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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…