I travel an hour west of Tokyo, to a small mountain village, in hopes to learn as much as I can about the indigo dyeing process in one day.
I’m meeting Bryan Whitehead and visiting his studio and home. He is a native born Canadian, who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years. Every year he grows his own crop of indigo, drying and fermenting the leaves, in order to create the dye required to make the most beautiful hues of blue.
When I hear about his story, I immediately think of Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway “The Last American Man”. At seventeen Eustace moves to the Appalachian Mountains and lives off the land for the rest of his life. It’s a fascinating book and I’m excited to meet Bryan who not only grows his indigo crops, but raises silk worms in order to produce his own silk. He’s involved in every part of the process. He’s making his own thread and dipping it in indigo and various other plant dyes to create beautifully rich colors. He also has his own looms and knitting machines in the house and upon arriving, I meet two of his apprentices who are staying for a couple of months to learn the various techniques.
Bryan is pictured here showing us how to adhere mesh onto a stencil which will make it stronger and more durable. His beloved dog Snoopy recently passed away and he has adopted two dogs (one pictured on the right) who were abandoned during the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Bryan introduces me to the indigo dye by showing me different ways to fold fabric and bind it. This process is called Shibori. I fold the fabric into triangles, as he instructs, and dip it into the dye ten times. The indigo is a greenish hue and turns blue as it oxidizes. The fabric is rinsed and I’ve created my first Shibori patterns!
I’ve made a drawing that I would like to print onto fabric with indigo. I think it will be easy to make the stencil, but I’m mistaken! My one day excursion is quickly extended into two days of intense work.
I begin by transferring my drawing onto persimmon paper and cutting a stencil. Bryan explains that one of the most difficult things to do with indigo is to create a white background with blue floating in the field. It requires a lot of “bridges” that are built into the architecture of the stencil in order to float the blue shapes. My image has quite a few blue on white details, so I must cut two stencils in order to hide the bridges later.
The stencils are used to print the image on fabric with soy paste. After the paste is dry, it’s dipped in the indigo and the paste resists the dye. When the fabric is rinsed with water, the paste comes off easily. My image is a bit clumsy, but I’m happy with the imperfections and the end result. It’s my first attempt after all!
I’ve also created a third stencil depicting red berries to accent the white and blue, but there isn’t enough time to make a red dye and I’ll have to add them another day.
I have a new found respect for the Japanese craftsmen who created such elaborate stencils for kimonos. Bryan shows me a few examples of stencil work and I’m deeply impressed.