Homage to Nature
Landscape Kimonos of Itchiku Kubota

The Art of Itchiku Tsujigahana

Itchiku Kubota's first encounter with Tsujigahana dyeing took place about fifty years ago, when he was twenty. While Kubota was the working on hand-painted Yuzen textiles, he noticed a fragment of ancient Tsujigahana cloth in the Tokyo National Museum collection.

"There was a piece of clothing - probably a remnant of apparel dating back several centuries - that displayed, before my dazzled eyes, a bed of small flowers printed on nerinuki cloth. And while only a ghost of its former splendour remained, through the faded colours I could imagine how it looked from the nuance of the colouring. I 'saw' it as it must have appeared several centuries ago.

My heart was beating faster; I was moved, trembling and fascinated in the face of such mastery and refinement of beauty. For over three hours I remained transfixed there in the deserted museum hall contemplating this little fragment of fabric which seemed to have been on display in the showcase for me alone.

The encounter had been intense, charged with mystery. I later thought that, if such a thing as reincarnation did exist, then the creator of this tsujigahana dye would have been me."
- Itchiku Kubota

This small piece of textile used a process called "ghost dyeing". He decided then and there that, one day, he would recreate that dyeing method.

Tsujigahana appeared as a consequence of the desire to create beautiful patterns on kosode (small sleeve kimono). Towards the middle of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), shades and embroidery appeared and predominated in Japanese fashion trends - for example, among generals and their wives. From the 15th century on, people preferred wearing multi-coloured garments rather than those of a single colour.

Tsujigahana is a method for dyeing pictorial patterns that originally involved tie dye. The Tsujigahana process stretched tie-dyeing to the limit of its possibilities. For those parts that could not be tie-dyed, other methods were freely adopted, such as black or vermilion outlining, shading, imprinting with gold or silver leaf, embroidering, etc.

Because of technical limitations, early Tsujigahana has a rather rudimentary finish, but at the peak of the Momoyama period (1574-1614) this dyeing method developed into an extremely refined craftsmanship. However, it declined during the first part of the Edo period (1615-1867), and later disappeared entirely. Nowadays, examples of Tsujigahana and relevant literature are extremely rare, and there is no well-founded theory for the etymology of the term, nor the technical aspects involved.

The Manufacturing Processes of Itchiku Tsujigahana

There are many methods for producing Itchiku Tsujigahana and each method is chosen to suit the type of kimono required. These are a few basic procedures.

  • The kimono is made of plain silk. A background pattern is drawn on this kimono (1) with a brush and Aibana ink or juice from a blue flower.
  • Vinyl thread is used to protect part of the kimono from dye (after which the thread is removed). This thread is pulled tight and sections of the fabric bulge into little head-shaped lumps, around which the thread is looped and knotted.
  • The little bumps are then carefully coloured with a flat brush. This is the most delicate phase in the entire process - the original pattern must be memorized.
  • The coloured lumps are covered with vinyl and bound with a thread (2). The entire silk fabric is then steeped in the dye, but the coloured heads are protected. In some instances, the fabric is dyed and colour is then applied to the portions untouched by dye.
  • To fix the dye, the garment is steamed for 40 to 90 minutes.
  • Silk can only absorb a given amount of dye at one time. To obtain a delicate balance of colours, the fabric is soaked in water (3), thereby allowing it to absorb other colours. Obtaining a chosen colour involves rinsing the fabric at least 15 times in running water.
  • After each rinse, to prevent the silk fabric from shrinking, 40 cm long pieces of bamboo are horizontally inserted so that the fabric is stretched. It is then stored in a well-ventilated area. The vinyl thread is then finally sewn into the fabric.
  • A small pair of scissors is used to cut pieces of thread while the fabric is held with both hands. The thread is removed diagonally; the pulling force and direction depend on the knot. A finishing touch for the kimono is an embroidered, gilded or hand-painted hem.