ART of SHIBORI - The Tactile Thrills of Japanese Tie-Dye: Conversation 3
Shibori is frequently referred to as Japanese tie-dye. In truth, the Japanese term has no English equivalent---but its root verb suggests such actions such as squeezing, pressing and wringing. Is that anyway to treat a good piece of cloth, in particular, yards of delicate silk? If you are a textile artisan, the answer is yes, and the results are some of the most fascinating patterns and textures in the kimono world.
Say “tie-dye,” however, and most Americans will immediately think back to the 1960s and 70s, when rockers and the make-love-not-war crowd declared fashion rebellion in vividly color-splashed tee shirts. Indeed, these garments were tied in big knots and dyed and re-dyed in buckets and basins---and the wilder the colors the better. Yet, this decorative process goes much further back in history. Sources tell of Egyptian mummies wrapped in tie-dyed linen. Certainly, the technique was developed thousands of years ago in centers of civilization as far apart as Latin America, Africa, China, India and other parts of Asia. It came to Japan via China at least as early as the Nara Period (8th century) and since has been adapted and developed by Japanese craftsmen.
As autumn leaves blaze in nearby Central Park, Alex and I sit down to discuss three kimono that are essentially summer wear, for Japanese shaped-resist dyeing methods are best applied to lighter weight fabrics. Essentially, cloth to be dyed is manipulated into three-dimensional shapes through meticulous knotting, crimping and sewing. Some techniques involve twisting material around poles, or clamping reserved sections between boards. The resulting crinkly, bumpy surfaces on silk, cotton or hemp lift clothes away from the skin and keep the wearer cool in the hot and humid summer months.
The first kimono we scrutinize is a remarkably well-preserved late Edo-period garment---perhaps dating from the early 19th century. Similar robes are familiar from “ukiyoe” prints of the era. On this example, big geometric stripes slash diagonals on a base of light indigo, the dyeing process resulting in delicate shadings of blue. The textural treat starts with the fabric itself, a deeply creased crepe that looks light and yet has unusual density and heft. There are patterns within patterns on this piece; a broken “asanoha” or hemp leaf design is boldly outlined, while other floral elements and vertical stripes are introduced through various ways of knotting, stitching and capping. Shibori fanatics familiarize themselves with such methods as the tight, square knots of “kanoko”, the looser binding process of “miura,” which results in more blurred edges, and a myriad of “nui” stitching schemes. But whatever the terms, it is the soft edges of the resulting shapes, and the uneven surface of the fabric that gives shibori garments their particular allure.
The second piece is a stunning magenta, on which floats white rectangles of irregular shape and size. The fabric is a light “tsumugi” silk, not unlike Italian dupioni, with its subtle sheen and characteristic slubs. A quieter piece, its simplicity speaks of refinement, yet the bold base color calls attention. The rectangles themselves were accomplished by pulling threads through the undyed fabric to pucker the chosen areas; these areas were then pressed between boards, then the fabric dyed. The reserved areas remained largely white, with rivulets of color randomly distributed where the dye has seeped in.
In many ways, it can be said that shibori is “a lot of wonderful miscalculations,” as Alex puts it. No matter how textile artists planned the pattern, “They never quite know what they’ve done until they’ve done it,” that is, until the wrapped and knotted textile has been unbound after its visit(s) to the dyeing vats. This fits right in with what Alex perceives as the Japanese view of nature as divinely random. No two leaves are exactly the same; if nature is that way, why improve on that? He continues, “The Japanese taught me to appreciate irregularity.” That sense also helped him accept the way the back seams of kimono are deliberately unmatched (unless the design is pictorial). The blue kimono we were just scrutinizing gives a graphic demonstration of this tradition---the diagonal stripes are mismatched in the middle. “A Japanese person once told me, ‘If it were matched, you wouldn’t look twice at it.’ ”
The third kimono, from the Taisho period, features blind shibori, whereby the fabric is crimped but not dyed---the texture itself providing a desired effect. On a light damask textile, dyed a deep purple, giant flowers reign. The pattern is so big that you never see the whole, just part of the flower. The damask design is similarly huge, another sign that this kimono was made between 1912 and 1926 during what is sometimes called Japan’s Jazz Age. This exuberant piece satisfies Alex’s penchant for a profusion of sizes and shapes of knots; as well, the decorative patterns come in a kaleidoscope of colors, prefiguring tie-dyeing’s more recent incarnations. (Not for Alex the uniform sea of dots all over a kimono that draw sighs from other aficionados.)
This is perhaps where female and male collectors diverge in their preferences. Women generally have the advantage of being able to wear some of their shibori acquisitions, and thereby truly get a feel for these garments. It is one thing to merely touch puckered silk with one’s fingers, another to luxuriate in the experience of wearing a full shibori piece. The distinctly Japanese refinements in technique and design have resulted in the worldwide recognition of these shaped-resist textile processes. In recent seasons, shibori has been featured in pieces by such designers as the American Eileen Fisher (who has been featured in Oprah’s O Magazine), Thai-born Thakoon Panichgul (whose creations have been worn by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama) and the English-Persian Eskandar Nabavi, a favorite of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus clients. These designers work principally in natural fibers---silk, linen and cotton.
Shibori on cotton is a vibrant tradition that continues to delight those who know about textile from the towns of Arimatsu and Narumi. Working mostly with indigo dyes, their craftsmen continue to produce hand-made blue and white creations for summer kimono. These are treasured not just for their looks, but also for their easy maintenance. Unlike the more delicate silk numbers, cotton shibori can be machine washed and dried (yes—I’ve done this) with no ill effects. Since they are crinkled to begin with, no ironing is ever needed.
As we conclude our conversation and I put on my coat and scarf, Alex can't help but comment that the neckpiece has rested on his sofa all the while like a spiky caterpillar. Indeed, it is an edgy, deeply textured “bai” (shell) shibori piece from the Kyoto artisans of Katayama Bunzaburo Shoten, who produce some of the most exciting contemporary items using this ancient technique. Visit their website and know that shibori is alive and still tickling textile obsessives.