Paper Art: Dyeing the Japanese Way

paper art fabric art dyeing
Silk scarves manipulated and dyed with Kakishibu.
All photos by Chris Conrad.

cate pratoA few years ago I was cleaning the bathtub in my favorite, chocolate brown t-shirt. I stood up to clean the mirror and that's when I noticed a dappled pattern across the front of the shirt, caused by the bleach in the cleaner I was using.

The first thing that came to mind was, "Cool!"

The second was, "I wonder if I could replicate that on purpose?"

You know what I mean. There's something magical about dyeing fibers. Not just the excitement of seeing the fabric or paper altered but the mystery of not knowing exactly what you're going to get. And then the delight of a pleasant surprise (usually).

I've tried overdyeing small pieces of lace and fabric with paint or ink. And I've also done some rusting with found objects as well as some tea-dyeing. I've dyed papers with coffee and ink. And I plan to do some indigo dyeing this summer.

Chemical dyes, though beautiful, seem a little complicated with all the formula-measuring, mask-wearing, and vats of boiling water. But I've been intrigued by natural botanical dyes, and I may just have found my perfect dyeing solution: the ancient art of kakishibu.

kakishibu paper art
Kakishibu-dyed bamboo and
papier-mâché baskets in a
Japanese flea market.

Kakishibu is made from the juice of fermented unripe persimmons and can be purchased commercially in liquid and powder form online and in specialty stores. It has been used for more than a millennium in China and Korea, but most fully in Japan, where for centuries every family had a persimmon tree in the yard, according to an article in Colorways: Artisan Hues in Fiber and Fabric, the new interactive eMag from Interweave about dyeing fibers.

Kakishibu is kind of a miracle substance. Not only does it have a host of medicinal uses, but long before petrochemicals were available, the naturally occurring chemicals in kakishibu offered a powerful combination of antimicrobial, water-resistant, and insect-repellent qualities that helped preserve fabric, paper, and yarn.

The best part? You don't need heat, chemicals, or mordants to use it. Just brush or dip the room temperature solution of kakishibu and water onto your fabric or paper and let the sun and tannin molecules in the juice do the work. You can create different patterns by manipulating what is or is not exposed to the sun. This is an easy method to add to your handmade paper or other paper art repertoire.

"Kakishibu is safe, natural, and embarrassingly simple to start," says artist Chris Conrad in the video portion of the article introducing the method. She also writes a how-to article that includes a video demonstration. Chris is an expert in kakishibu, having written the book Kakishibu: Traditional Persimmon Dye of Japan.

washi paper arts
Woven washi paper that has been kakishibu dyed.

This isn't the only piece in Colorways that intrigued me. I learned the fascinating history (and uses for) that most coveted of all crimson dyes, cochineal, which is made from crushed bugs; the process of dyeing fibers for the vivid rugs from Mexico; the many different hues of the cotton plant, and how you can use that knowledge to affect your end results; how to use collage to choose colors and patterns in a design; and how to cold-dye fabrics with onion skins.

Plus, the slide shows and videos take you to Japan, West Africa, Scotland, Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala as you learn the history and culture associated with these dyeing and design methods.

When you download and experience Colorways, it's like taking a textile tour around the world, right from your desktop. I can't wait to hand over my passport and take the tour again.

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Blog, Paper Art and Zen Doodle

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