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The Aizen Kobo Indigo Workshop

Story by Catherine Pawasarat

Photos by Lisa Mahoney Beltran

For centuries kimono and obi* have been woven in northwestern Kyoto, in an area known as Nishijin. When walking down the narrow streets today, the clackety-clackety-clackety of weavers at their looms can still be heard. Tucked away on a side street is the Aizen Kobo indigo dyeing workshop and traditional boutique. Master dyer Kenichi Utsuki still works in this 120-year-old building, where he was born and raised and where his father and grandfather worked as textile artisans as well.

“I’m actually the 17th generation of Utsuki,” Kenichi explains, weaving a colorful tale about his samurai ancestors in historical Hikone, a castle town on the shores of Lake Biwa. Wielding swords isn’t for everyone, though, and Kenichi’s grandfather Shiro Utsuki – the fourth son of a samurai – decided to move to Kyoto and take up the weaving of very fine obi – the thick sash worn around kimono -- as his livelihood.  

Kenichi’s father Shozo Utsuki was also a weaver by trade, but he lived in a culturally tumultuous time. Flashback to the mid 1800s, when Admiral Perry’s black ships sailed into Tokyo Bay and opened Japan up to the outside world for the first time in over two centuries. Finding itself completely unaware of major western developments in medicine, engineering and industry, Japan set to catching up at breakneck speed. By the 1920s, when Shozo was a young man, much of Japan’s agriculture-based culture had already disappeared in favor of mass-produced industrial goods copied from Western styles or directly imported.

Crafting the Spirit

This tectonic shift in cultures gave birth to the mingei, or “folk art” movement. Philosopher Soetsu Yanagi and artists like potters Shoji Hamada, Kanjiro Kawai and Bernard Leach worked to champion the anonymous craftspeople whose dedicated work provided both a human touch and spiritual grace to articles of daily life. The mingei movement can claim credit for saving many Japanese traditions from being lost to the sands of time, including natural indigo dyeing.

It was amidst the spiritual ideals and noble physical labor of the mingei movement that the famous ceramic artist Kanjiro Kawai urged his friend Shozo Utsuki to leave his fine obi-weaving work in favor of indigo dyeing, which was in danger of disappearing. Indigo-dyed cloth was commonly worn by farmers and other laborers, and it was a practical match: a chemical released in the dyeing process is said to repel snakes and mosquitoes. As useful as that may have been, the association with farmers meant that, at a time when industry embodied all that was modern and good, indigo dyeing was at the bottom of the list of fashionable or popular textile arts. It certainly had nowhere near the cache of Shozo’s fine weaving. But Shozo threw himself into the task nonetheless. “Nobody wanted to buy indigo cloth,” Kenichi explains now, “so he supported himself with his weaving, and sold what he could to monks. They used it to make their most casual robes.”

The name of the Utsuki family establishment, Aizen Kobo, means literally, “Love Dye Workshop.” Ai is a pun: it is a homonym for both “love” and “indigo,” though the Chinese characters for the two words are different. Zen means simply, "dye." The name was given to Shozo by his friend Junichiro Tanizaki, the renowned author of famous novels like The Makioka Sisters. The sign in front of Aizen Kobo was first painted by Kanjiro Kawai, then later carved by the Living National Treasure lacquer artist Tatsuaki Kuroda.

Kenichi grew up surrounded by these legendary figures, and one marvels at the notion of being raised in such a rich artistic environment. But mingei celebrated the unknown craftsman, whose work needed no signature. And so it’s only appropriate that Kenichi is little interested in clinging to memories of those bygone days.

“I went to Kanjiro’s house to play, but I was just a kid, so I didn’t really think about it. I guess you could say that my work must be influenced by them, though,” Kenichi speculates nonchalantly, then adds with apparent relish: “But when I was 18 I got to chauffer for Kawai’s main patron, who gave me cigarettes! That was an unheard-of bonus in those days.”

Those hoping to be regaled with explanations of the profound philosophy behind the mingei movement, or with long tales about a lifetime of rubbing elbows with some of Japan’s greatest artisans may be disappointed. True to his trade, Kenichi is more interested in getting his hands wet in his large ceramic pots filled with dyestuff, and to let his work speak for itself.  He is keen, however, to educate visitors about the special characteristics of natural indigo dyeing, and the differences between natural and chemical indigo dyes.

Blue Bacteria

The key to the rich blue that Japanese indigo and Aizen Kobo are famous for is in the microorganisms produced when the indigo plant is fermented. To keep these bacteria healthy and the dye potent, Kenichi must maintain it at an optimal temperature, and feed it a carefully calculated mixture of wheat-bran powder, limestone powder, ash lye and sake.

“The preparation, that is, the fermenting is the hardest part. If it’s not done properly, you can’t dye anything,” Kenichi explains with the voice of experience. “I learned from my father, though he didn’t actually teach me – I just watched. It took me at least five years to learn. I had to observe how he adjusted the temperature and ingredients, to get it just right. After that, the dyeing is all about your own feeling.”

Getting the fermentation right takes about two weeks, after which the vat of indigo can be used to dye for a few months. Depending on the kind of material being dyed and the depth of color desired, an item must be dipped and then sun-dried between 20 and 50 times, a process that often takes months. This makes the appeal of chemical indigo dye pretty obvious: with chemical-based indigo, preparation takes less than an hour and one dipping usually does the trick.

“But chemically-dyed indigo is grayish in color, and it can’t achieve the deep eggplant-color of natural indigo. We call it ‘Japan blue,’ because only Japanese indigo can obtain this color. And chemical indigo fades! Natural Japanese indigo keeps its color for more than a thousand years,” Kenichi asserts. Skeptical? Indigo-dyed handmade washi paper from Japan’s Nara Period (710-794) has been discovered, still remarkably deep blue in color. This is in part because natural indigo also has the extraordinary quality of actually strengthening whatever fibers it dyes.

Kenichi is fond of displaying his exquisite collection of both antique and contemporary indigo-dyed fabrics from around the world, particularly from Asian and African countries. As he retrieves one breathtakingly beautiful textile after another from a large wooden antique chest, it’s obvious that of all of these, the Japanese indigo is the deepest blue. In some cases, the Japanese indigo is as deep in color as the night sky, almost black. And the Utsukis’ dyeing skill  is second to none.

Losing the Sense

But it takes more than dye to make beautiful textiles, especially in this modern age. Hisako Utsuki, Kenichi’s wife, was born to a wealthy Kyoto family and grew up studying tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging. Elegant and graceful, she embodies the classic[italics]Kyoto no onna[italics] (“traditional Kyoto woman”), but with a modern, cosmopolitan twist: besides both Western and Japanese styles of sewing, she studied French literature and philosophy at university. Around the same time she started designing clothing, and she’s designed Aizen Kobo’s clothing line for more than 20 years. She also provides the magic touch that makes Aizen Kobo such a pleasure to visit. The beautiful building is enhanced with lovely Japanese antique furniture and mingei artwork, but numerous polished wooden surfaces are also graced with her ikebana arrangement or other small design touches lovingly arranged. 

Hisako’s classic yet stylish clothing and accessories (like scarves and shawls) create the platform for husband Kenichi’s dyeing mastery. The foundation color of indigo is complemented by other natural dyes Kenichi uses: turmeric, gardenia seeds and onion skins for yellows, browns and (mixed with indigo) greens, and rose madder for reds and oranges. Fabrics range from ramie and cotton to silk gauze, crepe and organza. The dyeing techniques also vary remarkably: the fabrics employ a wide array of shaped-resist (Japanese : shibori) and rice paste-resist techniques, while dyed threads are woven into ikat and striped patterns.

Aizen Kobo also make extensive use of the decorative stitchery technique known as sashiko, where designs are stitched into the indigo fabric with different colored threads. Hisako’s sashiko coats and silk scarves are especially popular, but the product line is comprehensive, with items like bags, table runners, button-down shirts, dresses, jackets, kimonos and even formal evening wear. And no indigo dyeing establishment would be complete without offering the [italics]samu-e[italics], the loose-fitting indigo jacket and trouser ensemble traditionally worn by monks and craftsmen.

Not surprisingly, Aizen Kobo work has won an ever-growing international following. Kenichi’s demonstrated natural dyeing techniques in Thailand, Malaysia and Colombia, has work in the permanent collection of London’s British museum, and last year lectured and gave demos at Columbia and Princeton Universities in the U.S. Much of Aizen Kobo’s clientele consists of international cultural cogniscenti with a taste for refined artisanry, such as embassy and museum staff, academics, and other artists. Due to its many international customers, Aizen Kobo’s prices are also international: much higher, of course than prices for chemically-dyed or machine-made textiles or clothing, but only about half of what similar skilled craftsmanship costs at other establishments in Japan.

Still, the average person doesn’t usually understand why goods at Aizen Kobo are signicantly pricier than, say, the chemically-dyed indigo imports from China so commonly seen in Japanese shops. “We are always teaching people about natural dyeing techniques, because in this day and age few people understand,” Hisako sighs. “Modern people are so accustomed to mass-quantity goods and low prices. We are losing the sense of what true quality or richness is.”

It Takes Many Hands

While Kenichi and the Utsuki’s son, Norito, are the dyers, the family relies on a network of other artisans to produce their world class goods. Each piece is the culmination of the knowledge and skill of a team that includes indigo farmers, weavers, tie-resist tyers, ceramicists who make the vats to hold the indigo dye.

Norito’s evidently inherited his father’s fine sense of craftsmanship along with his mother’s philosophical inclinations. Involved in the business since he was a boy, he studied dyeing at Kyoto University of Art and Design and is continuing in his father’s footsteps.

Like all traditional Japanese artisans, the Utsukis do it all – they are the designers, creators, managers, shopkeepers, accountants and marketers. Plus the family exhibits their work regularly in Japan’s major cities, gives special international demonstrations, and accommodates media teams eager to give them coverage. “This is a family business, the real thing,” laughs the soft-spoken Kenichi. “We do everything.”

It’s clearly a labor of love, and one who is more enamored with the conveniences of modern life might wonder how the Utsukis remain motivated. Hisako is wont to enthuse spontaneously and brightly, “I want to share these traditional Japanese arts with the world!” Textile aficionados are fortunate that Aizen Kobo remains so dedicated to its beloved indigo craft.

 

* obi: The wide silk sash tied around the midsection when wearing a kimono.

 

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