Masters of Indigo | Meet Awagami

Wa (和) meaning Japanese and shi (紙) meaning paper

Image of Masters of Indigo | Meet Awagami
Sunday, February 14 2021

Next on our travels, an opportunity to track down the crème de la crème of washi paper: the connoisseurs’ choice. Down the valley from BUAISOU, the Awagami paper mill has too found its home near the Yoshino riverbank.

Awagami’s third generation papermaker Minoru Fujimori took the world by storm when he first unveiled his creation ‘aizome washi’, or indigo-dyed paper, at the Paris World Fair in 1878.

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This distinguished paper gentleman welcomes you at the door to the mill. See- he’s laughing at one of my jokes! He gets me!

Awagami’s home of Tokushima is the birthplace of Japanese indigo, where farmers have been cultivating it for centuries. The humble beauty of natural indigo or ‘aizome’ was revived during the Mingei folk-crafts movement. Alongside its world-famous washi paper, the mill- now in its eighth generation- proudly carries on its forefathers’ traditions. It’s a marriage of two distinct crafts.

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The mill is perfectly located for paper production and indigo dyeing, set within a valley of rolling mountains next to the river. The plain becomes too flooded for rice farming but makes the ideal conditions for growing indigo. At its peak in the Edo and Meiji periods, workers from all over Japan wore uniforms dyed with Tokushima’s unique ‘awa’ indigo, coined ‘Japan Blue’, and the region was home to thousands of indigo farmers.

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Pictures credit Awagami.

Those of you who read our posts (all two of you- Hi Mum! Hi Dad!) will already know how Japanese washi paper is created, and its inimitable qualities. It’s a labour of love, and often handmade. This family-run papermill remains one of only a handful which still exist in Tokushima, down from hundreds in Japan’s papermaking heyday. That’s the result of competition from mass-produced, cheaper paper. Which has its place, but when you want something special, you go washi.

To make consistently beautiful washi day after day is very hard. To make ‘perfect’ washi requires many years of practice and routine.

Drawing upon 200 years of handed-down knowledge and skill, the Fujimori family continue to produce carefully made, small-batch washi, and help preserve traditional methods of the craft. It’s papermaking with soul. Current generation Yoichi and Mieko are an acclaimed master papermaker and paper-dyeing master respectively.

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Incredible attention to detail: picking out any potential impurities before the paper is dried. The mill specialises in the nagashizuki method, a traditional way of Japanese papermaking which produces strong, thin and resilient papers. The strength of the washi is determined by the skill of the artisan.

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Sheets of washi paper, drying on racks. Testament to their skill and precision, Awagami papers are more akin to fabric- super absorbent and difficult to tear. It’s why they’re the go-to for artists, calligraphers, conservationists and bookbinders worldwide.

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Historically, finished papers were cut to clean up the edges, but nowadays the deckled edges are kept as indication of the paper’s handmade quality.

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The warmth of washi. The variety of papers is endless: Harukishi papers with long kozo fibres, Ginwashi roll with hemp fibres resembling silver, and Kinwashi with hemp fibres resembling gold.

Every sheet is made using only natural fibres: the bark of the kozo (or mulberry) tree, mitsumata (oriental paper bush), hemp, bamboo or gampi. The mill remains true to the traditional spirit of craft in Japan: everything is made in tune with, and caring for, nature. That’s what makes it so brilliant.

Since antiquity, Japanese washi has been made from sustainable plant resources that grow to maturity in one to two years. When compared to wood-based papers (that take dozens of years to mature and require many chemicals), washi is much kinder to the environment.

The kozo and mitsumata fibres used by Awagami grow on the mountainside alongside the mill and are typically harvested during winter, when the air is crisp and lunchtime soba is well deserved.

Meanwhile the river provides the mill with the fresh water it needs to make high quality washi, recycling all the water used in the process.

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More snooping around the factory, quite possibly the tidiest in history. That’s why we love it so: it’s a thoroughly modern Japanese factory deeply rooted in heritage. Awagami’s ability to fuse traditional and innovative papermaking techniques has enabled it to develop unique papers, and even produce some of its washi by machine (albeit at one hundredth of the speed of Western papermills such as Canson or Hahnemuhle, to preserve the long fibres and subtle characteristics of washi).

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‘Suketa’ screens and the ‘sukibune’ vat for papermaking. Can you spot the ‘umaguwa’? It’s the large comb-like tool which is used to mix the fibres in the vat. And that amazing wooden framework architecture: mirroring the suketa and umaguwa (plus providing useful hanging space. Need one of those for my kitchen).

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On to those mystical aizome indigo vats: it greets you with an intense, earthy aroma. Awagami use dried and fermented sukumo from local indigo farmers in Tokushima. It’s pretty satisfying to watch those long sheets of white washi get dipped deep into the blue vat. The paper is first brushed with a mixture of konnyaku powder which makes it strong enough to withstand the dyeing process.

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Handmade papers, dyed using aizome. Some in the darkest blue hues, others in a faded ombre effect known as ‘danzome’. This requires dip-dyeing multiple times in the indigo pigment. There’s also textured chirimen-gami paper and morigami paper, wrinkled before slowly dyeing to create a ‘bokashi’ pattern. It’s all crafted and dyed in-house.

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An exploration in fine art paper moulding and indigo dyeing.

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There’s a whole rainbow of dye colours to try out.

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Just admiring the artworks in progress. The mill has managed to capture the imagination of artists and designers worldwide, and works closely with designer Craig Anczelowitz. Studies and experiments in texture, hue, moulding and dyes. These papers make prints come to life: it’s a playful delight.

Awagami is known for pushing the boundaries of washi paper, taking it in new directions for the modern day. 3D paper, interior wall coverings, the world’s first collection of washi for inkjet printers, an entire guesthouse decorated with Awagami paper (more on that in our next post)…

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The mill’s reputation precedes them: there’s collaborations with Hermès and Mont Blanc under their belt, plus you’ll find Awagami’s washi papers in works by Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Yu Youhan and Ding Yi.

For Frank Stella’s piece ‘The Fountain’, the mill created some of the largest handmade papers in the world…So large that the Whitney Museum needed to come up with unique mounting techniques to properly install this piece.

And that’s it for our tour! We hope we’ve indulged your washi paper fantasies. Shameless plug: you’ll find Awagami gifts in store, not least a papermaking kit designed by the mill to create your own washi paper at home.

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