Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations

Last year the Victoria & Albert Museum in London had a display of some stunning naturally dyed silk by Sachio Yoshioka’s dyeing workshop in Kyoto, Japan. Below you can see four short documentary films made to accompany the display.

When Sachio Yoshioka took over his family dyeing workshop in 1988 – the fifth generation to do so – he decided to eschew the use of synthetic dyes and use only natural plant-based materials.

Through extensive historical research he tracked down plants and dyes used as far back as the Heian period (794 – 1185) and has encouraged Japanese farmers to grow previously rare or forgotten plants such as gromwell, whose roots produce a beautiful purple dye.

Now Yoshioka is back, this time with a bigger exhibition at Japan House called Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations.

Kasane are layers of colour combinations found in the garments of aristocrats during the Heian period. The formal kimono worn by women of the court showed layers of different colours at the neckline, cuffs and hems. Changing the colours to reflect, for example, plants in season was seen as a mark of good taste and education.

Kasane were also used with paper: poems and love letters would be enclosed in several sheets of seasonally coloured paper.

The exhibition at Japan House is arranged by season, starting with kasane for spring, such as cherry and willow.

The deep red silk of the cherry kasane is dyed with safflower; placing a translucent white layer of silk above it produces a pale cherry blossom pink. The green  layer representing mountain scenery is produced with indigo overdyed with yellow from amur cork.

The willow kasane has white at the bottom to represent the white underside of willow leaves, while the green comes from light indigo overdyed with yellow from Miscanthus tinctorius.

Summer kasane include wisteria, with beautiful purple coming from gromwell.

The delicate patterned silks also produce lovely shadows on the different layers.

And of course there are indigo kasane.

There are also samples of the plant materials used in dyeing on display.

And some of the tools and equipment used in dyeing.

I was also lucky enough to attend a talk by Sachio Yoshioka and a demonstration by his daughter Sarasa Yoshioka, the sixth generation of the dyeing family.

Sachio Yoshioka believes it is the duty of his workshop to continue producing beautiful bright colours from plants. “Study the old to discover the new” is his motto. He has produced a “dictionary” of 260 colours, all produced by layering plant dyes. The mordants he uses are all traditional too, including camellia ash, smoked plum, alum and iron.

His favourite colour is purple, the colour of nobility – it can take 8-9 days to get a satisfactory shade.

Sarasa Yoshioka demonstrated how they paint paper with dyes (in this case yellow kihada from the amur cork tree on top of indigo to produce green).

Their most famous use of this technique is using red pigment extracted from safflowers to paint paper that is used to make camellia flowers for a Buddhist ceremony at the Todaiji Temple in Nara. You can see this in one of the films above.

Extracting red pigment from safflower is an extraordinarily complex process – I’ve written about this before. And it takes 1.5kg of dried safflower petals to produce enough dye for a single sheet of red A3 paper!

Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations runs at Japan House until 19 May 2019.

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2 for 1 entry to Contemporary Textiles Fair 2019

Next weekend I’ll be back at one of my favourite events – the Contemporary Textiles Fair at the Landmark Centre in Teddington.

In a converted church you’ll find a particularly strong line-up, selling everything from conceptual stitched pieces to wonderful homeware and wearable art pieces. There are also some interesting workshops – I would have loved to do the sculptural spoons but sadly will have to mind my stall! There’s a full catalogue here of the exhibitors and events.

Normal admission price is £4, but if you show the following flyer on your phone at the door, you can get 2 for 1 entry!

2 for 1 flyer

One of the other exhibitors at the Contemporary Textiles Fair is Romor Designs, who is also taking part in the Japanese Textile and Craft Festival at Craft Central this weekend. To be honest, the event is smaller than the word “festival” might suggest, but the quality is very high.

Rob Jones of Romor Designs is one of the two main participants, and he has a splendid display of indigo shibori, sashiko and katagami work.

romor designs shibori romor designs shibori

The other main demonstrator is Janine of Freeweaver Saori Studio. Saori weaving was founded in 1968 by Misao Jo, a Japanese weaver, and is more about free expression than perfect regularity.

saori weaving demo

One of Misao’s sons created the saori loom, which comes with a prebuilt warp, so setting up takes around 20 minutes rather than the best part of a day. Even more ingenious (to me), you can remove a work in progress from the loom to let someone else use it, and then replace it afterwards to carry on weaving. Thus the looms are perfect for studios where people can rent a loom for a couple of hours and then come back next week.

Janine had some lovely examples of her work, which often incorporates strips of fabric or ribbon as well as yarn.

saori weaving saori weaving saori weaving

There is also a handful of other exhibits, including the following.

Indigo block printed garments by Harumi Ikegame
Katazome stencil work by Sarah Desmarais
Dorozome (mud dyeing) by Yukihito Kanai
Kakishibui (persimmon dye) by Iris de Voogd
Kintsugi inspired work by Ross Belton

The Japanese Textile and Craft Festival is at Craft Central, 397-411 Westferry Road, London E14 3AE. It’s open today and tomorrow, 12-5pm.

A week of indigo

It was definitely a blue fingernail week last week! It started with a couple of days in Hove with a wonderful group of textile friends who try to get together every couple of months to do a little felting or stitching.

This time, Barbara was rash enough to offer her garden to do some indigo dyeing – though some parts (usually featuring pale limestone!) were definitely out of bounds to people carrying dripping blue fabric. 🙂 The weather was glorious – the last two days of our prolonged heatwave – and the food and drink was plentiful and excellent. Barbara even baked a belated birthday cake for Carol, my partner in Women of the Cloth.

In between the eating, drinking and laughter we even found some time for dyeing, and everyone produced some great work.

When I got back home, it was time to filter my second indigo extraction from my homegrown indigo, which I’d fermented and left to settle while I was away. This produced another 4g of indigo.

Then on Friday I harvested 75g of indigo leaves, blended them with iced water till it was bright green and strained it through silk.

I used this to dye two silk scarves, one plain and one ecoprinted. Interestingly, some of the leaf prints seemed to resist the dye, while others changed colour as they were overdyed.

Also interestingly, the silk I used to strain the vegetation shows a range of colours, from the expected turquoise, through pale green to red from indirubin.

All natural indigo contains indigotin, the blue pigment, and indirubin, a red pigment – the indirubin is usually hidden by the indigotin, but shows up once the indigotin is exhausted.  Fascinating to see it separated out here!

Hand dyed ribbons

A friend of mine, Ruth Eaton, who designs beautiful contemporary embroidery, had an idea a couple of months ago about producing naturally dyed ribbons.

So we looked at what was available online, and I ordered some silk to start doing some samples.

These three were dyed with, left to right, avocado, nettles and dried hibiscus flowers, with an alum mordant.

ribbons natural dyes

With the avocado and hibiscus I strained the dye to remove the vegetation before adding the ribbon, but I left the nettles in with the ribbon, which left interesting mottled marks on the silk.

ribbons nettle dye

During my research I noticed that although there are quite a few people already selling naturally dyed ribbons, there are not many selling indigo shibori ribbons.

Always preferring the path less trod, I tried some marbled indigo and arashi indigo designs. 🙂

marbled indigo ribbon arashi indigo ribbon

These are now available in my Etsy shop. Thanks Ruth!

indigo marbled ribbon

indigo arashi ribbon

 

Plant dyes with Nature’s Rainbow part 2

For an account of the first day of this workshop, see Plant dyes with Nature’s Rainbow part 1.

On day 2 we turned to red, looking at madder. Madder is very invasive, so Susan advised growing it in an enclosed area, like a tractor tyre. It also takes around three years before you can start harvesting the root, where the colour resides, and then after digging it up, washing it, drying it and snapping it into pieces she leaves it for another year in paper bags.

The root contains around over 15 different pigments, ranging from yellow and orange to coral, scarlet and brown. Some of these pigments emerge more quickly than others – for example, yellow and coral come out first, but alizarin, which gives the red colour, is not very soluble and is the last to emerge.

Coral colour coming out of madder root at lower temperature

For this reason, despite traditional instructions that say madder should not be heated above 60°C, Susan and Ashley have found that working the bath quite hard for at least a week, cooling it and reheating it, produces the best reds. You can also add an alkali modifier to shift the colour from orange towards red.

For the workshop we compared two madder recipes, one from Jim  Liles’ The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing and the other from Ethel Mairet, the author of a seminal book on vegetable dyes written in 1916.

The Liles recipe involves over three days of heating and straining to extract the best red pigments from the madder. The Ethel Mairet recipe by contrast is a very low effort method where the dye is extracted in the dyebath (no preparation required).  They gave very different results.

Ashley and Susan had prepared the Liles method in advance and brought a madder dyebath which combined three days of extract. The Ethel Mairet bath was created by adding dry madder root to the dyebath (contained in an old paid of tights to prevent pieces getting caught in the wool and silk fibre).

In both recipes the wool was added to the dyebath at room temperature and heated to 82°C (simmering temperature) for 1.5 hours (Liles) or 1 hour (Mairet). Liles then instructed us to remove the wool, cool it and rinse it before putting it back in the bath at 70°C for 10-15 minutes. Then it was drained, cooled and gently rinsed. By contrast, after simmering the wool for an hour Mairet recommended boiling for the final five minutes before removing the wool, cooling it and rinsing.

In both dyebaths we resisted the temptation to agitate the fibre lest we felt it. We carefully turned the fibre over once in the Mairet bath.

We also used a dyebath created by vigorous boiling of the madder root left over after 3 days of the Liles madder extraction process. Ashley called this his surprise “4th extract”.

The results were interesting. The Liles recipe, extracted over days 1-3, gave the strongest colour (seen in the two samples on the right), followed by the Liles fourth extraction (sample bottom left). The Mairet recipe resulted in a very patchy sample that was much paler (top left).

Contrasting shades of madder from different baths

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, overdyeing with indigo some of the yellow samples dyed the previous day continued, and soon there was a splendid range of greens hanging outside.

The buttery mid yellows gave the brightest greens when overdyed; more orangey yellows gave a more olive green.

Ashley also demonstrated how multiple dips in woad helped get a deeper colour. The wool on the left has been dipped in woad five times while the wool on the right has been dipped only once.

Susan showed us a sample card of how acid and alkali modifiers after dyeing can change the colour, depending on the fibre and the mordant.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to overdye the madder samples with indigo to see if we could get purple shades, but we had quite a lot to take home already! We spent the last hour of the workshop splitting up all the samples so that everyone had a good collection to take home.

Suan and Ashley were very generous, offering us more weld, madder roots and all the leftover dye baths to take home. Many of us also bought seeds to start our own dye gardens!

There was just time to take a final photo of the beautiful rainbow of samples before heading back out into a grey January evening.

Brian photographing the woven rainbow samples

And here is the collection of plant-dyed wool and silk that I ended up with.

plant dyed woolplant dyed silk

Huge thanks to Sally for her organisation and to Susan, Ashley and Brian for such a wonderful colourful weekend!

Useful links

Nature’s Rainbow
International Feltmakers Association

Plant dyeing with Nature’s Rainbow, part 1

The advantage of the International Feltmakers Association’s regional groups is that they all organise their own workshops and activities to bring local felters together. But members of other groups are equally welcome if they are willing to travel.

So it was that I found myself heading for Ipswich a couple of weekends ago to attend a workshop on plant dyeing for felters, organised by Sally Sparrow of region 7. My god daughter lives in Manningtree, not far from Ipswich, and was willing to put me up for the weekend as well as drive me back and forth.

The workshop was run by Susan Dye (how’s that for nominative determinism?) of Nature’s Rainbow,  ably assisted by her partner Ashley Walker and weaver and knitter Brian Bond. As inspiration, they brought along samples of yarns, fabrics and fleece, plus knitted and woven pieces in a whole spectrum of strong, bright colours.

natures rainbow fleece and weaves natures rainbow dyed yarnnatures rainbow dyed fabric

Susan and Ashley grow their own dye plants on their allotment in Hitchin, specialising in grand teint – the medieval dyer’s guild term for the most light-fast and wash-fast colours. These include dyer’s weld (yellow), woad (blue) and madder (red).

As well as these, they also brought along other plants they had grown – dyer’s chamomile (yellow) and dyer’s coreopsis (yellowy orange) – for us to play with.

Although I have dabbled with natural dyes, it’s been mostly on silk, so I wanted to get some tips on the tricky problem of dyeing wool without felting. However, I learnt so much more that can be applied to all natural dyeing , whatever the fabric or fibre.

Mordants

Susan provided a very comprehensive handout on mordanting, including lots of safety information. There was lots of useful detail here – for example:

  • Dyer’s cream of tartar, often used with alum to help it dissolve, is different from baking cream of tartar, which has additives like anti-caking agents. If you can’t get dyer’s cream of tartar, it’s better not to use any at all.
  • Soak silk for at least 24 hours before mordanting – it is very resistant to wetting out.
  • After mordanting in alum, do not rinse the items immediately but store them damp for about a week. This is called ripening and really helps the mordanting. Then rinse thoroughly in cold water before use.

Hay boxes

A hay box is a non-electric version of a slow cooker, where you bring the food to the boil initially on a stove and then put it in a box insulated with hay, which preserves the heat and allows it to carry on cooking. It was a cooking method encouraged during the Second World War to save on rationed cooking fuel.

For dyeing, when you have to bring a pot of dye up to a certain temperature and then keep it there for an hour or so, a hay box can help save energy as well as on heating appliances.

 woad bath in hay box
Ashley’s woad bath in an improvised hay box

There are various sites that explain how to build one, but Susan and Ashley have improvised with cardboard boxes and old cool bags, lining them with old blankets, duvets, fleece jackets and the like. It’s particularly important to insulate the top of the dye pot, as this is where most of the heat escapes.

Yellows

We started with the yellows, setting up baths of dyer’s weld, dyer’s chamomile and dyer’s coreopsis. Chamomile and coreopsis give different shades of yellow, but they are less light fast than weld, so anything dyed with them should be kept out of the sun.

We poured boiling water onto the plants and then put the pots in hay boxes for an hour. Because only the chamomile and coreopsis flower heads are used for the clearest, brightest colours when dyeing, they also release their colour more quickly than weld, where the whole plant is chopped up. Then we strained out the plant material (using old tights!), and let the bath cool.

straining dyer's chamomile

The alum-mordanted wool (mostly organic merino from the Falklands) had already been separated into 50g hanks and wetted out well, so we put 50g in each dye pot and reheated to 70°C.

adding wool to weld

To get clearer, brighter colours from weld it needs to be kept below 70°C – at higher temperatures you get more of a straw colour. Then it was back in the hay box, gently flipping the wool once to minimise felting, until we were happy with the colour.

yellow dyebath

This was the basic method used throughout, with wool and silk repeatedly added to the dye baths until they were exhausted. Susan had brought along record cards to note the type of fibre, temperatures, times, and mordants, and was very insistent that the card stayed with each sample so that we knew exactly how each one had been treated.

coreopsis dyed wool

After cooling and rinsing, the wool was hung up to dry – we soon had a fine range of yellows!

Indigo and woad

In the afternoon the blues were introduced, with Ashley making up three baths: one from natural indigo stock solution, one from woad stock solution and one from woad powder. At home Ashley creates an indigo bath from leaves grown in his dye garden. The plants are harvested before they flower and the leaves are stripped off.

In the case of Japanese indigo, the leaves are put in cold water and slowly heated to 90C. Then they are left for an hour to cool to around 60C – the liquid is a greyish tan colour. After removing the leaves, alkali is added and the liquid is oxygenated by whisking or decanting it between containers. Once it has turned green it can be stored indefinitely in this form. (For woad, boiling water is poured onto the leaves instead of putting them in cold water and heating.)

To make the dye bath we added the reducing agent and checked the pH (for wool pH 8-9 is best).

The woad bath was rather weak – it turned out that the stock solution had been over reduced because the woad powder contained much less indigo than estimated.

woad dye bath woad dyed wool

However, overdyeing some of the yellow wool with the weak woad gave a fantastic lime green colour that was almost fluorescent!

Ashley explained that to get good greens the indigo or woad bath mustn’t be too strong, or the blue will overwhelm the yellow.

Coming soon in part 2 – We complete the rainbow with madder.

Making cards

At the beginning of January I launched a range of new scrap bags to try to clear out some of my stash of indigo shibori and ecoprinted fabrics. I’m pleased to report that they have been very popular – I’ve already had to restock the indigo bags.

However, some scraps were too small to include in the bags (I wanted the minimum size to be 15 x 15cm (6 x 6 inches)). So I thought I would use them to make some cards. I ordered some card blanks with windows and stuck in some of the smaller pieces of fabric.

fabric cards

The card below was made from a cotton/silk upcycled top that I dyed with indigo but didn’t like the result. Most of the garment I tore up to put in the scrap bags but I thought this stitched detail from the neck area worked well in a card.

fabric card stitched detail

However, there was a problem with the iron on some of the ecoprinted fabrics leaching out through the wet glue. You can see this in the top left-hand corner of this card:

ecoprint card

And also below the bottom left-hand corner of the panel on this card:

ecoprint card

The glue I used was slightly diluted PVA, and I pressed the cards between baking parchment while they were drying to avoid them crinkling up.

Does anyone have any thoughts on how to avoid this problem, eg by using a different glue?

Otherwise I might have to stick to just making indigo cards.

indigo card

 

Creative customers

When I first started doing indigo shibori I made quite a lot of fat quarters. However, since I started upcycling scarves and other garments I don’t make so many. I have limited time, and a hand-stitched and hand dyed shibori piece takes quite a lot of time to stitch (and unstitch!). This makes it look expensive compared with all the printed fat quarters out there.

So I was thrilled to receive some photos from Jane, a quilter who had bought some of my fat quarters, showing the end result.

Images: Jane Thompson

Not all the indigo work is mine – she made some of her own fat quarters (very talented!). I think you’ll agree that the overall result is stunning.

It also prompted me to go and dig out some other photos sent by creative customers. A couple of custom orders via Etsy resulted in a shibori blind and a shibori footstool.

Image: Jessica Jackson
Image: Jonathon Taylor

Then at thread 2016 at Farnham Maltings a visitor mused about the possibility of cutting up a linen shibori pillowcase to cover a lampshade she had just bought. I offered instead to make her a custom piece of fabric – this was the result.

Image: Siri Williams

Finally, of course, there was the amazing wedding dress where I provided the ecoprinted fabric and the bride’s mother made the dress.

Photo: The Kitcheners

Isn’t it wonderful seeing what other creative people do with your work!