Arimatsu Shibori

Tie-dyeing has evolved in many cultures around the world, and can be seen on fabrics made thousands of years ago in Latin America, Africa, India, and China and around Asia. It entered Japan at least 1300 years ago from China, along with the Chinese style of dress, and was interpreted in a particularly Japanese fashion.

One of the most famous locations for Shibori in Japan is Arimatsu in Nagoya. When he united Japan, the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu of Okazaki, moved the capital of Japan to Edo (now Tokyo). Ieyasu required that all the Daimyo or feudal lords traveled to Edo every other year to swear allegiance to him, and established 53 stations on the road between Osaka and Edo for them to rest during the journey. To ensure their safety, he encouraged the foundation of villages around these stations, one of which was Arimatsu, the forty-second station on the Tokaido, which was settled in 1608 by eight families.

Arimatsu Shibori
Arimatsu Shibori
Arimatsu Shibori

The basic technique of Arimatsu Shibori is to draw a design on a piece of fabric (usually silk or cotton), then to tie very tight knots with thread around points of the fabric. The fabric is then dyed; since the dye does not penetrate the knots, when they are untied there is a pattern of dyed and non-dyed areas. This can be repeated many times to produce patterns of various colors.

Shibori was originally an art of the poor. In feudal Japan, many people could not afford to buy expensive fabrics like cotton or silk, so clothes were often made of cheap hemp fabrics. People could not afford to replace clothes regularly either, so they would repair and re-dye them, and the art of Shibori evolved as a means of making old clothes look new. During the long period of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate, many different arts flourished, and many different techniques and local forms of Shibori emerged. Shibori developed along two separate paths: as the method of decorating the silk used for producing kimonos for the aristocracy of Japan (largely carried out in Kyoto), and as a folk art differing from region to region.

While building a castle in Nagoya for his son, Ieyasu used workers from all over Japan. One group from Oita brought with them the techniques of Shibori, and the local families developed the technique to produce the particular beauty of Arimatsu Shibori. Travelers along the Tokaido road would buy cloths and towels made by the people of Arimatsu.

Arimatsu Shibori
Arimatsu Shibori
Arimatsu Shibori

During the Tokugawa period, the merchant class was relatively powerless, and it seems that they spent large amounts of money on various recreational activities, including buying elaborate kimonos which served to boost the industry. With the introduction of large scale mechanization and modernization in the textile industry following the Meiji Restoration, railways removed a lot of the traffic from the Tokaido and seriously threatened the industry in Arimatsu. In response, many mechanization processes were developed to improve the efficiency of the production of Shibori, but it was still a labor-intensive process. However, with the popularity of yukata until the Second World War, the industry enjoyed relative prosperity.

The depression following the Second World War reduced the demand for expensive silk Shibori, but the economic boom of the 1960s saw a return to popularity for the kimono and an increased demand for the skills of the artisans. Kyoto had always been the home of the more expensive silk dyeing for kimonos, but the artisans of Arimatsu expanded their range and experimented with the material, enjoying considerable success. However, with the advent of artificial fabrics and dyes and fully mechanized production of fabrics, Arimatsu could no longer compete on the large scale it had before, and Shibori returned to a handmade high-quality high-price artifact.

Most of the artisans of Arimatsu worked out of their houses, meaning that the architecture of the town is quite unique and is in itself a national treasure. Since most of the work is manual, the same pattern produced with the same materials will be different depending on the artisan. Each person is specialized in one of the particular techniques, and often several people will work together to produce a single work.

Some of the basic techniques

  • Miura Shibori - named after a Doctor's wife who brought the technique to Arimatsu from Shikoku. Whereas most Shibori is made by tying knots around points of material, Miura Shibori consists of looped binding, keeping out less dye. It produces softer effects and is much cheaper. Commonly used for common clothes like yukata.
  • Arashi Shibori ("storm" Shibori). A length of cloth is folded and wrapped around a four-meter pole. The folding method produces a stormlike effect of lines and dashes, hence the name.
  • Kumo Shibori ("spider web" Shibori). Arimatsu is famous for the quality of its handmade Kumo Shibori. While it is possible to produce a highly regular spider-web pattern by machine, artisans in Arimatsu are renowned for the regularity of their hand-made kumo Shibori.
  • Nui Shibori - ("stitched" Shibori). The material is sewn to form the pattern before dyeing.
  • Suji Shibori - hand folded over a rope core in a similar fashion to arashi Shibori, then bound and dyed.

The material is then dyed, dried, and then carefully untied. The untying is one of the most important phases - it is vital not to distort the material or the entire piece and months of work are ruined. Finally, the material is steamed and stretched to remove creases.

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