Japanese indigo, aka the mystical ‘Japan Blue’, is inextricable from Japanese culture. The Japanese archipelago is surrounded by it; it’s hanging in every doorway and on everyone’s clothes.
Master craftsman Higeta Tadashi is a 9th generation indigo dyer and weaver. His Higeta Aizome Kobo (Higeta Indigo Dyeing Studio) is based in the artistic and craft community of Mashiko, two hours’ drive from Tokyo. It’s a thatched roof complex dating back to the Edo period, when indigo farming and dyeing was at its peak: every town had an indigo dyer.
During this time the country’s military leadership dictated the styles of clothing that people were allowed to wear; simple indigo dyed items, in hemp or cotton, were some of the few bold colours that everyday people were permitted. Word also got out about indigo’s natural antibacterial qualities, and soon indigo clothing became synonymous with samurai, worn under armour to protect against infection and help protect wounds. Firefighters would also wear indigo dyed clothes to take advantage of its flame retardant properties. Indigo simply became the go-to look du jour.
Higeta carries on his family lineage to this day, one of the last few masters continuing to keep alive handicraft techniques from the Edo period. But this wasn’t always a given. And in fact, it was the chance discovery of a British craftsperson no less, which led Higeta’s path through indigo. As a high schooler having trouble deciding what to do with his future, and sitting in the workshop, light came pouring in through the windows and illuminated an indigo vat, a sight he found utterly beautiful. At that moment he decided to carry on the dye shop. He started by becoming the apprentice of weaver and dyer Yanagi Yoshitaka (nephew of the Folk Craft or Mingei Movement founder Yanagi Soestsu- more family tree to follow here than the Royals).
As Higeta tells it, on his first day as Yanagi’s apprentice, he found a copy of ‘A Book of Vegetable Dyes’ by Ethel Mairet, considered the mother of British hand weaving, on a bookshelf in Yanagi’s home. And so his fate was sealed. The book became his bible and he dedicated himself to natural dyeing, even repeatedly visiting the British artisan village of Ditchling, once home to Mairet and the inspiration for Mashiko as a crafts village. Mairet was a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement and unlike her contemporary William Morris sought not only to rediscover but also breathe new life into dying crafts for future generations. Higeta follows a similar ethos and continues to be influenced by Mairet’s writings to this day, even though he’s himself considered a Living National Treasure in Japan.
Admiring all the colours: an Ethel Mairet Textile Sample Book, from the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft.
Returning to Mashiko and the current day (or rather 2017, the first of our visits), Higeta and his family live on the property and create dye from the indigo Persicaria tinctoria plant, as well as experimenting with other indigo plants grown on site.
The dye is made through a long and intricate process of fermentation using the dried leaves, known as sukumo, added to wheat bran, hardwood ash lye, lime, and sake. This dry-leaf process is traditional to Japan and different to the processes in India or Thailand. The sukumo tradition makes Japanese indigo darker and more intense than anywhere else in the world.
Those magical indigo vats, 72 of them. The bubbling indigo is left to ferment over a period of days until it becomes a rich dye. Among the vats are vents where straw and wood burns in cooler weather to keep the temperature of the dye between 25 and 30 degrees, depending on the stage of fermentation.
The Higeta family produces around 30 different shades of indigo, from a light sky blue to a deep navy. Each batch produces a colour unique to the leaf, the mordant, the time left in the vat. And every season will produce a slightly different crop and colour, much like good varieties of wine.
The studio dye their cloth using traditional techniques: shibori, katazome stencil-resist dyeing. That’s quite some sleight of hand. How beautiful are these??
The stencils, called katagami, are made from Japanese washi paper coated with persimmon juice for strength. They’re clamped into place.
The craftsmanship doesn’t stop there. Higeta’s dedication to natural dyeing extends to cotton cultivation, spinning, yarn dyeing and hand weaving, all on site. In particular growing brown cotton, a cotton unique to Mashiko, qualities distinctive of the climate and conditions of Mashiko soil. Much like the indigo dye, the brown of the cotton varies each year, depending on the weather. Higeta and his family were keen to show us all the cotton they grow!
In his early experimentation, Higeta also discovered that if he let the cotton rest for three years after harvesting, the colour would deepen, due to oxidisation. It’s this brown cotton which gives a richness, a deepness, to Higeta’s indigo cloth and sets it apart from more widely available indigo fabrics.
The studio specialises in itozome, a natural extension of producing cotton yarn. They dye individual threads before they’re woven into cloth. Above the vats drape ropes of raw and indigo-dyed hand-spun cotton, ready to weave.
A loom in the studio beneath a portrait of Hamada Shoji, another major figure of the Mingei movement (more of Hamada to come in a later post).
And whereas Tadashi’s father Hiroshi was famous for indigo stencil dyeing, Tadashi’s artistic signature, through his exploration of cotton weaving and itozome, has become complex woven patterns.
As Britain undergoes a craft revival, so too does Japan. There’s a revived interest in the humble beauty of indigo, the honesty of a life working with our hands. The Higeta family’s life and work and craft become inextricable. And Higeta’s process, where everything is done on a human scale, on site, is environmentally friendly too. Every piece is imbued with the climate and nature of the Mashiko countryside and the hand of the Higeta family.