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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Subtle at Japan House

I’ve been meaning to visit Japan House since it opened earlier this year but have only just got round to it, just in time to catch the Takeo paper show Subtle. And it was definitely worth it.

The installation on the ground floor by the exhibition curator Hara Kenya sets the tone. Shishiodoshi (so wonderfully omnomatopoeic!) was inspired by the traditional Japanese bird scarer, where water transfers from one bamboo tube to another, causing the empty tube to hit a rock, making a noise. Here, a glass tube hits a metal plate, releasing water that breaks into droplets as it hits a series of paper protrusions – rather like a pachinko game.

Downstairs, several creations by Japanese artists embody the painstaking national and individual commitment to craftsmanship.

Misawa Haruka’s paper flowers look like pencil shavings – and indeed are made in the same way. Printing paper with a colour gradation, gluing it and wrapping it to form a pencil-like form, and then sharpening it like a pencil, produces these exquisite flowers made of multi-layered paper.

Paper flower by Misawa Haruka Paper flower by Misawa Haruka

“Spring” by Ishigami Junya is an extraordinary piece made by cutting out the shapes of leaf shoots on 10,000 strips of paper and then gluing them together to create what looks like a sheet of tiny paper cress.

Spring by Ishigami Junya

“Control” by Nakamura Ryuji explores what happens if the looseness and flexibility of paper is tightly controlled – does it appear to be another material? Gluing together a series of paper rings at certain points produces something that feels more like delicate chain mail rather than a floppy newspaper.

Control by Nakamura Ryuji

The materiality of paper is also explored in several small collections. Creating a fold in a piece of paper is irreversible, changing the paper forever, but it also creates an interior, “wrapping the object and offering it as a gift”.

Translucent paper allows you to see through to the other side, engendering a feeling of doubt, encircling objects like a layer of fog.

There are also some fantastic commercial paper lace doilies (as we used to call them), and some laser-cut designs by Hara Kenya inspired by microscopic plankton.

There are also some wonderful paper samples in the shop, as well as lots of other gorgeous items, so leave time for that!

Subtle runs at Japan House, London, until 24 December 2018.