A Dyeing Art: Kyoto-style Shibori

My love of kimono is really a love of the amazing fabrics used to create the garments. Traditionally silk (though inexpensive polyester versions are also available these days), the patterns on the cloth are sometimes woven in, sometimes stamped or hand painted on, sometimes embroidered, and sometimes dyed.  Some very complex designs are a combination of all of these. To top it off, the color and pattern combinations–always successful–are often unimaginable in Western garments. The colors and patterns worn are also usually matched to the season. For example, this time of year, autumn colors and depictions of chrysanthemums, maple leaves or animals associated with autumn will be most common. Cherry blossoms or hydrangeas would be unheard of.

Many years ago, a good friend called me to tell me she would be dropping by my house shortly to show me the furisode kimono her parents had bought her for her “coming of age” ceremony. It is common for young women to have a special kimono with long sleeves called furisode made to mark reaching the age of 20–adulthood in Japan.  Traditionally, a young woman will wear this kimono for special occasions between her 20th birthday and the day of her own wedding (married women do not wear furisode kimono).

My friend’s parents went all out for her furisode kimono (she was an only child), choosing fabric that had been dyed in the traditional shibori method.  It was exquisite–predominately black and white with some red accents and a green, red and gold obi.  More than the color, though, was the shibori-dyed fabric.  It had both color and texture, with designs created, it seemed, with little dots that were a result of the dyeing process.  It looked a bit like this.

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Even though I then knew nothing about the process that produced it, I could see that the fabric would have been extremely expensive. Once I learned how shibori is done, I understood even better the value of my friend’s gown.

Shibori is a dyeing method that has been used in Japan since the 8th century. Although some refinements have been introduced, it remains extremely labor intensive. It is a form of “resist dyeing”, meaning that sections of the fabric that are not to be dyed must be somehow covered before the cloth is dyed, so that they don’t take on any color. In the case of shibori, linen thread is most often used for the fine work of binding small areas not to be dyed, and a special kind of barrel is used for large splashes of un-color, carefully sealing the fabric to remain un-dyed into the barrel and dropping the entire contraption into the vat of dye.

The process begins with the creation of the design, which is transferred to a heavy paper stencil, using a special implement to create dots along the desired lines.  This stencil is then placed over the cloth and painted over (presumably with a kind of ink that washes out) to transfer the design from the stencil to the cloth.

Next an artisan proceeds to bind the cloth into tiny (or in some cases large) points with linen thread, usually making nine loops for each binding. As the linen thread is dye resistant, it will keep the cloth inside the binding from being dyed when the cloth is immersed in dye. In the most traditional form of shibori, called kanoko (fawn dots), because the resultant pattern looks like the dots on a fawn’s back, the dots and the bindings are quite tiny and even a quick worker can only produce about 300 a day.  This means that covering a bolt of cloth with bindings can take weeks. For reference, I’ll just mention that a bolt of cloth to make a kimono is usually 36 cm. wide and about 17 meters long.

There are several different ways to make the bindings, depending on the size desired, but as a general matter, they all involve winding linen thread around the relevant area.  When the area to remain un-dyed is larger, various kinds of plugs and shields might be used as part of the binding to achieve the desired result.

One relatively modern innovation involves hooking the end of the area to be bound onto a special tool to hold it in place while the thread is wound.  While this makes the process a little easier and quicker, an experienced eye can readily discern fabric that has been so “machine” bound, from that which has been completely done by hand.

After the dyeing process has been completed (sometimes this involves immersion in multiple dye baths), the threads are torn away (again, a hand process) and then the fabric is steamed to soften the puckering that is a result of the binding and restore the fabric to something close to its original dimensions. Ordinarily a little bit of the puckering remains and is part of the attraction of the end product. Only then is the fabric ready to be worked into a garment. You can see the puckering well in this Barbie doll-sized kimono that was made from a piece of remnant.


While the process is fundamentally tie-dyeing, it is much more detailed and intricate.

Although the labor intensity of shibori means that less and less is being produced and fewer people are learning the art (so that it is literally dying out), there are still a number of places in Japan that are known for their shibori production. Kyoto is one of them. Kyoto is, of course, the cradle of much of Japan’s finest handcrafted art.

At the Kyoto Shibori Museum (Kyoto Shibori Kogeikan), one can get up close and personal with shibori dyeing, viewing a detailed video (here’s a simpler “sample” video) and getting a personalized explanation in English from a friendly and knowledgeable docent who even allows one to handle a cloth containing bindings.

The museum also has displays of art work created using shibori dyeing that are apparently changed regularly.

Although I reached the museum too late in the afternoon to participate, they also offer workshops at which visitors can try their hand at one of several different dyeing techniques to make a scarf or a Japanese furoshiki (wrapping cloth). Ranging in price from JPY3,240 to JPY5,400, the workshops take about an hour and, of course, your finished work is yours to take home–a great souvenir of your visit.

Another hands-on experience available in the museum “shop” is the chance to try on a kimono made with shibori-dyed fabric. The experienced assistant (aided by a kind of “pre-fabbed” obi that eliminated the need for complicated tying) had my friend dressed in no time!

The Kyoto Shibori Museum is located on Aburanokoji-dori, just a 5 minute walk from Nijo Castle and the Nijojo-mae subway station, or a 10 minute walk from Karasuma-Oike station (exit 4-1). Hours:  9 am to 5 pm. Admission:  JPY500. To participate in a dyeing workshop (note: the admission fee is included in the workshop price), a reservation is recommended (phone: 075-221-4252).

© 2017 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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