The Japanese kimono is perhaps the most ornate article of clothing in the world. These sumptuous silk robes bring together multiple artforms to create wearable masterpieces. Today we think of fashion only in terms of design, with the manufacturing taken for granted. But the process of dyeing fabrics to create patterns and pictures worthy of the most expensive silk required innovations that we can still learn from today. This process is called yuzen dyeing, and one company, Chiso, has excelled in this exquisite art for centuries.
Throughout history, many cultures have developed their own ways of dyeing silk, but the art of yuzen dyeing remains unique, and the intricacies of this process are in many ways at the heart of what makes Japanese clothing distinctive. The dying technique is most recognized on kimonos, but has its origins in handheld fans and is also the inspiration for the iconic Hawaiian aloha shirt.
Yuzen, a resist dyeing technique, paints patterns with a rice paste that acts like a wax. The fabric is then painted with dye, and the pasted areas resist the colour. Yuzen also uses a type of silk-screening done with paper stencils. The stencils are placed on the fabric and dye is smeared over the top, leaving intricate patterns behind. Finer details to the work are often brushed in by hand.
Masters of yuzen
Chiso began its business in Kyoto in 1555 by making clothes for monks and the aristocracy. Kyoto is Japan’s old capital and home to some of the world’s finest artisans. The company’s well-dressed customers eventually caught the attention of the imperial family, who then made Chiso their vestment purveyor.
The company came to prominence during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868), when the yuzen dyeing technique developed as a cheaper way to produce printed garments, without hiring painters to do each detail by brush. Ironically, much of yuzen’s beauty comes from the practical necessity of the manufacturer to reduce labour hours.
The long history of Chiso has given the company not only the knowledge of how to create beautiful fabrics and kimonos, it has also provided one of the most extensive collections of traditional Japanese fashion in the world. Chiso has over 20,000 pieces in its collection, many of which have been named national treasures. These range from elaborate kimonos to dyed fabrics, books, and paintings.
“The ancestors of Chiso have passed these items down through the generations with great care, and are a valuable source of the history of Japanese design,” according to the company. “We work hard to conserve these treasures, and at the same time, to contribute to society through conducting further investigation and study in collaboration with nationwide museums.”
The yuzen technique was named after Miyazaki Yuzen, a 17th-century fan painter credited with perfecting it. He was born in Kyoto and had most likely visited a Chiso storefront—at that point, the company had already been operating in Kyoto for a hundred years. This “new” yuzen dyeing technique allowed for faster production and new styles. Chiso was part of the Japanese avant-garde that revolutionized kimono production. It worked with renowned printers and painters of the day to develop iconic designs that could be used over and over on multiple fabrics.
Centuries later in the yuzen saga, Japanese immigrants landed in Hawaii with decadent kimonos. It was the late 1800s, and the immigrants found work in sugar cane fields. To adapt to the tropical climate, they decided to cut up old kimonos and make shirts out of them. The locals liked the yuzen shirts so much that some of the Japanese left the fields and manufactured them for the local economy. Thus, the Hawaiian aloha shirt, identified by its bold colours and patterns, was born.
The early 1900s is referred to as the Taisho era. At the time, Japan was modernized but culturally isolated. The style of this era is referred to as “Taisho chic,” and is defined by traditional Japanese patterns that utilized new factory production methods—again, beauty becomes a reflection of a new manufacturing process. They still used yuzen stencils and traditional artists but had assembly lines and help from machines.
Another Kyoto company sprang up in the Taisho era and helped pioneer modernized yuzen production. The company, Pagong, originally known as Kamedatomi, is still in operation today. Its founder, Kazuaki Kameda, once said, “I sometimes wished that our company had centuries of history like some Kyoto shops and companies, but if we hadn’t started in the Taisho era, we wouldn’t have our catalog of uniquely traditional and modern designs.”
In the early 1900s, Kamedatomi employed hundreds of artisans to create rolls of ornate yuzen fabric. They sold the fabric to tailors who used it for kimono production. However, 70 percent of kimono artisans disappeared after World War II. The company decided to apply yuzen to modern clothing, starting with Hawaiian aloha shirts. Still based in Kyoto, the company has found new life for its traditional techniques.
Chiso took the opposite approach. Instead of bringing yuzen to the masses, it scaled up its clientele to those who could afford to pay for handmade pieces that would be out of place if worn to the grocery store. Chiso, like its founders centuries ago, still produces kimonos and scarves. It still offers formal kimonos, but also now has updated designs for fashion that are wearable in the modern world. The company says, “Tradition is not to conform, but to build around.”
The key to Chiso’s success over the centuries has been its process. Its method is for specialists to work together on each piece of fabric. Chiso even has a special room dedicated to designers who create the patterns and images on the company’s prized fabrics. In order for artisans of this calibre to work together on a single item, the company must have a high benchmark for talent and a culture of trust.
Of course, all of these talented artisans require a beautiful canvas for their designs. Chiso takes great care in choosing its silks. The whitest silks are only possible by managing their production with care, and the whole process from raising the silkworms to harvest and weaving is all done in Japan. The quality of Chiso’s silk is essential to the calibre of its finished products.
Past, present, and future
As part of Chiso’s flagship store in downtown Kyoto, it has a gallery with rotating exhibits of the company’s extensive collection of fabrics and works of art. The current exhibit focuses on the theme of colour and takes visitors through the deep inner meanings found in the choice of colour within the fabrics.
“These concepts originated from the idea of ‘the flow of time,’ we see in every day, with Shiro (White) derived from the view of the sky at sunrise when another day is becoming clear, Aka (Red) is brightness of the sun, Kuro (black) is from darkness, and Ao (Blue) is from anytime of the day we saw the dim of lights,” the company states.
Chiso doesn’t live in the past, however. Its exaltation of history comes out in its ongoing work. Just imagine the changes in style and society that Chiso designers have gone through over the course of 400 years. Today the company continues to adapt and innovate, with one eye on the future and one on the past.
“It is not simply a matter of inheritance; rather, as we move toward the future, we will enhance the techniques to create beauty based on what generation after generation has taught us,” Chiso states.