On our journey around Setouchi, we were lucky when, slightly off our path, we bumped into Aiya Terroir, a relatively new, small enterprise producing the Japanese blue dye, or Aizome. Located in Yamano, not too far from Fukuyama or Tomonoura, just about one hour away from our Shimanami journey. The road is challenging but totally worth it. Mr Yuasa from Aiya Terroir gave us the chance to discover this ancient tradition from its roots, or better, from its seeds.
Don’t call it indigo
The Japanese blue, known in Japan as “Aizome” is not just what we simply call indigo, which is, nowadays mostly synthetically produced. Aizome is one of the most distinctive colors omnipresent in the Japanese tradition. Ubiquitous in Japanese art, architecture and fashion it is famous in the world for blue jeans. Nonetheless, the one on this t-shirt isn’t just a color, but the result of a tradition that dates over 800 years ago.
Aizome for aristocrats and samurais
When it comes to the fabric dye, “Aizome”, it is no surprise that it was already extremely valuable in the past, since its creation is labor consuming and requires patient and constant work. For, in the past, Aizome was mainly used for dyeing dresses of aristocrats and samurais, not only for its beauty, but also for its natural insect repellent qualities. Furthermore, it was favored by samurais for its anti-wound infection properties, and nowadays it can give skin relief for people suffering from skin eczema…. last but not least, it has fire retardant properties – and that’s why it has been used in metal factories – and today this distinctive color maintains its importance as a unique and genuinely Japanese creation.
As mentioned above, most of the “indigo” dye is now produced synthetically. Most but not all. And in Japan there just few workshops producing natural Aizome, following the ancient tradition from field to dye. We could not miss such a rare opportunity!
How is it made?
During our visit we saw the fields where the Persicaria Tintoria plant, the base of the dye, is cultivated, and learnt about the harvest, the fermentation process, and the dyeing techniques. Finally, we also enjoyed dyeing some fabric ourselves.
After the harvest the leaves are dried and fermented in a temperature-controlled room for several months. This process is implemented by using only water and a natural kind of yeast. This is how the leaves turn from green to blue. The quality of the color strongly depends on the fermentation process, and even a minor change will affect the final quality of the dye.
After the base for the dye is ready, it is mixed with water and kept alive by the microorganisms developed during the fermentation process. Like all living creatures, to survive they need to be fed and protected, and Mr Yuasa explained that only constant care can allow the Aizome to keep alive and create a wonderful, long lasting Japanese blue color.
The dyeing part consists in the immersion of the fabric (or other natural fibers) in the pools for several minutes. After the fabric has soaked into the dye it will be exposed to air, and that’s where the magic happens: from light green the fabric will start turning into blue. this process is repeated to intensify the blue.
Aizome shall not fade
Mr Fuji and Mr Yuasa, the founders and owners of Aiya Terroir, told us that in Japan there are only five companies producing Aizome from seed to dye, making it not only rare, but also giving us a better understanding on how hard implementing and reviving this art can be. Mr Yuasa is also working on the production of Japanese blue jeans, which he will design and produce tailor made Japanese blue Jeans upon request.
The Japanese blue is an extremely elegant color and aizome can dye ANY natural fibers, including wood, leather, and silk. I was seriously tempted to dye a lock of my hair and Mr Yuasa guaranteed it would work… unfortunately time didn’t allow. I promised myself to do it during my next visit. Till next time, then.