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.

Cochineal dyeing with Michel Garcia

The official title of this workshop with Michel Garcia at the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca was “Cochineal dyeing in four ways”. It was rather an understatment, as we ended up with 19 different colour swatches from cochineal!

Michel Garcia cochineal demo

Mexico was an appropriate place to do this workshop, given that cochineal is the most popular dye used there. Mexico once had a monopoly on it – it was the second most valuable export after silver – but after the Mexican War of Independence in the early 19th century cochineal was also produced in Guatemala, north Africa and the Canary Islands.

You can visit cochineal farms around Oaxaca. The cochineal beetle, Dactylopius coccus, lives on Opuntia cactus species. The red colour comes from the carminic acid that makes up around 20% of its body. To make the dye, the dried beetles are ground up in a pestle and mortar and then added to the dye bath.

Michel used three different fabrics – wool, silk and cotton – along with different combinations of mordants and astringents to produce 19 different shades from cochineal, ranging from pink and orange to purple and dark brown. It was an extraordinary demonstration of the variations in colour you can get from one dye.

Cochineal on wool

The fabric Michel used for this was actually a mixture of wool warp and cotton weft, so it was interesting to see the difference between the way the protein and cellulose fibres reacted.

cochineal samples on wool

For two of the swatches in this photo he used a one-bath process – one containing persimmon, citric acid and cochineal, the other containing gallnut, citric acid and cochineal. You can see very clearly how the tufts of wool at the edges have taken up the colour much more strongly than the cotton weft.

The other three swatches were premordanted (with alum or symplocos) before dyeing in a separate cochineal bath.

Cochineal on silk

Michel also compared the one-bath and two-bath processes on silk.

cochineal swatches on silk

In the photo above, two swatches were dyed in one bath, the first one containing unripe persimmon, citric acid and cochineal, the second one cutch, citric acid and cochineal.

The other two swatches were premordanted (one in saturated alum and the other with aluminium tartrate) before dyeing with cochineal.

Cochineal on cotton

For the cotton demonstration Michel used strips of cotton that he had prepared with different combinations of aluminium acetate and ferrous acetate mordants – it’s a great idea if you do lots of testing with natural dyes.

The strip below was dyed with cochineal and pomegranate rind.

cochineal swatches on cotton

The strip below was dyed with cochineal and gallnut extract.

cochineal swatches on cotton

Finally, Michel demonstrated his artistic side, using different combinations of mordants to paint an image onto cloth that didn’t appear until it was submerged in the dye pot. 🙂

Michel garcia cochineal dyeing

All in all, a very intense but stimulating workshop.

Ground control with Irit Dulman

Edited to add: This post has been edited to remove all references to techniques, images of work that isn’t mine, and images of other workshop participants. Huge apologies to anyone I have upset or offended – it was not my intention. 😦

Last week I headed back to the wonderful Atelier Fiberfusing run by Dorie van Dijk, just outside Amsterdam. I love the space and relaxed atmosphere (as well as the food) that Dorie has created here.

Previous workshops I’ve attended here have been with felters Andrea Graham and Lisa Klakulak. This time I was there for a workshop with Irit Dulman, one of the leading experts in ecoprinting with natural dyes.

Here are some of the results I achieved over the four days.

first bundles result
Bundles unwrapped
Peony leaves gave good colour without further treatment
Peony leaves on silk
Geranium and rhus leaves reacted well with iron
Geranium and rhus leaves on cotton
Geranium and eucalyptus leaves on silk
Geranium and eucalyptus leaves on silk
Cow parsley on silk
Cow parsley on silk
Eucalyptus buds
Eucalyptus buds on silk
Cowparsley print overdyed with weld
Cowparsley print on silk
After overdyeing with madder
Silk top printed with sumac leaves
negative 1
Gingko leaves and grasses on silk

We covered an awful lot in four days – all in all, a fantastic workshop that has motivated me to continue experimenting and make more of natural dyes in combination with ecoprinting!

Coffee and onion skins

I love indigo (in case you hadn’t noticed!) ;-). But recently I’ve been reading a lot about other natural dyes, including eco printing. So I thought I’d have a go.

My first attempt at eco printing was not a roaring success, based as it was on pulling together various techniques I’d gleaned from scouring the internet. (Since then, a more detailed tutorial has been published by Terriea Kwong at The Felting and Fibre Studio.)

I soaked a silk scarf in vinegar, put some rose and geranium leaves on top, rolled it up and tied it, steamed it for an hour, then left it in a glass jar in the sun for three days. The result was some very faint leaf prints, though a few were a bit stronger.

ecoprint1 ecoprint2

dyebookThen I came across Dyes from Kitchen Produce by Setsuko Ishii in a discount bookshop, illustrated with line drawings in that beautifully simple Japanese style.

So I went back to trying shibori techniques with a couple of different dyes.


First coffee:

coffee scarf1 coffee scarf2

Then onion skins:

onion scarf1 onion scarf2

I think there are some promising colours here. ESP fears I will be raiding the freezer for his stores of soft fruit next!

Double ikat weaving

While in Gujarat we visited Patan, famous for its patola, or double ikat, where the design is dyed into the threads before weaving.The process of making this cloth is incredibly labour intensive and time consuming – it takes three to four months just to dye the warp and weft threads for a single sari!

patola final

The Salvi family showed us round their showroom and workshop and explained the process. They get their silk thread from China, wind it into hanks and degum it to remove the sericin. Then they twist the threads and set up the warp and weft threads.

Now comes the hard part. Using a similar technique to bandhani, they tie portions of the silk threads with cotton thread before dyeing. The cotton acts as a resist and prevents the dye from reaching the silk threads. They repeat this for four or five colours, untying and retying the resist threads each time. And they do this on both the warp and weft threads (hence the “double” ikat).

The pictures below show some of the tied threads that have been dyed once, below a diagram of the final pattern, and the final dyed warp threads set up on the loom.

patola pattern threadspatola dyed warp

As you can see, the dyeing process requires a very detailed knowledge of the pattern and extremely precise calculation of the thickness and tension of the threads, not to mention how the colours of warp and weft will combine. No wonder it takes so long!

The actual weaving is relatively straightforward by comparison. It’s done by two people on a hand-operated loom, with careful matching of the warp and weft threads to ensure that the pattern is maintained. The weavers comb four needles over the fabric afterwards to help align the pattern and ensure an even tension.

patola on loom

The Salvis use mostly natural vegetable dyes, such as madder, persimmon, indigo, onion skins and turmeric. They have a waiting list of three years for a natural-dyed sari, costing between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the design. They make four or five a year.

They say that originally there were around 700 families in the area producing double ikat – now it’s only two or three.

The Patan Museum had a small section on patola, and said that there were originally different styles for four different markets:

  • Jain and Hindu: all-over patterns of flowers, parrots, dancing figures and elephants
  • Muslim Voras: geometric floral patterns for weddings
  • Maharashtrian Brahmins: plain, dark-coloured body with borders of women and birds, called nari kunj
  • export markets: mainly Bali.

Chelsea degree show 2012

Lots of digital prints seemingly influenced by Peter Pilotto and Mary Katrantzou this year, though maybe that isn’t surprising, given how fashionable they are. I liked  Weiyi Liu’s prints, influenced by African textures and colours, shown with matching ceramic pieces.

Prints by Weiyi Liu

Sofia Drescher‘s shirts, scarves and jacket linings reminded me of looking at tissue samples under a microscope – there was something very cellular about them.

Shirt by Sofia Drescher

The highlight for me was one of the weavers. Katriona McKinnia’s pieces combined super-chunky wools and fine yarns in wonderfully textured and patterned pieces. Even better, her beautifully presented sketchbook contained samples and explained the thinking behind her work.

Weaving (close up) by Katriona McKinnia

Kirsty Jean Leadbetter’s upholstered chair was another fine example of weaving, in shades of earthy green and yellow.

Upholstery by Kirsty Jean Leadbetter (image courtesy of Kirsty Jean Leadbetter)

Kamonchanok Pookayaporn’s laser-cut garments reminded me of the work we did with paper cuts, and her use of puff binder to create  a textured dress was interesting.

Laser-cut dress by Kamonchanok Pookayaporn (image by Oing)

Kate Lawson‘s geometric dresses, inspired by reflections and patterns from London buildings, were also fascinating.

Dress by Kate Lawson

Cara Piazza showed a selection of pieces all dyed with organic matter sourced and foraged in London, including squid ink, onion skins, red wine, strawberries and blackberries.

Cara Piazza Graduate Collection from Cara Marie on Vimeo.

Finally, a couple of garments by Chloe Phelps appealed to me because she used itajime shibori techniques to dye knitted trousers and felt skirts.

Shibori knitted trousers by Chloe Phelps

The Chelsea College of Art and Design BA Show runs until Saturday 23 June.