Shibori: Japan’s centuries-old tie-dyeing technique

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Shibori is a Japanese tie-dyeing technique that has been used for centuries. Famous for its blue dye, shibori is the result of experimentation with more interesting approaches to textile production, rather than just colouring clothes and fabrics.

The term itself means to squeeze, ring or press. It’s about creating patterns on a piece of fabric by preparing it in a way that will resist the dye in certain areas.

Read on to learn more about this ancient dyeing technique.

What makes shibori different?

One of the seemingly defining elements of shibori that differentiates it from other similar techniques around the globe is the use of indigo as the dye. This is partly due to the prevalence of the Japanese indigo plant. But, it also links back to the period of Japanese history when fine garments were restricted to the upper classes. Indigo was one of the few bold colours that most people were allowed to wear.

This has continued through the history of the country. It’s still noticeable considering the items that are seen as traditionally Japanese around the world. The act of dyeing with indigo is known as aizome, but that’s a whole other world we could dive into!

Alongside embroidery, stencil painting and hand painting, shibori has traditionally been used on kimono and everyday clothing. It’s extremely versatile as the patterns created can be used for intricate, detailed kimono patterns, as well as larger, broader designs for everyday wear.

Read more about the kimono in our article on the history of Japan’s most famous garment.

Techniques

The technique that might be familiar to most in the west is just one type of shibori, kanoko shibori. There are actually several other varieties that yield different results. As with any natural dyeing technique, it’s best to use natural fibres as they’ll hold the dye best. This is why it’s traditionally been used on kimono and yukata, as the silk and cotton will hold the dye and be more vibrant.

Each of the techniques create different shapes and patterns ranging from large broad patterns to small intricate ones.

Miura shibori – Looped binding

This uses a hooked needle to take sections of the fabric. This is then looped around with the thread to create a small bunch. This creates hooped patterns similar to kanoko shibori.

Kumo shibori – Pleat and bind technique

This involves folding the fabric before binding sections very tightly to create an almost spider-like pattern.

Nui shibori – stitched shibori

To create varied, intricate patterns you can try nui shibori. This uses stitching rather than just binding. This allows you to ‘sew’ your pattern in place before pulling the thread tightly to bunch the fabric together for dyeing.

Arashi shibori – pole-wrapping

This requires another prop – a pole. The fabric is wrapped around the pole before it is bound and scrunched up the shaft of the pole. Creating a linear pattern it has been compared to rainfall hence the name of the technique (arashi means storm).

Itajime shibori – shape resistance

A slightly more unusual technique. To create shapes within the patterning, sections of wood are used on either side and clamped in place to prevent the dye from reaching those areas.

Shibori today

Today, the technique is still used in the Japanese fashion industry, both as a traditional technique and with modern takes. The next generation has started to make its mark on the history of indigo dyeing and shibori by applying it to new styles of clothing. They’re reviving the techniques with an artisanal approach and bringing unique items to boutiques and stores around the country.

Techniques like shibori are experiencing a resurgence as awareness around climate change intensifies and more people are reducing waste while prolonging the life-cycle of their items. The technique is well revered around the world and is just part of many trends to extend the life-cycle of an item of clothing by renewing and refreshing it with dye techniques.

Read more about other zero waste techniques used in Japan.

Try it yourself

There is certainly an art and craftsmanship element to shibori. But one of the reasons why the technique has endured over time comes down to its simpler techniques that can be used to easily add a unique twist on your clothes. So why not buy yourself a shibori kit and try it at home?

Or better yet, take it a step further and come on one of our Study Trips, where you can experience shibori for yourself in Japan.

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