Dyeing Naturally and Cultural Exchange in China

I just returned from several weeks in China, where I did an artist residency at the Jinze Art Center near Shanghai. The residency was  focused on weaving and the study of Chinese local “tubu” cloth from the 1950’s and 60’s.

Cotton tubu fabrics

I also participated in a natural dye workshop with Japanese dye master, Dr. Kazuki  Yamazaki. Dr. Yamasaki is a 3rd generation natural dyer and his family has specialized in the traditional dye processes, which they have meticulously researched from the Japanese Heian Dynasty (about a thousand years ago). He is a well-respected practitioner, author and teacher.

tomoko silks
Dr. Tomoko Torimaru with silks dyed by Dr. Yamazaki

Each day we explored a different red dye on silk yarns and fabrics: Sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan), Madder (Rubia Cordifolia), Lac (Laccifer lacca), Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), and Purple Root/Gromwell (Lithospermum purpurocaeruleum). These are all special colors that would have been used by nobility (the commoners used mostly indigo and a lot of mousy browns). All of the dyestuffs we used were locally sourced in China.

Version 2
Silk yarns dyed with Sappan wood and Madder

Although  our procedures every day were similar, each dye required special treatment. Dr. Yamazaki has a deep knowledge of botany and chemistry of the dye process so we learned “why” right along with the “how”. It’s rare to find this approach in the dye world.  For instance, the color is drawn out of each plant differently and by tweaking pH the hues can be made to shift dramatically. I very much appreciated his willingness to explain each step clearly.

yamazaki with safflower
Dr. Yamazaki demonstrating one of the steps of safflower dyeing
Camellia ash used as mordant and pH adjustor

Dyeing originated in China and spread to Japan many years ago but without the continued use of dye plants in Chinese medicine, there would be no dye industry to speak of in Japan. Most of the plants we used have medicinal properties in Chinese medicine. There was a young traditional Chinese doctor in the class who wanted to learn about the plants as a source of color, although she uses them regularly in her medical practice.

Silk dyed with lac

Our class comprised of

  • 1 Japanese teacher
  • 5 assistants
  • 2 translators (Japanese to Chinese, Japanese to English)
  • 3 Americans
  • 20 Chinese

So, as you can imagine it was quite a noisy classroom! Everything was written in Chinese characters, Japanese characters, and English. The Chinese and Japanese characters are similar but not always interpreted the same way.

daily instruction board
The daily instruction board
Japanese to English translation “huddle”. Sketch by workshop participant, Wang Dan

The 20 Chinese students were all young – in their 30’s or so. They were bright, inquisitive, and interested in their own traditions and history. It was a rich mixture of people and process.

skein dyein
Perfecting the process of dyeing silk skeins

In the west we typically use a European pre-mordant approach to dyeing: mordant first, then dye. But the Japanese approach to dyeing silks is quite different. The mordant comes in the middle: dye first, then mordant, and back to dye. The mordant and dye steps can be repeated many times to build up a greater depth of color. I have known about this approach for a long time but it never quite made sense to my western sensibility. I now see some genuine advantages to dyeing silks in this way and I’m anxious to explore this approach in my own studio dyeing.

There is always more to learn about plants, dyeing, chemistry, and process. Life and learning continues…

Dr. Yamazaki with lake made from lac dye bath


Colors obtained from safflower petals
Safflower pink on cotton, ready to use for silk dyeing.
Safflower pink on cotton, ready to use for silk dyeing

24 thoughts on “Dyeing Naturally and Cultural Exchange in China

      1. Hi I’m staying in china. I would love to get in touch with these people to do it myself. Can you send me an email address or mobile number?

      2. I’m afraid that these people all gathered together only for a series of workshop this last month. There is no ongoing textile program at Jinze right now. Jinze offers an occasional workshop but the website is only in Chinese.

  1. Fascinating, Catharine! Did you learn how to make the camellia mordant? I’ve been wanting to try it for quite a while.

    1. We didn’t actually make the camellia ash, as there were no fresh leaves at our location. Dr. Yamasaki brought the ash with him. We did receive instructions thought and once I’ve tried it on my own, I’ll be happy to share that info.

  2. Really, really interesting! I wonder if you could say more about the mordanting process – what is the logic/rationale for dyeing first, then mordanting, then dyeing again? I’m thinking maybe the first “layer” of dye keeps the mordant from coloring the fiber as much as mordant on bare fiber? Thanks so much for your informative posts!

    1. I will be ready to say more on the mordanting process once I’ve done it myself a few times, made observations, and made it “my own”. Before then I am hesitant to go into it much further as I’ve only done it under Dr. Yamasaki’s direction. Stay tuned!

  3. i’m so glad to read this post, and the brilliant colors have brightened this overcast winter’s day. it looks like a rich exchange. i learned a bit about safflower dyeing on kozo paper a few years back and have wanted to re-visit it. i remember being stunned by the color shifts!

  4. Am also delighted to read this post first thing in my rainy Seattle morning! Sounds like an absolutely remarkable experience…glorious colors and what intrigues me the most is using mordants in the middle of the process..thanks for your post!

  5. i was fortunate to hear Dr Yamasaki speak at the UNESCO conference on natural dyes in Hyderabad in 2006. I think I recall him saying that he could replicate (exactly) no less than 167 named shades of green from the dye catalogue his family had built over generations. this is the skill that comes with knowing the plant matter (and the water!) of a particular place.
    i am wondering how much the qualities of the camellia ash, for example, will vary depending on the geographic location of the tree from which the matter (to be burned) is sourced.
    guess that’s all part of the magic of dyeing with substances that vary according to their microclimate.

    1. I’m sure that all is affected by where it’s grown, the soil, etc. Yes, it is the magic of dyeing and the importance of place. Almost makes me want to just stay home and master what is right around me.

  6. Hi Catharine! What a fantastic opportunity to learn from Dr. Yamasaki. I am fascinated by the idea of mordanting in the middle of the dye process. Building depth of color this way seems similar to multiple dips in indigo. (I started a henna indigo vat right after our class at the Mannings.) Really beautiful photos, and the dyed silk yarns are luscious.
    Thanks for posting!
    PS. Cute haircut!

  7. This is a freind of Catherine’s Yoshiko I. Wada from slowfiberstudios.com and naturaldyeworkshop.com where we re-blog Catharine’s blog in our Dye Nerds’ Blog. Since the person in charge of our blog is on vacation until the end January and I was translating Japanese to English for Dr. Yamazaki I am jumping in for some additional thoughts and information. The Jinze Art Centre in Shanghai and Slow Fiber Studios in Berkely, CA organized the workshops with Japanese masters working with my colleague Edith Cheung who is in charge of the textile program there. RE: Camellia ash (椿灰汁) since the Asuka Period (538 to 710 ) and Nara Period (AD 710 to 794) documents recorded that the Japanese dyers used the liquid strained from the camellia ash as a vehicle to shift pH and at the same time to access its alum as a mordant. Camellia is a plant which is called bio-accumulator of aluminum similar to symplocos, lycopodium and miconia. Those plants have been used as mordants in Southeast Asia, northern Europe, and Mexico respectively. The anthology of poems Man’yōshū 万葉集 literally means “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” contains many poems associating with purple colors (murasaki) and gromwell roots (shikon) and madder as well as camellia ash. The collection contains poems ranging from AD 347 (poems #85–89) through 759 (#4516), the bulk of them representing the period after AD 600.

    Catherine: At the bottom is the love poem by Princess Nukata I told you about. And it starts with madder (akane) as a pillow word but scene is the gromewll field (known to belong to Tenchi Emperor). Murasaki is purple and the plant was a precious medicinal herbs. From the poem, the guarded field may have hosted wild gromwell plants like the Super Gromwell Roots that Edith found in Hong Kong where herbalist told her “only the very best is found in Hong Kong.” The wild purple roots were so strange looking compared to the ones imported from China that Dr. Yamazaki uses in Japan that it gave him such worries during the class. He thought after making the students knead the soaked roots for 2 hours on their knees on the floor, only grey pale purple is achieved. On the contrary, we achieved the most beautiful purple even with limited time we had to process it all. Did he mention that in his studio, he kneads the roots a few times in the morning and some more in the afternoon to get maximum colorants from the plants? And he repeats dyeing, middle mordanting, and dyeing, many times in a few days to get saturated deep purple? He did say the purple dye extracted in this way has much more complexity and depth than the easy extraction with alcohol.
    茜さす紫野行き標野(しめの)行き野守(のもり)は見ずや君が袖振る 額田王(ぬかたのおおきみ).

  8. what an exciting trip and beautiful colors! I have a question: the skeins looked so well managed…were the bamboo poles used to control the yarn in the vats? You’re an inspiration!

  9. Very indepth and inspiring dyeing subject. I’ve been teaching natural prints in Jinze Arts Centre twice. The historic buildings are nice places to study the ancient techniques.

  10. So rich – to read your post and see photos of Dr. Yamazaki. I took two workshops with him in 2008 – one at the Takisaki Dye Arboretum, west of Tokyo, and the other at his atelier, on his grandfather’s land. He’s a dedicated – and generous – scholar.

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