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.

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.

Utilitarian Quilts: Boros

This 19th-century utilitarian quilt, or boro, meaning "tattered rags," features indigo-dyed woven fabrics saved from worn clothing and household textiles and repurposed.

According to Ducey, boros were once regarded with shame in the Japanese culture because they represented economic hardship. But she believes interest in boros has grown in recent years due to their resemblance to modern-day art quilts.

"That's what I find so fascinating about these boros-the textiles were used and reused," Ducey says. "We take textiles for granted, but they have always been of great value many cultures."

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

Indigo-Dyed Art Quilt

The mid-1980s art quilt by Japanese designer Shizuko Kuroha is another example of indigo dyeing. The quilt, named The Poem of Indigo, was constructed from 168 different fabrics, including remnants of vintage indigo-dyed yukatas (causal summer kimonos). Kuroha added strips Log Cabin-style around octagons to showcase designs from the fabrics.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1997.007.1092.

Japanese Dyeing Methods

While some of the blocks are made from yarn-dyed woven fabrics, many were created in the kasuri method (similar to ikat) in which dyed yarns are woven into geometric and pictorial designs. This particular quilt features popular motifs from Japanese culture, including turtles, bats, bamboo, and cranes. This turtle represents long life and good luck.

Other Japanese dye methods include shibori, a technique involving twisting, binding, compressing, or folding cloth before dyeing (similar to modern-day tie-dye), and katazome, a resist-dye technique in which a resist paste made from rice flower and rice bran is applied to the fabric over a paper stencil before the fabric is dyed. After the dye dries, the paste is washed away to reveal a design.

The spread of synthetic dyeing methods in the 20th century greatly diminished the practice of natural dyeing in Japan. Today, a few dye houses, such as Kosoen, strive to preserve this aspect of Japanese culture.

To learn more about the IQSCM's extensive collection of more than 2,300 quilts and the history behind them, visit quiltstudy.org.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1997.007.1092.

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