Use of sukumo, a natural dye made by fermenting indigo leaves, began around the 16th century
Weavers keep Japan's indigo dying production alive
A number of small companies in Tokushima City, the capital of the Japanese prefecture of the same name, are keeping traditional weaving and natural dyeing techniques alive, despite competition from modern industry and synthetic dyes.
“Aizome” is a dyeing method using “sukumo”, a natural dye made by fermenting indigo leaves. It started being used around the 16th century. Sukumo produced in Tokushima Prefecture, distinctively called “Awa-Ai”, became known for its high quality and brought prosperity to the prefecture, the largest centre for such production in 17th-century Japan.
Although indigo dye production declined once synthetic indigo became popular at the end of the 19th century,
Tokushima Prefecture still produces about 60 per cent of sukumo in Japan and co-ordinates the entire process, from farming indigo plants to making dyes, dyeing fabrics, and making the products.
Weaving and dyeing is primarily based in the capital.
Tokushima City economic policy division subsection chief Ikuko Ichimaya tells The National that according to 2009 figures, five companies (one has since ceased operations) employed 53 people, with some more employed by a number of tiny companies. Sales amounted to ¥270 million, but figures have come down in recent years.
Synthetic dyeing, being easier and cheaper, has increased, Ms Ichimaya says. “Today, a lot of fabrics are imported from China and other Asian countries,” she says.
Since Tokushima City’s aizome industry cannot compete on price, the only option is to emphasise its handmade and traditional qualities, Noriko Ariuchi, Faculty of Life Sciences professor at Shikoku University in Tokushima University, tells The National.
One of the city’s four dyeing techniques is “shijiraori”, invented by a local woman called Hana Kaifu in 1865. It uses material woven with yarns dyed with only the natural indigo of Tokushima. Because of the uneven texture of the shijiraori’s puckers, the fabric is breathable and does not cling to the skin, which makes it perfect for summer clothing.
Founded in 1897, Nagao Orifu started out as a shijiraori textile maker. The company, which employs 20 people, now also not only makes traditional Japanese clothing, but men’s shirts and interior products like tapestry.
The company imports its cotton and uses a combination of synthetic and natural dyes for its lower-end products, reserving natural-only dyeing for its higher-end fabrics, fifth-generation owner Itaro Nagao says.
Nagao Orifu’s higher-end products sell for between ¥100,000 (Dh3,372) and ¥200,000.
The company exports small quantities to Hong Kong and the US, and is waiting for the result of a sample order it filled out to France.
“If we can build the demand, we would be glad to expand our export business,” Mr Nagao says.
Denim makers in Tokushima City dye yarns with natural indigo and weave them with traditional shuttle-weaving machines to make selvedge denim fabric.
A selvedge is a self-finished edge of fabric which keeps the fabric from unravelling or fraying. Textile maker Rampuya started making selvedge denim 40 years ago, even before the fabric became popular.
“Big demand started 10 years ago, but it came down in the past few years,” company president Masakazu Okamoto says.
Many textile companies are switching to new looms, but that would require a huge investment from his 15-employee company, Mr Okamoto says. “So we’re sticking to selvedge,” he says.
Textile production here seems destined to continue being a small-scale craft activity, as indigo dyeing tends to be an individual enterprise, and there are only a few fabric suppliers.
Nor can producers put much hope in increasing business through exports. Inquiries from overseas, from both individuals and companies, are increasing slightly, but it seems that it will not lead to actual business, Ms Ariuchi says.
“It is quite difficult to increase demand,” she says. Polly Leonard, editor-publisher of the London-based textile monthly magazine Selvedge, would beg to differ.
Ms Leonard investigated Tokushima Prefecture’s textile and dyeing industry last October and expressed awe at everything she saw.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, when a five-storey garment factory outside Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring about 2,500 others, there has been a seismic shift in perception in Europe about inexpensive imported textiles, primarily from China, Ms Leonard tells The National.
“Customers are demanding provenance,” she says.
Enlightened consumers want to know where their textiles come from and how they have been made. “This bodes well for the producers we met [in Tokushima City] on the whole,” Ms Leonard says.
Indigo is steeped in Japanese cultural traditions, which is both a blessing and a curse for the dyeing technique.
The very thing that makes Japanese blue so prized is also responsible for its downfall in recent years. The products, such as kimono, fans and jinbei (traditional summer clothing) are no longer relevant in the wider community, Ms Leonard says.
“If indigo can find a new purpose away from these cliched products, it has a future,” she says.
Denim stands as the primary example, where the old narrow looms have found a new purpose: weaving selvedge denim, Ms Leonard says.
“Narrow fabric is not economically viable for anything other than jeans and here this major drawback of these narrow looms has become an asset, a selling point, with Japanese selvedge denim a cult item in the West,” she says.