What is Japanese Shibori?
If you're interested in textile art, in particular, tie-dying you will no doubt have come across the term Japanese shibori. Whilst the term tie-dying may conjure images of garishly coloured t-shirts worn by European festival-goers Japanese shibori is in fact an incredibly refined art form and enjoys a long history within Japan. Although the Japanese word ‘shibori’ 絞り has no equivalent in the English language, it could be roughly translated as to ‘wring, squeeze or press’. However, this doesn’t quite answer the question of ‘what is shibori’ so without further ado, let's dive right in and discover the world of shibori. In the blog post below we’ll discuss the techniques used to create shibori, a little bit about its history as well as exploring some of the contemporary designer and artists working with Japanese shibori techniques today.
What is the history of Japanese Shibori?
Shibori in Japan enjoys a long history with its origins going back almost 1300 years. Around this time the shibori technique was introduced to Japan from China. Although there are early examples of Japanese shibori, the style really flourished during the Edo period. During this time it was forbidden for common folk to wear luxury fabrics and so new ways of decorating the cheaper linen and hemp fabrics were sought. This is where shibori began to play a significant role in Japanese textile production. Through the manipulation of fabrics prior to dying rich and fascinating patterns could be developed which lifted ‘plain’ fabrics such as hemp into the extraordinary. The intricacy and beauty of shibori dyed patterns allowed kimono garments made from these fabrics to exude a luxurious and unique quality similar to the richly painted, embroidered and woven ‘forbidden’ silks and made shibori a popular choice for working-class consumers. Additionally, shibori was used to ‘refresh and renew’ damaged or worn kimono clothing with the patterns used to hide or cover fabric damages and flaws. The close relationship between Japanese indigo dyeing and shibori stems from this period, wherein working-class people used both readily available natural indigo dye and shibori batik techniques to decorate, repair and enhance their Kimono.Although shibori is often considered an art form of the poor, there certainly also existed a market within Japan for shibori decorated silks. Because the use of silk was banned for common folk, shibori decorated silk kimono was worn only by high-ranking officials and members of the Japanese aristocracy. Today, shibori decorated silk Kimono are considered some of the most covetable due to the incredible skill and time needed to create one of these masterpieces. Imagine wearing a Kimono which has taken 6 -24 months of non-stop work to complete and you begin to understand why this is so.
Tokuseu Hitome Sohshibori Hon Furisode - "This magnificent design exhibits extreme intricacy of composition, resist knotting (each hand tied eleven times), and pigmentation. Itoh's revival of the virtually lost technique of including as many as 3,600 knots per square "shaku" (approximately one square foot) results in exceptional detail and vibrancy, demanding as much as two years of labor for each masterpiece" - Image curtesy of the Met Museum
What are the Different Styles of Japanese Shibori?
There are six primary styles of Japanese shibori: Kanoko, Miura, Kumo, Nui, Arashi and Itajime. Additionally there are hundreds of lesser known styles of Japanese shibori.
Kanoko is the technique which most closely resembles what we know today as Tie-dye. The technique used to create Kanako shibori involves using thread to bind and secure sections of cloth prior to dying. Modern techniques often use rubber bands to tie off’ sections of the fabric but traditionally this would have been achieved through the use of tightly bound thread. The patterns achieved through the Kanako technique are organic and spontaneous with the final pattern being the result of how tightly the binding threads are tied as well as the distance between bound sections. The most common pattern for Kanoko shibori is circular shapes.
Miura is a technique that involves binding and looping sections of fabric. A special hook and needle are used to ‘pluck’ sections of the cloth and then a thread is wrapped around each plucked section. Because the plucked sections are held in place through the thread tension and not by knotting Miura shibori threads are relatively easy to remove post dying and make this a popular and relatively easy technique.
Kumo Shibori uses found objects to resist the dye. Leaves, stones or other natural shapes are wrapped in fabric and held in place with thread. After dying the objects are removed and the undyed fabric is left in their place. This technique can achieve interesting patterns and creates organic naturalistic shapes on the cloth.
Nui is a stitching technique. The technique involves stitching pre-designed patterns onto the cloth and pulling the threads together very tightly to gather the cloth. The threads are then gathered and secured into place before dying. Because the Nui shibori technique is very labour intensive and allows for highly detailed and accurate shibori patterns to be created.
Arashi is a technique originally developed in the Japanese shibori village of Arimatsu (read our blog post about Arimatsu here) as a way to speed up the shibori process in order to be able to complete with mechanized processes which had begun to infiltrate the Japanese textile market during the time of its development. The technique involves twisting, wrapping and binding sections of cloth around wooden poles period to dying. The fabric is always twisted as it is wrapped which creates easily recognisable diagonal patterns.
Finally, Itajime Shibori is a technique which requires the fabric to be intricately folded and sandwiched between two pieces of wood. The tension of the claps and the techniques used to fold the fabrics create a lovely geometric shape.
Itajime Shibori -
Is Shibori always blue?
No, not at all. You can find examples of shibori in almost every conceivable colour from neon pink to the deepest of blacks. People often think of Japanese shibori as being blue because many of the Edo period workwear kimono are dyed with indigo and decorated with shibori patterns. This was due to the fact that natural indigo was one of the few dyes available to common folk and shibori was the perfect technique for decorating this style of indigo-blue clothing.
What is the difference between tie-dye and shibori?
Whilst it's true that both tie-dye and shibori are a form of resist dyeing, shibori itself describes a whole range of specialised resist-dyeing techniques wherein tie-dye is just one of many. Tie-dye, on the other hand, describes a Westernised-style of resist dyeing whereby rubber bands are used to bind the fabric prior to dying. Tie-dye has its origins in the shibori technique of Kanako.
Japanese Shibori History - Where did the Technique Originate?
Japanese shibori has its origins in China and was originally introduced to Japan around 1300 years ago. The availability of natural indigo dyes, as well as fabrics made from hemp and silk, all of which are very receptive to shibori dyeing techniques, meant that shibori became a popular method for decorating textile fabrics within Japan. The so to say, ‘peak shibori’ time was reached during the Edo period when a whole industry centred around shibori techniques flourished within Japan. Modern-day technologies, as well as the outsourcing of Japanese textile production to lower-wage countries, means that shibori as an art form in on the verge of dying out and few artisans skilled in the traditional techniques remain.
Examples of Japanese Shibori Clothing
There are many examples of Japanese shibori clothing from traditional cotton yukata and kimono to more modern styles including dresses, scarves and blouses.
What is the Best Fabric for Shibori?
Shibori works best on natural fibres which have a high level of dye absorbance. These include cotton, hemp, linen and silk. Fabrics which are coated or those that have a high polyester or synthetic fibre content tend to not lend themselves well to shibori. Choosing a fabric which absorbs dye well is especially important if you are considering working with natural dyes such as indigo. It's also important to pre-wash fabrics prior to dyeing to ensure that any starches, fabric coatings or other fabric treatments which may interfere with the dye are removed.
How do you Wash Shibori Fabric?
This depends on the type of fabric that the shibori has been applied to. For silk, a delicate swirl in a bucket of cold water into which has been added some gentle laundry detergent should suffice. Shibori silks should not be dry cleaned as the chemicals used during the dry cleaning process may damage the fabric. For shibori dyed cotton, hemp and linens a cold machine wash is perfectly ok. Some people like to add a few teaspoons of salt to the wash program as this may help the colour to remain steadfast. Please keep in mind that through washing, the surface texture of the shibori will flatten out and the patterns will begin to change their shape a little. Read about how to wash your kimono here.
The Best Examples of Japanese Shibori Kimonos
Indigo Dyed Shibori Kimono -
Watch this Video from the V&A Museum to see how Japanese Shibori is made
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Modern Archive is an online space for textile lovers. We're especially obsessed with everything to do with Japanese Kimonos, Ai-zome and Shibori. We write about things that we like in our kimono magazine and occasionally host pop-up events. Find us on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook. Send us an email to hellomodernarchive@gmail (or blow us a kiss).