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Tied & Dyed: The Forever Art of Shibori

In the creation of clothing, before silhouette, cut or form, there is fabric. The very bones of a garment, material becomes both starting point and tone-setter. Above all, fabric is narrative, and few fabrics tell a story with such vibrancy and depth as shibori: a resist-dye technique at the heart of Japan’s traditional craft movement.

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Taken from the root verb Shiboru – the motion of wringing out, pressing or squeezing to remove liquid - shibori is a cloth of action; its final design a record of the physical gestures used to create it. Formed through a meticulous series of steps, each performed by hand, the ‘resist’ is where the fabric’s character is set in stone. To create the multitude of patterns that are possible, sections of cloth must be firmly bound before dyeing, hidden away to preserve their original colour. Shibori requires the material - anything from silk to cotton or hemp - to be twisted, fanned or compressed, hooked, bunched or layered and then, finally – securely shut off through stitches, knots or clamps. As the piece is submerged in dye, commonly fermented indigofera leaves, what happens next is left to chance. While the maker controls the process up to a point, they must work with, and against, the dye, which generally does as it pleases.
The variations of shibori are endless, specific to regions, makers, even families; methods passed through generations to preserve a signature textile. That said, most fit into one of six categories: Arashi involves securing material firmly to a pole. Itajime requires folding and clamping. The free-form Kanoko entails pinching and tying with rubber bands, while Nui achieves a similar result through tight stitches. Kumo sees fabric pleated, twisted and often wrapped around a stone. Finally Miura hooks and loops sections of fabric, thread tied around tiny plucked pieces - one of the easier methods to master. The end results are vastly different. Repeat bursts of compact pattern, irregular geometric shapes, tightly packed lines mimicking rainfall, swirling circles within circles. These outcomes are the meeting of exceptional skill and pure chance, no matter how identical the process, no two attempts will ever yield matching results. That is shibori’s draw.


 

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Utagawa HIROSHIGE (1797-1858) Narumi: Famous Arimatsu Tie-dyed Fabric c. 1833-1835

 

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Its story is said to begin around the 7th or 8th century. A form of resist-dye Kōkechi, the most compelling early examples of the cloth are tied up in a love story of the imperial court. Following the death of her husband Emperor Shōmu in 756 AD, Empress Kōmyō gathered hundreds of his most treasured personal items and, to ensure his happiness in the next world, offered them to the great Buddha at Tōdai-ji, of one Nara prefecture’s most important Buddhist temples. Among manuscripts and musical instruments, the Empress included some incredible examples of dyed Kōkechi cloth. Housed in Shōsō-in, a grand wooden repository elevated off the ground to allow for the circulation of air, the building’s clever natural climate control helped to perfectly preserve its contents for over 1200 years.
The inclusion of these textiles in the Shōsō-in Treasures reveals the prominent position early shibori held in royal society, the presence of resist-dyed fabrics in the daily lives of the imperial household testament to their status and popularity. In the centuries that followed, it would become a mainstay of court dress, intricate layered costumes containing panels of multi-coloured dyed cloth. But shibori would not remain the preserve of the rich and famous. Soon it would find itself crossing class boundaries, the wealthy favouring silks and fine cottons, while everyday folk reworked cheaper hemps. As shibori evolved, stitched-resist methods stepped forward. Using threads to bind fabric allowed new levels of control over the finished design. Patterns and motifs became more intentional, detailed forms shielded from the encroaching dye through tightly pulled stitching patterns.
 

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With resources scarce, repair and reuse became the norm in early Japan. Homespun cloth would be expected to live multiple lives and as a result, imaginative preservation methods were born. Sashiko stitching reinforced thinning surfaces while boro patchwork gathered remnants of cloth to be reworked into a brand new whole. Shibori offered a similar service, tired and faded materials given a fresh appearance. From the towns to the countryside, resist-dye techniques offered a chance to transform austere, utilitarian fabrics into intricate, individualized garments, imbuing them with warmth and character. Patterns reflected the trends of the time along with the personal preferences and styles of maker and wearer. Driven by both necessity and endless creativity, ordinary women and men would push shibori to unexpected places.
Shibori has come to represent the very best in traditional Japanese handcraft, but as Japan took resist-dye and ran with it, around the globe, parallel practices were well underway. Early Chinese tie-dye, Xié, commonly cited as a blueprint for Japan’s iteration, can be traced all the way back to the Southern and Northern dynasties of 420 AD. In India, traces of Bandhani dyeing have been attributed to the Indus Valley Civilisation around 4000 B.C.; today, complex and beautiful examples continue to be produced by hand in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, fine silk cloths in high demand for the creation of ornate wedding garments. Indigo dyed textiles have been a mainstay of West African craft for centuries. The Kofar Matar dye pits of Kano, Nigeria, date back to the 1400s, Adire resist-dyed fabrics famed for their incredibly intricate designs, a technique honed in Yoruba communities. Still very much in production, Mali’s deep blue hand-woven cloths use resist-dyes to create storytelling patterns and remain some of the best examples of modern dye know-how. Evidently, the act of applying dye to bound cloth has always been universal, instinctive to cultures everywhere.

 

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Utagawa KUNISADA (1786-1864) Narumi: Woman Doing Arimatsu Shibori Tie-dying c.1845-1846

 

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Utagawa HIROSHIGE (1797-1858) Narumi: Famous Arimatsu Tie-dyed Fabric c. 1833-1835

 

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Located in Aichi prefecture, central Japan, the first weekend in June sees hundreds of yukata-clad visitors descend on the narrow, ancient streets of Arimatsu for the annual Arimatsu Shibori Festival. Founded in the early 17th century, a bustling town on the Tōkaidō road linking Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto, Arimatsu would become the home of Japanese resist-dye thanks to the humble Tenugui hand towel. Sold to travelling merchants and traders, these ubiquitous cloths were transformed through a stitched Kumo shibori that resulted in a pleasingly uniform web pattern. Arimatsu would go on to popularize multiple shibori techniques, absorbing the styles of neighbouring towns whilst developing fresh practices that would ignite new interest in the craft. The Arimatsu Shibori Festival and a dedicated shibori museum have helped preserve and elevate the town’s unique contribution - proof of Japan’s continuing reverence for regional, slow-made craft. The moment of controlled chaos as carefully bound cloth meets unpredictable dye continues to fascinate. Shibori remains a constant.

 

Text: Lena Dystant

Images: © Shibori details in AMBUSH® Spring/Summer 21 collection

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