While simple dyeing techniques in Japan date back to early history, textiles for the noble classes were generally patterned using weaving techniques until dyed materials started to have an influence from the 8th century onwards.
Dyeing allowed for freer expression in surface decoration without the limitations of geometry imposed by weaving. The choice of colour could also signify social status. The colour purple was placed highest because of the rarity of the shigusa (purple gromwell) plant and the difficulty rarity in extracting the dye from it. Indigo dye grew in abundance during the Edo Period and became the colour of the warrior and working class, with the dye having the added benefit of strengthening the fabric and acting as an insect repellant.
The use of shibori-zome was first documented in the Nara Period and refers to a set of techniques to prepare the fabric before immersing in dye. Designs are created when the fabric is pinched, folded, gathered, knotted, tied, or pleated, and then bound tightly with string to protect it from the dye. While seasoned craftsmen retain a high degree of control during the process, there remains a certain element of uncertainty over the final result but this adds to its aesthetic qualities. The most well-known techniques include nuishime (stitch-resist), itajime (shape-resist using wooden boards) and arashi (shape-resist using poles) but shibori is often categorised by the resulting designs; rasen (radial), hitta (square), mokume (wood grain) and kumo (spider web).
Tsujigahana patterns, created by stitch-resist dyeing and embellished with ink painting, gold or silver leaf and embroidery, adorned the clothing of the ruling class and this technique reached its height in the 16th century. However this was to be replaced by yuuzen-zome, a superior dyeing technique where paste-resist is applied freehand giving pattern designers more freedom and the use of multiple colours in dyes. The method, said to be created by the popular Kyoto-based fan designer Miyazaki Yuuzen at the end of the 17th century, involves thinly applying rice paste along the design lines and then brushing varying dyes within each boundary. A soybean extract is spread on to make the dye penetrate. The fabric is steamed to set the dye and once ready, it is washed in water to remove the paste. The result is remarkably colorful, exquisite patterns and the process spread all over Japan, including some regional variations. Kaga yuuzen of Kanazawa uses a basic palette of five vivid colours; indigo, crimson, ochre, purple and black to display realism in motifs such as mushikui (leaves ‘eaten by insects’). The craftsmen of Tokyo developed their own understated style in Edo yuuzen in cooler and subtler shades.
Whereas yuuzen decorated fine garments of the wealthy, a similar freehand paste-resist dyeing technique called tsutsugaki(‘drawn with a tube’) was used by the working class in rural areas on cotton clothing, furoshiki (square, wrapping cloths) and noren (door curtains). A fine nozzle is used in yuuzen, creating a far more detailed and delicate line than in tsutsugaki.
Katazome (stencil dyeing) developed as a way of easily replicating designs on ornate fabrics and was commonly used to pattern cloth in the Edo and Meiji Periods. Several layers of paper from the kozo (mulberry) tree are glued together, toughened with persimmon juice and smoked for several days to produce a stencil that can withstand exposure to moisture and yet can be precisely cut for intricate designs. Rice paste is applied through the stencil onto the cloth and allowed to dry. The cloth is then immersed into dye which colours all areas uncovered by the paste and once the dye is dry, the paste is rinsed away. The bingata stencil dyeing of Okinawa is notable for its distinctively bright colours and pictorial motifs of birds, flowers and landscapes.
The introduction of chemical dyes and in the 19th century had a noticeable impact on the colours dyers could work with and increased mechanisation streamlined or eliminated many of the dyeing processes. Despite this, the traditional methods of dyeing survived.