Tag Archives: boro

In Japan, Searching for Blue Indigo (Ai-zome)

My quest for Japanese indigo fabrics and clothing took us to remote villages and high-end designer boutiques. I searched old kimono stacked in department store corners and flea market stalls. In the old Geisha district of Gion, two vintage textile shops offer 100+ year-old pieces in varying condition. I traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto to the remote thatched roof village of Miyama with blue on my mind. We lingered at the Amuse Museum exhibition of boro cloth in awe of indigo-dyed hemp and cotton patchwork born of poverty.

Indigo is my passion. It’s why I wanted to go to Japan. Oh, and the food. Oh, yes, and the cherry blossoms. Temples. Zen. Gardens. Oh, my.

This indigo vintage undergarment from Gallery Kei, perfect as a tunic

My sister was more interested in Kabuki and Noh theatre, so we negotiated time dedicated to our interests. We attended performances of both and met with a foremost expert on Noh, a US ex-pat living and teaching in Japan for 40 years. We managed to walk blocks that became miles, traveled by bus, train and taxi, all in search of blue, art and food.

We saw the famed kabuki actor (far right) at Kyoto’s Minimiza Theatre

Finding indigo in Japan is not easy. Sometimes we couldn’t locate the address. Sometimes we got lost despite Google maps. Sometimes I would stand on a street corner and call out, Does anyone speak English? to help us get our bearings. (Always, a kind, helpful person came to our aid, even guiding us to where we needed to go!) Sometimes the source was in such a remote area that we couldn’t get there. Tokyo is a vast megalopolis, on a scale beyond my ken. Kyoto, described as smaller, hardly pales in comparison.

The art of dyeing with indigo today is uncommon, as it is in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it is necessary to travel twelve hours from Oaxaca City to meet the maker. In Japan, one must also ferret out the dye masters and makers who turn indigo-dyed cloth into clothing. The practice is almost extinct, just like Mexico. And, as with all things made-by-hand, quality comes with a price, when you can find it.

I also noticed construction similarities between traditional Oaxaca huipiles and Japanese kimonos. Both are simple assemblages of cloth squares and rectangles, with hand-stitchedSi seam sewing and no tailoring (ie. no darts). The long, drooping kimono sleeves are merely rectangles attached to the main robe. Hand-stitching for seams and embellishment a standard practice.

Meiji period shibori kimono, vintage and pristine, 100 years old

Few pieces, I discovered, are hand-loomed now. Indigo-dyed ready-to-wear can be designed in Japan and made in India to keep prices in check. I found one amazing Meiji period kimono in perfect condition. Price tag, $1,800 USD. Pass. I’m looking for wearable art and not creating a museum-level collection.

At Chingireya Vintage Textiles, this outstanding kimono, $1,800 USD

What I also discovered is that a focused quest for indigo takes time. Even more than a three-week introductory visit such as the one I just completed. Perhaps another trip is needed to go deeper and wider. Perhaps.

I’m grateful to Elli Sawada, a Kyoto-based indigo dye student originally from San Diego, who referred me to several sources for investigation. Elli is studying with famed master-dyer Fukumi Shimura. Elli and her brother participated in our Oaxaca One-Day Natural Dye and Weaving Study Tour last month.

Vintage indigo cotton cloth, once used to wrap gifts, repurposed as large scarf

I also want to thank Nancy Craft of Esprit Travel and Tours, Japan Travel Expert, who generously shared her list of Kyoto textile shopping resources with me. I hunted down those most relevant to my interests.

Resist-dyed detail of large cloth, patterns perfectly matched

My friend Madelyn wrote, I hope you found yourself a wonderful indigo garment or textile. Plural, I replied. I filled a duffle bag with blue. Ancient blue. New blue. Traditional blue. Deep, dark, almost black, blue. Kimono with wide, boxy sleeves. Cozy, contemporary long-sleeved jacket with roll-up cuffs. Vintage farmer’s coat with sashiko stitching. All perfect with blue jeans or black skirt. I have satisfied my lust for blue.

Sashiko stitching detail, indigo farmer’s jacket, all hand-sewn,

Sidebar: Barbara and I were flaneuring down the main street of Tokyo’s Aoyama district (which easily overshadows Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive) after visiting the Meiji Jingu Shrine. I noticed a pop-up shop and stepped in to find Yu Design Office featuring hand-crafted indigo clothing.

Cropped tunic, hand-woven by Yu Design Office, similar to the Oaxaca blusa

Yu Design Office was founded by artisan Hiromi Yamada and her architect son Yuji Yamada. They use natural indigo dye from Hanyu City, Saitama, employing a traditional kimono-making technique called itajime from Mizuho City, Tokyo, and fine cloth from Hachioji, Tokyo. Combining indigo, persimmon juice and pitch black, the wool-silk scarf they make takes on a deep greenish blue hue. The cloth is folded and stacked and pressed between wooden boards to give it texture.

Yuji Yamada showing us ai-zome from Yu Design Office

Recommendations for hunting down Japan Blue:

Konjaku Nishimura Old Textile Arts, Gion, Kyoto, Nawate Street, Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto. Email: info@konjaku.com

Indigo ikat remnant, now a scarf for Barbara, at Konjaku Nishimura Textiles

Chingireya Vintage Textiles, Gion, Kyoto, Nawate Street, Higashiyama-Ku.

Textiles Yoshioka, exquisite, all natural dyes, mostly scarves, shawls, accessories, Gion, Kyoto.

Aizenkobo, indigo workshop and gallery, Kyoto. Third generation workshop, producing traditional garments, scarves, yardage. People love it. I was underwhelmed.

Little Indigo Museum, Miyama, Kyoto Prefecture, is operated by Mr. Hiroyuki Shindo. In picturesque town of thatched-roof houses, this is a full-day trip. Small souvenir indigo samples and scarves are for sale. shindigo@cans.zaq.ne.jp

Indigo dye vats at The Little Indigo Museum, Miyama

Gallery Kei features vintage textiles and is operated by Kei Kawasaki on the famous Teramachi Street (671-1 Kuoinmae-cho Teramachi Ebisugawa-agaru), just south of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. At our visit, she had vintage boro from Northern Japan, garments and cloth fragments of hand-woven natural materials (hemp, linen, cotton, silk) and dyes. Write to confirm they are open. gallerykei@live.jp

With Kei Kawasaki at Gallery Kei. Shawl was once mosquito netting. Hemp and indigo.

Gran-Pie, also on Teramachi Street between Ebisugawa-dori and Nijo-dori, is a contemporary clothing store with garments designed in Japan, dyed and made in India.

I can’t publish this post without mentioning NUNOworks Fabrics in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. On our last afternoon in Japan, I went bonkers over the bolts of fabrics, and sewn-on-the-premises clothing. Delicious scarves. Beautiful garments. Outstanding design. Reasonable (by Japan standards) prices. Though few pieces are naturally dyed.

Department stores like Isetan (Kyoto Station), Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Matsuya Ginza feature contemporary Japanese designer boutiques, including Issey Miyake, Comme de Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and others. Some use indigo and other natural dyes, and are priced in the stratosphere.

Exquisite creativity is boro, from northernmost Japan

Where to Stay in Tokyo: the b roppongi hotel. Loved our stay here. Convenient to metro, restaurants, fair price, excellent service.

Where to Stay in Kyoto: we loved the YADO Hotel in Arashiyama. Book room #308. Recommend also staying in Gion area for more central experience.

Four Words and Boro, Japanese Indigo Patchwork

Writing from Kyoto, March 25, 2019. It’s been four days since I landed in Tokyo and I’ve managed to learn four words: konnichiwa (hello), sayonara (goodbye), arigato gozai mas (thank you very much), and oishi (delicious).  I knew ai (indigo) before I arrived.

Mexico and Japan share a common language through indigo.

An indigo chrysanthemum, simple adornment

Everything here is delicious. Economy meals at corner restaurants where you order and pay in advance from a menu machine are delicious. In my view, as delicious as the priciest sushi set. The people are delicious, the kindest and most generously helpful of any I have met. The fashion is delicious. It is pure deliciousness to be under a cherry tree as buds begin to blossom pink. To say I’m in love with Japan is an understatement. 

The asymmetry of patched cloth, worn to tatters and repaired

My sister Barbara and I have filled our days with what my friend Liz Bell calls flaneuring. The discovery is in the meandering, the randomness of what you will find without a plan. Like the pure ai (indigo) coat I found in an off-beat shop hanging on a rack among nondescript clothes, made in the style of a workingman’s jacket crafted from old recycled cloth in pristine condition, redesigned, repurposed. I didn’t buy it but it was a delight to wear, even if for the moment.

Like Mari Ishibashi, a 2013 graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, who gave me her phone number and said if we need anything, to call her.

Vest, shibori indigo

With intention, we made it a priority to visit the Amuse Museum in Asakusa, Tokyo, where an incredible textile exhibition of boro was on display until the end of March. Here, we could see and touch an extraordinary exhibition of vintage cloth, saved by folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka. The textile is now recognized as a national Tangible Cultural Property. Indigo plays a central role in this story. 

Long underwear, each one elaborately embroidered

Indigo is a reverential art form here, and nothing speaks more proudly of Japanese ingenuity, creativity and self-discipline than the utilitarian Boro patchwork from the coldest, northernmost region of Japan in Aomori Prefecture.  

The layering of cloth over the generations

Boroboro means something tattered or repaired. In the layering of the cloth and the accompanying long stitches, called sashiko, used to hold the patches to the base fabric and hemp filling, the fabric takes on a quality of shimmering texture and beauty. It was not intended this way. Boro was born from poverty. It´s purpose was to make a quilted piece of clothing or bedcover from leftover material that would provide warmth in a frigid, inhospitable, harsh climate. Hemp was used because cotton could not be grown in cold areas. Threadbare areas of cloth were repeatedly patched over, reinforced, and reinforced again.

Blanket, hand spun, woven hemp, dyed with indigo, stuffed with hemp

Hard scrabble peasant farming classes made boro, mending the same garments over and over again with spare scraps. Scraps were saved like treasure. Collected, scarce. Hemp dyed with indigo was common. Garments were passed down from generation to generation. Working class people made do with dignity.

Portrait of a grandfather with granddaughter, Aomori Prefecture

Today, the story is different. Vintage pieces of boro are collectible, scarce and costly. Classes are taught around the world in boro patchwork and quilting techniques. Boro is adapted by fashion designers to embellish blue jeans. Boro has become romanticized, commodified as a fashion statement, taking on a life far from its humble roots.

Intricately embroidered apron, and long underwear

We might compare the indigenous cultures of Mexico with the native peoples of remote Japan, who struggle to survive and thrive in the face of poverty, lack of education and with little or no access to health care. In the face of adversity, they create extraordinary cloth. I have written about cultural tourism and how we seek to get closer to those who are the creators. We admire their creative outputs. We may even yearn for a simpler life for ourselves — more basic, more grounded, more meaningful. In our yearnings, do we create a false romantic vision that obscures the harsh realities.

Inside lining, kimono

A core aesthetic of Japanese life and values is called wabi-sabi. It is a worldview based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Some say that boro is one of the best examples of wabi-sabi —the cloth and the stitches reflect the beauty of natural wear and use. The cloth and the stitches change, become asymmetrical, born of simplicity, roughness and economy. Beauty is in the simplicity of all.

Padded, stitched and repaired cloth shoes

Wabi-sabi acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Patched and tattered kimono, indigo

Boro cloth is quirky, repaired, subtle, weathered, imperfect, rustic, spare, minimalist. The cloth is organic, changing, deconstructed and reconstructed. Like the people who made it, boro is resilient and enduring, a testimony to cultural continuity.

I am on a quest for ai. The imperfect piece of ai. I know I will find it.

Patched boro blanket, indigo