Japanese indigo or aizome is one of the things that people are always drawn to when we are at a show - there is something about the depth of the blue combined with the geometrical patterns that is hypnotic. But a lot of the appeal is also down to the dying and weaving technique called kasuri in Japan, or ikat in other cultures, which gives a soft blurry edge to the patterns.

There are many types of traditional indigo-dyed Japanese textiles and kasuri is distinctive because the pattern is actually woven into the fabric rather than applied after weaving, but, unlike a European jacquard where each colour would have its own yarn, in kasuri weaving, the yarn is dyed in multiple colours before being strung onto the loom or wound onto the shuttle.

The simple pattern below shows what we mean. All the similar yarns are bunched together and knotted in the places which should remain white (this is called the ‘resist’). When the yarn is then dipped in the indigo, the knot will prevent the dye from colouring the knotted sections.

Diagram of yarn bundling for traditional knot resist Japanese indigo kasuri weaving

This example is in the horizontal yarn or weft and there has to be a knot resist each and every time the pattern is repeated through the cloth! All the knots are tied and untied by hand and then the yarn has to be wound onto a shuttle to be passed through the warp yarns. The whole process is already complex but it can get much more complicated if the pattern is in the warp as well as the weft or if more colours are used.

Diagram of yarn bundling for traditional knot resist Japanese indigo kasuri weaving

Why devote so much time to such a complex process? Originally, indigo dying was for simple rustic kimono or for workwear, like monpe trousers. The humid climate of Japan meant that a plainweave fabric just one yarn thick in the warp and the weft was a very practical, lightweight, breathable, fast-drying fabric. There was also a belief that indigo was a natural mosquito repellent and if you have ever been out for a stroll on a summer evening in Japan, you will know just how useful any protection against them is!

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