance for Kimonos. This site was a little helpful, but could you give me some more information on the process, the labour and all the things and people you depend on for the making and selling of Kimonos?
    Please send your helpful information to money_spender7@hotmail.com
    Your help is greatly appreciated,
    Curious Students!

  • http://www.quilters-cafe.org Kathy

    Thank you so much for posting this fabulous article! It is so thrilling to get the chance to see how the silk fabric for kimonos is made using these techniques. I am completely in awe at the skill, time and patience that is required to make these exquisite delicacies.

  • simon

    Hi, I’m looking for a japanese firm that would produce the kimono fabric for a wall cover. With your article I was able to find the firm. For anybody interested it’s:
    Matsutsuna Dyeworks Ltd.

    4-4-32 Shimo-ochiai Shinjuku-ku Tokyo JAPAN 161-0033
    Tel 03-3951-3721
    Fax 03-3951-3719

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