Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Indigo Blues Need Some Madder Red.

It is possible to get a spectrum of blue shades from indigo. The pigment is the same and with each subsequent dip and oxidation the color deepens as the pigment piles up on the surface of the thread. From a pale sky blue with single dip in the vat until a purplish black blue with upwards of 15 dips in the vat. The tone stays much the same. It is next to impossible to dip a brush in indigo and paint it on a fabric. It is not an ink. The oxidation part of the dyeing process does not lend itself to being brushed on.
(There is a way to do this...involves a kind of arsenic. Yipee.)

Cloth and thread can be under dyed with yellows and reds etc. to get a spectrum of greens and purples. There is a bit of hit and miss with this method, depending on the material. (Semi de-gummed silk often works very well.)  The under dye color often reacts with the high pH of the indigo and the greens are sometimes garish and the purples murky at best. A charcoal grey under dye can take the biting edge off the indigo blue.

The pure indigo color is almost worshipped by indigo aficionados.

I get it. I get it.

But it can get on your nerves looking at it for twenty years. That same bloody blue! ( To the indigo  fans here.... something sacrilegious and borderline blasphemous in that confession!)

The Japanese have used indigo cleverly and sublimely. I don't deny it.

Wanting to add a second color to the stencil dyes I worked with persimmon tannin for years.  The combination works well.  Here are a few snaps of scraps. The rice resist paste is applied and the cloth dyed five times in indigo. The remaining rice paste is removed, the cloth is washed and dried and ironed. The next rice paste application uses the same stencil only shifted a few millimeters over giving the work an off-set effect.  

Then it is dipped in the persimmon tannin juice every morning and placed where it can dry quickly with as many ultra-violet rays hitting the cloth directly as possible. This process is repeated ten times. It can take a few months to get a really rich brown color. The persimmon dyed areas have a shine. The quality of the indigo underneath is transformed into a deep space blue/black.

In addition the hard lines of stencil dying are softened and there is an extra dimension added to pattern. The cloth becomes stiff from the tannin and is not suitable for clothing. It is very labour intensive. There  are only a few months a year when the ultra-violet rays are strong enough to dye with persimmon dye. You can't be away from the house while the cloth sits outside on the ground. It may rain and with my place the cloth has a morning position in front of the house and an afternoon position at the side of the house as the mountains get in the way of a full day of sunshine.

 Working with indigo and persimmon tannin together should be enough to keep me satisfied. But no.... I want to use red.  This is where sarasa came into the picture.

There are not a lot samples of Japanese sarasa out there as the techniques were not widespread and used only where there had been a reasonable amount of economic freedom.  The good pieces had long been coveted away by collectors years ago. Although I have worked around Japanese textiles for twenty years, sarasa was something I saw in books and occasionally museums. It seemed very much out of reach. There are a few artists in Japan working with the techniques but they are really squirreled away in their ivory towers far from where I am. Before I search a teacher out I wanted to jump in the techniques and swim around for a few years. There is not a specific place to study. It will be stealing a hint of a process here and there and working it out in a direction that seems to be calling me. So Eri and I are mucking around on Mondays with books we are in endless awe of. In this blog I want to share some pictures of those pieces that are so attractive. I'll probably be blogging off and on about Sarasa for a few years to come. I should give a little more background as I go along.
This is an old soft covered book in the Taiyo series that documented so much of disappearing Japanese culture. Copies are rare now. The characters read, Sarasa. The entire book is in Japanese. The chapters are essays written  by different researchers and textile historians and collectors.
1. The roots of the techniques started in ancient India.
2.  Indigo and Rose Madder a Heavenly Garden of      Arabesques.
3.  Temple made of hanging cloth. Khrisna and Angels.
4.  Cloth for Maharajas.
5.  Gold and Clouds, the mother of all sarasa.
6.  Sarasa stencils.
7.  Sarasa moves to Indonesia.
8.  Sarasa moves to Siam. (Thailand)
9.  Sarasa moves to Persia.
10.Sarasa moves to Europe.
11. Sarasa comes to Japan.

There are over 50 essays in the book. This is not the place to list them up! (Maybe I should translate the whole book? Or maybe write a new one. There is never enough time in a day.)
This is a sample of the old school Indian sarasa. All the red is dyed with madder. Both in lake form (reduced pigment to a jelly like condition that can be brushed on cloth) and a dye bath. Here the patterns have been painted and wood block printed on.

18th century. The techniques are getting more complex using wax for a resist amongst other mixed techniques. Obviously in touch with Europe by this time. ( A Christian converted Maharaja's collection.)

It starts to get interesting when you see the pattern design is influenced  by the aesthetics of the country before sarasa was introduced. The influence of a Persia carpet is obvious here on this piece of sarasa from Persia.

When the techniques arrived in Europe they took on a different flavor. The colonies brought an explosion of textile design in Europe. It is fascinating to see how the European mind found clever ways to produce these textiles with new techniques.  I  visited some museums in Switzerland and Austria over the past few years to be taken back at the ingenuity of the Europeans absorbing some of the design factors and creating such beautiful textiles.

It is when the techniques arrived in Japan that I really get excited. No Persian carpet motifs. No French Salon influence. The influence comes from the stencil dying technique that were already here. Influence from the 'mon' house and family lineage crests and the Japanese already existing love of natural motifs.

This is the stuff Eri and I are hoping to be influenced by in making our own stencils with motifs from life around us. Using pigments we make from plants and mixing the indigo techniques we have picked up already.

 These samples have been made with stencil paper used as a positive and negative and wood stamps and brushed on pigment.

These sarasa are almost completely made on cotton. Difficult, as the cloth has to be impregnated with a protein before dying. I am starting to set up a white silk warp to weave of silk I grew and reeled. Then I can make some real original sarasa on cloth I've made right form the egg! Will I live to 150 to actually manage to do this?

The cloth makes great Japanese bags for ceramics. Ohh la la.

Chemical dyes introduced to the world in the mid 1800's instantly decimated the traditional techniques of making sarasa. It was far too time consuming and needed a fair sized industry to supply natural dye pigment. Several new techniques to surface pattern kimono material did materialize and flourish with the introduction of chemical dyes. Yuzen variations blossomed with the new dyes and the steady hand and creativity of the traditional Edo period dyers and dye houses. (Another blog another time.)


  1. Just think of all the fun we could have with this and PAPER! Drooling over the last two posts and buzzing with all the possibilities. You tackle projects with such complexity - I admire your patience and love your results.

    1. Hi Susan,
      I shake my head when friends say they are bored. Jump in to something way over your head and swim...this is a cure for boredom! A little chaotic at times I must confess. I do get envious when I see friends go off camping for a week though. Too many complex projects on the go to take more than a single night off. (And camp at the crowded local campground. )

  2. onesmallstitch22 June 2012 at 14:24

    my new indigo vat is sulking - I'd love a bit of that "bloody blue". my homegrown madder gives a wild, day-glow orange and there will never be enough rays this summer to fix the kakishibu!! love the research, can't wait to see the silk weaving. Good luck with the 150 years, maybe Ogata-san can give you some tips.

    1. Jean san, Problem is almost always the pH has dropped below 11. It can really drop suddenly in humid weather. I keep an eye on Ogata san taking cues! When you do get rays take advantage of them and put the cloth on a sheet of metal (no rust) and the heat will help out. Same here rainy season...

  3. great posts on sarassa thank you. i have never been much of a fan, but i love your take on fabric.

    1. Hi Neki,
      I wasn't a fan either. I remember visiting a studio in Gujurat many years ago and purchasing the tablecloth that they were using under the actual material being dyed. It was much more interesting i thought at the time. I was turned off by the endless piles of dusty mouse eaten mass produced stuff that I never took the time to search out the good stuff. The same with silk actually. After spending six months in India way back I went home never wanting to see a fabric store ever again! The stamped stuff gets tiring quickly.

  4. Some exquisite samples there Bryan. Can see why you ar o excited

    1. Hi Judy,
      I really am in to it these days. Keep an eye out for your parcel it should almost be there. Thank you for the CD. For some reason I can't get it open. It is my computer CD drive I think. I will try another one tomorrow.


  5. Wonderful stuff!!

  6. wonderful to see how your experiments are moving. the "scraps" are delicious and hold so much potential! i recognize well the need to try something then go off on a related tangent and to eventually (maybe) come back. as i wait in the airport to go to oz, i have to leave the experiments at home and set my mind on teaching.

    1. Velma san, Have a safe journey. Bryan

    2. thank you, bryan. someday it may be a trip to japan. if i am lucky!
      what does it mean to add san to my name? when i worked with hiroko karuno she eschewed the word.

    3. 'San' doesn't have an English counter part. It is used after both men 's and women's names both first and last and is honorific and shows respect. 'Sama' has the same function but is a little too formal. 'Chan' is used for children, particularly girls and is the cute form 'san'. 'kun' is works the same for boys or occasionally tough girls. Foreigners often make the mistake of using 'san' on themselves referring to themselves as honorable.
      Even old friends use 'san' on each other to show respect. It can also be used ironically. Some Japanese are glad to be out of a society with so many rules and distinctions and the use of 'san' reminds them of inflexible aspects of this culture.
      Strangers who need to get your attention will call you by your age appearance plus 'san' 'Oniisan' big brother. or 'Ojisan'old guy. 'Obasan' old woman. I'll call a taxi driver, 'Driver san'. I am always called. Gaijin san', 'Mr. Foreigner'.
      I can always get a big smile out of an older woman by calling her, 'oneesan' big sister. Ogata san cracks up with this one,not just with the age discrepancy but with the racial one as well.

    4. thank you bryan for this explanation. it has helped me very much. as with so much else, unless one uses words with understanding, it's best to keep it simple. i like that you play language games with certain senior women!

  7. I am wondering if this is what is referred to as "Turkey Red". Fascinating piece here Bryan. As always an eye-opener!

    1. J san, Same root, madder. in Turkey they used just about everything under the sun along with the madder to get those deep blood reds. I'll have to look into it one day. I will keep you in the loop on our trip to Ise. Perhaps in autumn after the indigo workshops.

  8. Wonderful, thanks for your invaluable insight. Here is one interesting source someone found a few months ago that perked my interest.

    Did you see the video? I hope you enjoyed it.