What Makes Aizome Dyeing Authentic?
TOKUSHIMA – In Japan, there is a proverb: “Although blue dye comes from the indigo plant, it is bluer than indigo.” This means that the student has surpassed his master. Japanese people learn this old saying at school; however, not many people know what it really means. They almost never saw how the indigo dyeing is done at a factory of Japanese indigo dyeing, which is called aizome. If you see it for yourself or even just via YouTube, you will know what it really means. And seeing it for yourself rarely happens.
An aizome craftsman soaks a white cloth in a dye pot. At the start, the cloth turns to a brownish ash color. It becomes bluer and bluer after being exposed to the air. The craftsman soaks the cloth in the pot again then the blue becomes gradually darker. After repeated soaking, finally the cloth is taken out from the pots and relocated to a freshwater tub. The color immediately transforms into beautiful indigo blue. While this pure indigo blue comes from the blue indigo plant, the color of the dyed cloth actually becomes bluer than the original indigo. The Japanese saying refers to this. The dying process is nothing but traditional Japanese artisanship. The process of color change and the craftsman’s indifferent repetition impress those who visit aizome factories.
As aizome dyeing requires a lot of freshwater, this technique developed over hundreds of years near the clean rivers in many locations in Japan. Aizumicho town in Tokushima Prefecture is one of the homes of aizome dyeing. The town surrounded by idyllic landscape is located right next to the Kyu-Yoshinogawa river, where abundant clean water flows.
Ranshu Yano, who has been engaged in aizome dyeing for over 30 years, was born into a farmer family in this prefecture. When he turned 20 years old, he married Hiroko, whose father was a grower of the indigo plant called sukumo. Hiroko’s family was all about aizome dyeing. After Ranshu married her, he became an indigo dyeing craftsman in her family. Since then, he has focused on pursuing the Hon aizome technique. “Hon” means “authentic.” Ranshu’s farming background helped him to best handle the natural ingredient sukumo, an annual plant.
“In order to achieve the color we want, we need good ingredients. Thus, if the quality of the raw ingredients is not good, we cannot create good aizome dyeing,” said Ranshu. As he learned a lot about sukumo from his father-in-law, he is quite strict about the choice of the ingredient.
When I entered Ranshu’s factory, I saw 16 dye pots being built in a stage-like space. Each pot has a different color of dye, although the ingredients are all the same. The color difference derives from the period of fermentation. The raw ingredients are fermented and this turns them into dye. Ranshu churns the dye every day, which produces a “flower” of floating pigmented froth in the center of the dye pot. Craftsmen can tell the condition of the dye by checking this “flower”. As the ingredient, sukumo, is made of leaves, aizome is a kind of plant dyeing, and thus it is nothing but harmony with nature. “Fermentation is not convenient for us,” said Ranshu. “We are the ones who need to compromise with nature.”
The graceful indigo blue cannot be gained by one soak. Cloth must be soaked in the dye many times, exposed to the air and then washed with clean water to remove dirt so that the intended blue can be attained. Accurate color control is done visually. The craftsman’s expert technique is relied upon to adjust the depth of blue, from light to dark. He decides how many times he soaks the cloth in the pots or in which pots he soaks it. Long-fermented ingredients develop a darker color of blue; short-fermented ones give out a lighter color. Aizome craftsmen know the correlations between the color degrees and the length of fermentation. The result of the color is totally down to craftsman’s capability, which require extreme sensitivity and intuition.