Maybe you’ve noticed that indigo is having a moment.
In Japan, this vibrant blue dye never gone completely out of fashion—although the time and labor required to produce the natural colorant have caused the ranks of truly dedicated artisans to dwindle over the last century.
Happily, artists like Hiroyuki Shindo are breathing new life into this ancient craft, using venerable techniques to produce contemporary works of breathtaking beauty.
For more than thirty years Shindo has lived and worked in Kita, a tiny rural village in the mountains of northern Kyoto prefecture. Located in the historic preservation district of Miyama Kayabuki No Sato, it essentially consists of roughly 40 traditional thatched roof farmhouses that were moved to this buccolic spot decades ago.
The homes, built during the Edo Period, are striking for steeply pitched roofs that once held everything a family might need to survive long, snowy winters. The picturesque thatch, made of dried miscanthus stalks and plumes, must be replaced every 30 years, particularly when it begins to deteriorate and grow brilliant green moss.
Wandering the village streets is like falling back in time. In mid-fall, flower and vegetable gardens were still abundant, and a few residents were meticulously working the beds by hand. Under the eaves of one house stood a traditional wooden vat for making sake; at another, persimmons were hung up to dry outside. Except for cars and pickup trucks parked helter skelter along the paved street—and a crowd of camera-toting tourists—we might almost have stepped into the twilight zone
Shindo’s large farmhouse was built over 200 years ago, most likely by a master craftsman for a village elder. It’s fitting that this modest man has chosen such a quiet, traditional place in which to practice his age-old, time-consuming craft.
Yet Shindo is also inquisitive and inventive, and global in his outlook. And though he is one of the world’s pre-eminent indigo artists, he was excited to share his passion with a couple of total amateurs (that, of course, would be B and me).
Unlike some contemporary indigo artists, Shindo ferments his own dye in vats built into the earthen floor of what was once the farmhouse kitchen. The process of making the dye begins with the plant’s leaf, in which all the chemical compounds that eventually create the colorant are concentrated.
To induce fermentation, he mixes composted leaves with lye, wheat bran, slaked lime and even sake. Over several weeks, the mixture is stirred often and must be kept warm, sometimes by covering the vats with quilts. The process can be unpredictable (some feel that the natural dye is a living thing) and it is not unusual for artisans pray to the dye god—Aizen Shin—for success.
When froth or foam (known as ai no hana, or indigo flowers) appears on the surface of the liquid, it is a sign of successful fermentation. Shindo said that he’d been using the dye in one vat for nearly three months, while the other had been fermenting for just 10 days. Both, however, appeared to be in “bloom.”
Many of the artist’s works involve cotton fibers that are twisted, tied or otherwise contorted before they are dipped into the dye vat, so as to create specific patterns when they are unwrapped.
To this end, he has invented a device consisting of two large cylinders or drums which are wound tightly to keep the threads taut. Each thread is aligned exactly with its neighbor on either side, but eventually some will be manipulated in various ways before being dipped in indigo.
Just the outer threads will turn blue—one of indigo’s magical characteristics is that dyed fibers change color only when exposed to air—while the inner threads remain white. He calls his method, which is based on the traditional resist technique known as shibori, “Shindo Shibori.”
People have been dyeing fabric with indigo using shibori and other techniques for centuries, in places as far flung as Hungary, France and India. Over the years, Shindo has created a stunning collection which is displayed in the Little Indigo Museum on the second floor of his house. I was mesmerized by a group of beautiful indigo textiles printed in Holland using Javanese patterns—a cultural nod to the Dutch control of Indonesia and its spice trade in the 17th century.
Downstairs, in his gallery area, he stores cardboard boxes of traditional Japanese clothing for study and inspiration. Currently one of his fascinations is indigo-dyed under garments from the early 20th century, including cloth that was used for baby diapers.
“I don’t know why I am fascinated with these common pieces of fabric,” he mused. “So much time and effort was spent dying them—and they were never seen. They were underwear for ordinary people.”
As Shindo sorted through these simple pieces, my eye kept straying to a large textile hanging behind him. Two side panels of deep blue, loosely woven Indonesian fabric flanked a central cotton panel with a white “waterfall” lightly streaked with blue, “pouring” down the middle. Around it he had arranged balls wrapped with thread that had been dipped in the dye vat, so that some parts were white and some blue. It was a striking contemporary assemblage.
Later I was not surprised to learn that he has exhibited his works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as at museums in Canada, Holland and the UK.
In a small shop by the door of the farmhouse, the shelves were piled with lovely drawstring bags, each of which featured a different shibori pattern. I scooped them up as gifts for friends—quite useful on their own (the small oblong bags could easily hold a pair of reading glasses) or as stunning fabric “wraps,” a modern take on furoshiki.
And that remarkable wall hanging? It arrived a few weeks after we returned from Japan. Now we’re just waiting for it to tell us where it would most like to be.
For directions and more information about Hiroyuki Shindo’s workshop and Little Indigo Museum, please see his website: www.shindo-shindigo.com. He is profiled in Catherine LeGrand’s book, Indigo: The Color That Changed the World, and is also the subject of a fine article by Jennifer Harris in the March 2007 issue of Selvedge, a magazine published in the UK.