Masters of Indigo | Meet BUAISOU

Aizome (藍染) meaning Japanese indigo dyeing

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  • 9 min read

Part two of our series on aizome, and a trip to Tokushima Prefecture in search of the mythical Japan Blue. In the birthplace of Japanese indigo and the sukumo capital of the world, our pilgrimage took us first to the town of Aizumi (‘ai’ meaning indigo and ‘zumi’ meaning living. They take their indigo seriously here).

We’d been travelling around the winding mountain roads for several hours when we paused to take this shot. Night was falling, a skyline in graded tones of indigo blue.

Down in the valley, the Yoshino River bisects the region - you really feel this when you find yourself on the wrong side! 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 and the region was home to thousands of indigo farmers.

Today, there remain only a handful.

But fear not. Founded in 2012, BUAISOU are reviving the craft for the 21st Century. This indigo farm and studio has garnered quite the cult following amongst versant sartorialists worldwide. Their collaborations are who's who in the design world: Aesop, Artek, New Balance and Tory Burch. Even Kanye West and Rhianna have paid a visit to BUAISOU’s remote rural workshop.

And we were fortunate enough to spend some time them, learning about indigo farming and dyeing (Kanye just beat us. Whatever).

The fruits of our ‘labour’: photo taken by Kyoko @buaisou_i.

What sets these indigo experts apart: everything is done on site at the BUAISOU farm. They’re a unique collective which not only cultivates and harvests indigo leaves but also does the actual dyeing, designing and making, merging these normally distinct crafts. Transforming crop to colour: it’s indigo farm direct to closet.

It’s all about this: indigo plant leaves or 藍の葉 ‘ai no ha’.

The indigo dye of BUAISOU uses a traditional technique called jigoku date (‘making hell’) from sukumo indigo, one of the world’s most complex dye production processes. The sukumo tradition makes Japanese indigo darker and more intense than anywhere in the world.

We wanted to create the colour all by ourselves...To thrive in the hometown of indigo dye.

The collective was co-founded by Kakuo Kaji and Ken Yuki, who responded to an open call from the Japanese Ministry for Education, offering to train people in the craft of indigo dyeing. The aim was to preserve this dying art form and encourage young farmers and indigo dyers back to Tokushima. Kaji had already fallen in love with the process of indigo dyeing while studying textile design at university: the patience it requires, its uniqueness amongst plant dyes. An apprenticeship under sukumo master Osamu Nii later, they found some more like-minded souls and BUAISOU was born.

As for the moniker? Well, denim was historically dyed with indigo. So BUAISOU is named after a country house once owned by the rather dapper Jiro Shirasu, one of the first Japanese public figures to be photographed wearing jeans. He dressed like one coooool dude.

We arrived at the farm through a patchwork of carrot and corn fields, warmly greeted by the manager Kyoko Nishimoto and a glass each of indigo tea. Dried indigo leaves actually smell of tea, and it makes for an earthy, mellow drink. There’s even a history of using indigo tea in Japanese folk medicine.

Walking through the indigo fields with Sakura, the Buaisou pup-in-residence, learning about growing indigo (not from Sakura. She was just there for the ride. A total groupie).

It all begins here, in the greenhouse: germinating the indigo seedlings before they’re transplanted by hand into the fields, on a day before rain. They’re thirsty creatures and require quite some watering.

Oh, the endless weeding. It’s all grown organically, you see. Gardeners will sympathise. Everything is done synchronous with the seasons. There’s several harvests throughout the year, around the rainy period, and the leaves once reaped are taken back to the greenhouse to dry out in 40 degree heat until the autumn.

Now, not to sound like M&S, but this is no ordinary fan. It’s used to separate the valuable leaves from the stems: the stems drop because of their weight, but the leaves fly above. It means you can more easily brush the stems aside to create the aikonashi 藍粉成し or dried indigo leaf powder.

This is where the magic happens. It’s called the ‘nedoko’ (sleeping room) where in the winter the mountain of dried leaves is then left to ferment (or sleep- ‘nekasu’) over about four months, until it becomes ‘sukumo’. Throughout this period the leaves are watered, turned and aired regularly to encourage decomposition, an arduous process called kirikaeshi in which temperatures in the nedoko can rise to 70 degrees and the air becomes saturated with ammonia. As the weather turns colder, BUAISOU will even get the leaves tucked in all warm with straw mats, to keep the fermentation process going.

Occasionally Osamu Nii will pop in to see how they’re getting on, advise on how much water to add, how to stir the piles: class is never over!

Making sukumo is back breaking work, a long and intricate process, and for the collective it’s become more than a profession: it’s a labour of love. But come spring, the prized sukumo is ready.

Next comes the ‘making hell’: the sukumo is mixed with wood ash made from smoking katsuobushi, limestone powder, and wheat bran to continue fermenting (we won’t go into the science, this isn’t a L’Oreal advert, but it makes the indigo pigment in the sukumo water-soluble). The vat needs to be meticulously stirred and kept above 70 degrees.

The result is a blue dye of exceptional depth and vibrancy that is resistant to bleeding.

Growing and preparing indigo dye is a delicate process. Each season will produce a slightly different crop and colour, much like good varieties of wine. For the collective, this surprise, this unpredictable nature, is part of indigo’s charm. Each piece is inherently unique.

Over to the barn, home to the dye studio and workshop.

Those magical indigo vats and delicious raw cloth, ready to dye. Dyeing takes place all year round in heated dyeing vats.

Finally, it’s time to get dyeing. And we couldn’t wait to dip our arms into BUAISOU's inky sukumo indigo vat. As Kakuo observes, making the dye is a 365-day process, doing the dyeing takes just minutes. Looks like we arrived at just the right time (sorry Kakuo!).

Kakuo and the team were keen to show us some patterning techniques. An all-over dye is called ‘betazome’, an ombre effect is ‘danzome’.

Kakuo giving Arthur tips on the ‘katazome’ technique, used to create a pattern. A rice paste resist is stencilled on and then washed off after dyeing. Top photo by Kyoko @buaisou_i.

Sarah attempting ‘roketsu-zome’, free-drawing with a melted wax resist. I think we’d all just been to the local cafe for some lunchtime udon at this point, hence the look of fuzzy contemplation. Top photo by Kyoko @buaisou_i.

Photos by Kyoko @buaisou_i.

To dye, you need to dip the fabric into the vat, slowly submerging it and massaging by hand. The colour will deepen every time the fabric is dipped. ‘Kamenozoki’ is the pale colour you seeing when ‘peeping’ at an indigo tub, ‘hanadairo’ is a light blue, ‘aiiro’ a solid blue and ‘kachiiro’ aka ‘winning colour’ is an almost black indigo which used to be worn by samurai warriors. You may need to dip a garment 30-50 times to reach the darkest blues.

Then there is this magical moment when the cloth or yarn is finally pulled from the dyebath. On emergence it is a yellowish green colour then, as it reacts with the oxygen in the air, it gradually turns to blue.

Any equipment is also likely to turn blue! In fact, BUAISOU have turned this to their advantage, dyeing wood and home products for a variety of clients.

We used these boards to create a pattern with the itajime technique: folding, pleating and clamping the fabric before dyeing, preventing parts of the cloth from making contact with the dye. It creates bold patterns and geometric repetitions.

The final phase is to wash away any impurities in water and leave the cloth to dry, until a vivid indigo colour appears. Top photo by Kyoko @buaisou_i.

Itajime, shibori, katazome, danzome, roketsu, bassen, betazome: a library of dyeing techniques.

Our final katazome and itajime dyed pieces. And with a final cup of indigo tea and a cuddle with Sakura, we set off on our way back to the city.

From their home near the riverbank, these indigo experts have caught the attention of major brands and the fashion industry. And rightfully so. An incredible amount of thought and craftsmanship goes into each and every piece, and we’re consistently amazed by the effort and skill needed to produce these hand-dyed fabrics. We love how this young collective is providing an antidote to fast fashion, working with nature, at the pace of nature, and reviving the humble beauty of aizome in a thoroughly contemporary way. Their pieces are literally soaked in the fabric of Japan’s cultural history.

And what’s next for BUAISOU? They hope to start growing their own cotton, and weaving it themselves. We can’t wait to see.

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