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International Quilt Study Center & Museum: Japanese Indigo Dyeing

The International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) in Lincoln, Nebraska, is partnering with American Patchwork & Quilting to share information on quilting traditions from around the world.


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Global Perspective: Japanese Indigo Dyeing

Written by Maria V. Schwamman

Japan has a long history of indigo dyeing (known as aizome), and the deep blue hues are almost as representative of the country’s textile traditions as sashiko stitching and kimonos.

Indigo dyeing began to grow in popularity in Japan during the 16th century when silk was forbidden to the lower classes and cotton textiles were introduced in the country. In addition to being readily available (the indigo plant is native), the resulting dye reacted well with cotton, a difficult-to-dye textile. The indigo dye was also colorfast and resisted fading, adding to its appeal.

To make the dye, dyers harvested and fermented the indigo plant. Fabric or yarn then was dipped into a vat of the dye. Depending on the desired shade, dipping was repeated multiple times or the fibers were allowed to soak.

"Indigo dyeing is very technical because you don’t see the results of your work right away," says Carolyn Ducey, curator of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. "It’s not until after you take the piece out of the vat and the dye oxidizes that the color begins to appear."

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2009.017.0007.