To put it in the crudest terms, you could describe shibori as the traditional, Japanese incarnation of tie-dye. However, the artform pre-dates the 1960s flower power era by over 1000 years, and continues to be a vital practise today.
The term shibori is simply the Japanese word 絞り, which translates as to wring or squeeze. That doesn’t quite answer the question 'what is shibori?' so we’re going to look a little deeper: at its many techniques, its connection to the world of indigo dyeing, and the contemporary designers keeping the form alive today. Whether this is the first time you’re hearing of shibori, or you’d simply like to learn more, here is a crash course for you.
1) Where Does Shibori Come From?
Shibori is considered to be one of the oldest indigo dye techniques in Japan. Originating in China, shibori dyeing really gained mainstream traction in Japan during the Edo Period from the 17th-19th centuries, as people from the lower social classes needed an alternative to the silk that they were banned from wearing. Although that that doesn’t sound too old (relatively speaking!) in reality, shibori’s origins go way beyond the 1600s.
The earliest examples of shibori textiles date all the way back to the 8th century. It was during that time that Emperor Shomu included a piece of shibori dyed cloth in a collection of items donated to Nara’s Todai-ji Temple. As time progressed, new variations of the technique came into being, and additional dye techniques like tsutsugaki, the art of creating patterns using rice paste before dying, began to follow suit.
In case you weren’t sure, here are 6 Things You Should Know About Indigo Dyeing!
2) What’s the Difference Between Shibori and Regular Tie-Dye?
Shibori artists use thread to isolate many small repeated points on the fabric; after dyeing this spots of color create captivating designs, that tend to be far more intricate and detailed than modern tie-dye.
The tie-dye we know from the 1960s generally uses one more straightforward technique of twisting and tying the middle of the shirt to create a psychedelic spiral design. Finally, while tie-dye tends to draw from the entire rainbow color spectrum, more often than not the shibori dye is only one color.
3) What are the Different Types of Shibori Techniques?
There are several different branches of the shibori family tree, each with a different technique, design style and aesthetic. You could say that western tie-die is also a distant relation, but taking a more traditional view, there are six standard shibori techniques.
Kumo Shibori is the most conceptual technique. The process uses miscellaneous found objects to create the patterns. Shibori designers tie fabric around these items which are used as the resist and the outcome is as unique as the objects selected
Miura Shibori uses the processes of looping and binding to create patterns. A slightly more involved process, miura designers need to pluck pieces of the cloth with a hook and needle. The outcome is more intricate repeated deisgns.
Kanoko Shibori is the style that most closely resembles tie-dye. Like their western counterparts, kanoko practitioners today often use elastic bands to tie the fabric, as opposed to the threads of fabric they would have used in the past.
Arashi Shibori is another take entirely. Also referred to colloquially as pole wrapping shibori, the process uses, as you may have guessed, wooden or copper poles to twist, wrap and bind the cloth. The outcome is typically a diagonal style pattern that looks almost like the veins of a leaf.
Nui Shibori is the most detailed of all the shibori techniques and is as much about stitching as it is about dyeing. By using hand stitching techniques and wooden dowels to create resists, the outcome of this process is carefully crafted designs with accurate patterns.
Itajime Shibori is the technique that creates the most robust patterns. Itajime practitioners use wood, and in more contemporary times, plastic and clam resist to craft thick, bold patterns like repeated squares, triangles, circles.
4) Where to Find Modern Shibori?
Shibori’s aesthetic qualities are twofold; the use of indigo dye and traditional techniques means that the outcome always feels organic. In addition, the artisanal handcrafted quality of the process means that each piece is still unique. It’s a connection to the ancient, with an outcome that’s always slightly new. With such a balance of qualities, it’s no surprise that modern designers are increasingly avid fans of shibori.
Hailing from Arimatsu, a town in Aichi Prefecture famous for its shibori and tye-die legacy, the Suzusan label is an effort of icons of the scene, the Murase family. The eldest son of the family’s fourth generation, Hiroyuki Murase, is one of shibori’s most progressive figures. He founded Suzusan as a design company in Düsseldorf, combining the family’s legacy with his futuristic ideologies. The Murase family have passed down the shibori legacy through five generations and well over a century, they straddle the line between pushing the boundaries of what shibori can be, while keenly staying to the roots of the art form.
The Suzusan label produces clothing, which is often more modern in style, as well as rustic homewares like cushion covers and throws that shamelessly hark back to the more old-world way of doing things; simple, organic, and beautiful. Their most attention commanding output, however, has to be Hiroyuki’s innovative combination of shibori with lighting and accessories, the project is called Suzusan Luminaires.
New York City-based artist Yuh Okano rose to international attention during the late 1990s when her uncanny ability to craft unique pieces of shibori dyed fabric caught the eyes of influential figures like Donna Karan and Martha Stewart. Today, she works predominantly with silk scarves, combining this ancient art form with a contemporary influence, flirting with color and avant-garde patterns. You can find her work throughout Japan and the US and on her online store.
In a recent interview New York-based designer Oriana DiNella explained her appreciation for shibori: "The stillness and beauty of it really centers me… It feels like a rebellion against the fashion movement, where everything seems so fast and disposable." This message of anti-fast fashion and carefully created designs were the motivations DiNella’s new online line of shibori homeware.
If you’re looking to buy shibori fabrics, or indeed any types of Japanese fabrics while you’re in Tokyo, check out our guide to Where to Buy Fabrics in Tokyo!
5) Where to Learn More?
The first port of call for anyone interested in shibori is without question Kyoto’s Shibori Museum. The museum opened in 2010, but the folks behind the scenes have been making shibori pieces since 1940. Both permanent and temporary exhibits cover all facets of the textile world, but with a particular focus on shibori as expected. Located an accessible five-minute walk southeast of Nijo castle (see map), it’s central, very English friendly and provides endless entertainment for those with even the vaguest interest in Japan’s illustrious textile history.
In Tokyo, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum is hosting an exhibit titled Indigo Shibori: The works of Motohiko Katano. It’s a showcase of the incredible work of Motohiko Katano, an artist who abandoned his long-held ambitions to be a Western-style painter after discovering a passion for shibori. Throughout his later career, he flourished as a somewhat enigmatic but influential shibori artist and cultivated a technique known as Katano Shibori. The exhibition runs until June 16 (see map).
A little further out of Tokyo city, the lush mountain-crowned town of Ome is where you’ll find Kosoen, a studio dedicated to indigo dyeing (see map). As well as more straightforward indigo dyed garments the studio and store also sells a wide selection of shibori goods. If you want to know more about the process or pick up some excellent gifts to take home, this is the place.
Today shibori techniques are growing in popularity all round the world. To keep up with all the latest news on shibori artists and designers, check out the World Shibori Network.
Have you ever had a go at shibori dyeing yourself? Let us know in the comments below!