Blue runs through Japan. It is in the skies, the water, the vast surrounding seas and the swathes of indigo cloth.
For centuries it is the blue of indigo dye that has coloured the fabric of the island. The Samurai wore a layer of indigo-dyed cotton beneath their armour, believing it to possess healing properties; the double-sided coats of firemen were repeatedly dyed in indigo to help repel the flames; the peasants of the Edo period wore only blue, as indigo-dye was thought to make their garments more durable; and the ukiyo-e artists of the 17th century turned to indigo pigment for their depictions of traditional Japanese scenes and landscapes.
It was a colour so ingrained and familiar to everyday life that forty-eight names were given to the hue, with the subtlest of distinctions made between each shade. Shira ai (‘white indigo’), kame nozoki (the elliptical ‘looking into the vase’), hanada (‘light indigo’) and tetsu kon (‘iron blue’) are just a handful.
In the early days indigo production was a domestic operation – with Japanese women dying garments for the whole family at home. But as demand grew women were excluded from the process and each village was allocated its own indigo dye house. So occupied were these dyers (kouya) that the famous proverb – ‘the dyer wears white’ – was spawned, describing anyone too busy attending to the needs of others to attend to their own. And it was said that those who worked with the dye could never do anything bad – for their hands, stained a deep, rich blue, would always give them away.
Today, the veneration of indigo runs deep. It is a colour bound into Japan’s cultural history and the country is still renowned for its ability to produce exquisite indigo textiles. Over the years TOAST has worked with a wonderful mill in Japan to dye and weave several of our cotton twills, double cloths and denims. This mill has taken the time-consuming, manual process of hank dyeing – whereby bundles of yarns are dipped, left to dry for 4/5 hours and re-dipped, with the whole process being repeated upwards of 20 to 30 times – and remodelled it on a larger scale. By turning the yarns into ropes, and building their own dyeing machine, they have expertly mechanised this traditional process – this way, to achieve the same intensity of colour, the rope only needs to dipped and dried 8 to 10 times.
In comparison to synthetic indigo production this is still an extremely slow process but the mill pursues it for the intensity of colour it achieves, their desire to uphold and develop traditional techniques and for the possibility of green production - the systems they have developed allow them to mitigate any negative effects on the local environment or ecology.
The phrase ‘Japan Blue’ was coined by an English scholar who, upon visiting Japan, was struck by the overwhelming and singular presence of the colour – in the fabric covering the doorways, in the clothes worn by passers by. This blue, it seemed to him, belonged to the country. It still does.
Words by Emily Mears
These are three pieces that were woven and dyed in our Japanese mill, there will be more throughout the season. Indigo Twill Alma Jacket, Indigo Twill Alix Trouser, Quilted Indigo Jacket
Inset image courtesy of Catherine Legrand, author of Indigo: The Colour That Changed The World, www.in-di-go.fr.
Japan Blue is the first in a series of stories - under the title The Holy Variety of Everything - that we'll be telling through this late summer, autumn and winter. These stories will celebrate the varied cultures, traditions and crafts that have blended, in one way or another, into this season’s collection.