More thoughts on Natural Dye and Cultural Exchange in China…

Yoshiko I. Wada wrote the follow comment in response to the latest blog post. She was a very important part of this experience and I thought her words, with  additional insight,  deserved their own spot and thus the following:

“This is a friend of Catharine’s, Yoshiko I. Wada from and, 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 g Japanese to English translator 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.

Yoshiko Wada and Edith Cheung in Jinze Town.

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.

Gromwell on silk

Catharine: 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.”

Purple Gromwell roots (Arnebiae radix)

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.

Yoshiko I. Wada

Gromwell on silk with extraction by kneading and camellia ash mordant

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).


10 thoughts on “More thoughts on Natural Dye and Cultural Exchange in China…

  1. Oh my! Thank you so much, Catherine and Yoshiko for this wonderful Part 2 of your dye experience in China! Fascinating..delightful to see the shaking if the gromwell etc…and since yesterday I have had my eye on the camellias outside my window here in Seattle!

  2. Hi, I can’t see any reference that would indicate what types of camellia are being burned or in fact what part of the plant is burned to create the ash. Does it matter what type or part of the plant is used?

    1. I would guess that Dr. Yamazaki was using Camellia japonica. The amount of alum accumulated by the leaves would be dependent on local soil conditions. Fresh leaves were used to make the wood ash but Dominique Cardon also refers to use of the branches.
      This is not something that I have first hand experience with doing yet. There is lots to explore….

  3. What a fabulous experience! Thanks to Catherine and Yoshido for sharing it and I am looking forward to seeing results of this (for us in the west) new information..

  4. NOTE: The video where students are shaking the plastic cans with a lid is the alcohol extraction of purple roots. it is quick but Dr. Yamazaki prefers kneading the roots by hand on our knees for 2 to 3 hours for more complex color.

  5. Hello !

    My name is Françoise Curtet and I live in France, near Paris, where I am in charge of an ecological garden, with some dyeing plants. We organize workshops about all uses of plants and organic gardening.

    We have bought four years ago murasaki seeds – Lithospermum erithrorizon – , and they grew very, very well, each plant has made a lot of seeds, so we have every year a lot of new plants all around, from the old ones. And I took of some roots last summer, from the biggest plants, which had suffer from draught. Could you please send me a summary of how to prepare and dye with these roots ? I only got very few information in France and I just read your posts. So I would like very much to do it the right way. I precise that it is not in a commercial purpose, because we only work with people around our place, which is rather popular, poor and mostly immigrant population.

    Thank for your help!

    PS : I was at the Resist dye Symposium in Hangzhou, it was so interesting !

    Françoise Curtet, Coordinatrice-Déléguée
    Ateliers de la Nature – 33 rue Pierre Dulac
    94120 Fontenay-sous-Bois
    Site :
    Facebook :

  6. How wonderful that you have the roots from the garden. I would be happy to send you information directly, based on the the dyeing process that we learned from Dr. Yamasaki. I would also love to know more about growing the plants myself!

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