Monday, 13 February 2012

Monday Sarasa Research

Jars of settling cochineal purple dye.

Pomegranate skins ready to have the pigment extracted.

Cedar ash to make the alkaline solution.

There is a field/mountain of Japanese textiles that seemed just too difficult to run into. The bunny hill even seemed intimidating. There just isn't that much information out there either. So on Mondays these past few months Eri and I have been experimenting with making vegetable dye extracts and fixing them on cotton and linen. Our goal is to figure out how to make a vegetable pigment paste from the dyestuffs available in the area to use with a brush and use with Japanese stencil dying techniques. We will repeat the procedures enough that we are comfortable with them and can work with a dozen or so useful dyes. We have a stack of old books written in Japanese which individually nibble away at the different overlapping and confusing techniques. Going through stacks of actual antique materials we are very slowly figuring out which techniques were mixed and used with each type of cloth. Instinctively we are maneuvering through these to find what cloth we would like to make ourselves. We have pulled off a few lucky minor masterpieces already. Smells like beginner's luck.

The topic of sarasa itself is a tough nut to crack in Japan. The techniques came to life in some obscure corner of India in the 13th century. Fixing color on the surface of cotton with woodblock mordant stamping, metal stamp beeswax resist. cut out stencil dyes used with a paste resist and/or as a positive stencil, hand painted and endless combinations of techniques mixed with endless varieties of vegetable, animal and rock pigments. The cloth was imported to Japan in the 15th century on Portuguese ships. It spread and was both valued and despised for the foreign aesthetic brought with it. And the genius of Japanese adaption, refinement and technical improvement took off.

The authoritative reference books we got our paws on are often contradictory and not written by practicing artisans. Often edited/written by someone smelling a tad nationalistic and unable to place the techniques on a larger horizon and decipher them historically, aesthetically and technically. Great information is out there somewhere but for the time being it is better to swim around in the unknown and let a few bottom weeds tangle our ankles and cause some panic. Classrooms and detailed 'how to' books seem to deaden the actual work. The time will come to polish up what we learn but now is the time to run with the potential of each color and technique as we discover it. This is the dilemma of teaching. How to show just enough technique to create enthusiasm and have the students play and discover for themselves.

First the cloth has to be impregnated with a protein from soy beans. Then the cloth should be impregnated with a mordant. So far we have just used creme of tartar and aluminum. It won't be long before we will move onto woodblock and metal stamps meaning more experiments with iron and copper. Working with tannin heavy barks and nuts will also be necessary to get at the potentials of these techniques.

The extract method varies slightly for each dyestuff. Most require an alkaline solution made from wood ash. Take some wood ash and pour on boiling water and strain it. Let the sediment settle for two days and take off the clear water on the top. This ash alkaline solution is necessary as both a mordant (naturally occurring aluminium) and acts to help draw out the pigment and make it soluble.

So far we have made pastes from onion skins, cochineal, pomegranate skins, madder, suo, gardenia pods and cedar bark. You usually end up with a pigment mud the consistency of a rubbery toothpaste.

Basically you are making a paint that needs a binding agent to the cloth. Hide or bone marrow glue is the easiest and most direct method. The cloth ends up being stiff. Not the best for clothing. Strong mordant with a protein isn't as color fast but the cloth remains soft.

I will keep you updated as the experiments go forward and share insights and techniques.

A few images taken from the Internet.


  1. hi Bryan

    when i was taught how to print and paint with natural dyes.

    we simmered the cloth in a metal salt mordant or alkaline solution.

    then if we wanted we would could alternate between the mordant and a tannin rich solution for cellulose and bast fibers.

    after that we would dry the fabric , stretch it coat it with a solution of soy milk or alginate.

    reduce our dyes down to either a pigment or concentration.

    use guar gum powder or sodium alginate as a thickener.

    paint or print with the design let it dry and steam it for an hour .

    also be careful in a high acidity solution the thickeners can curdle.

    i hope i could help

    1. Dear Bronte san:
      I've used soy milk on vegetable fiber cloth and thread for years to later dye with yellows to over dye with indigo to get greens. Mixed results on cloth. The yellow dyes from gardenia are a little unstable and tend to mottle with the soy drenched fabric.
      I think I did have a really nasty curdle because of the acidity of the tarter when I made a lake from pomegranate skins. Thank you for the hint. It was a direct hit. I have years of experience with indigo and dying silk with natural dyes. I am not confident with vegetable dyes on bast fibers yet. Thank you for the encouragement and advice.

  2. It seems a person could spend a good portion of one life just learning the alchemy of madder. It's a bit like clearing an old trail, looking for the path, finding many forks. It makes me happy to see that it is explored.

  3. I recently sent a few pieces of old Japanese cloth to our mutual friend Jean Betts. She said they were probably sarasa, a term I wasn't familiar with. I Googled, and boom! Here I am finding out what it is from you! Small world.
    Heather on Gabriola