Travel to the blue country

Blue, the favorite of Westerners

Colors are above all a matter of taste, they reflect all our diversity, and yet there is one that is almost unanimously accepted in the West: blue. Blue comes first, by far, in all opinion polls and has done so for around 200 years (date of the first studies on this subject).
In light tones, blue symbolizes the marvelous, freedom, dreams, youth. In dark tones, it would rather represent security, truth, trust, intelligence. Sky blue, cyan, royal, navy, ultramarine, turquoise, night, Klein, there are many shades of blue.
Among them, there is one particularly fascinating. Today I'm taking you on a journey... a journey to the heart of Asian blue, I called indigo blue.
Indigo Japanese crafts

Journey to the heart of indigo blue, treasure of Asian craftsmanship

In September 2022, I discovered the work of Laurence Corteggiani. His photographs, taken during his travels in Korea, Japan, India and Thailand, immediately captivated me. In particular, its campaign “ In Asia, on the paths of indigo dye ”. I must admit that this inspired me a lot and supported me during the creation of my own blue gold collection :)
All photographs in this article are by Laurence.
Ikiwa Indigo Workshop
Indigo is a color that was mastered very early by Asian peoples (around 4000 years ago) and very mysteriously thanks to different plants. This is why it is difficult to precisely characterize the indigo color: depending on the plant used (and also the manufacturing process), the color will tend more towards purple or green. This tradition is found in the majority of Asian countries: from Bhutan to Cambodia, from Japan to Korea.
As Laurence explains, obtaining indigo is the result of long and tedious work. It is easy to imagine that indigo was obtained by chance, by happy accidents because apparently, there is nothing to say that a blue tint can be created by indigo, knotweed or woad. These plants are very green, have nothing blue (neither flowers nor roots) and have only one thing in common: they contain an organic compound: indican.
The process of obtaining indigo begins with the maceration of the branches of indigo plants (indigo tree, knotweed, woad, laurel). Here are the different stages of the manufacturing process, taken from “ In Asia, on the paths of indigo dye ”:
“Usually, we harvest the branches of indigo plants, which we macerate in water for a few hours, until the liquid takes on a thick texture in yellow-brown tones. The surface is then mixed and beaten to introduce oxygen. The material turns green, then blue, and a thick deposit forms. The remaining liquid is removed, the sediment is heated then filtered to give a thick paste which is left to dry before transforming it into blocks or sludge which can be kept for a longer or shorter time. These blocks of indigo material, which are not soluble, must be made soluble by fermentation before being made insoluble again by oxygenation once in contact with the fibers (the last step). Fermentation is a very slow process which generally takes place in vats, where the material is mixed with an agent which varies according to country and region: lime, beer, sake… The indigo vat is ready (after 30 or 40 days in certain cases) the fibers (threads or textiles already woven) can be soaked there. It is by removing the fibers from the tank, when they come into contact with the oxygen in the air, that the blue color will appear. The density of the blue (from lightest to darkest) will depend on the number of indigo baths the fibers take and the concentration of the active component of the plant.”

Japanese technical indigo

Finally, note that indigo is one of the oldest natural dyes in the world and its traditional technique is, in reality, mastered by many indigenous peoples on all continents: West Africa, Peru , India... It is estimated that there are between 200 and 700 species of plants in the world growing in very different climates and producing many shades of blue.

Shibori, the ancestral Japanese tie and dye

Indigo is inseparable from another key technique of Japanese craftsmanship, one of the oldest in fact: shibori. Shibori is a dyeing technique by tying, folding, ligating or even twisting. The principle is to expose only part of the fabric to the dye, most often indigo (more rarely beet or madder). This dyeing method allows for an infinite variety of patterns that will all be unique and difficult to repeat. On this subject, you can visit the Arimatsu Museum (Aichi Prefecture in Japan) which is dedicated to all shibori techniques, and is still a manufacturing workshop today after 400 years of operation.
Shibori, Japanese technique
Just like obtaining indigo, shibori is a long, manual process that requires specific know-how. The fabric used must be white (or very light) and dry. Depending on the pattern you want to obtain, you can fold it around a pole, tie it with needles or elastics, it can also be attached to a frame or a rack with clips. All these alternatives obviously leave plenty of room for randomness and surprise! Once the fabric is tied, it is completely immersed in the dye vat for a few minutes, maximum half an hour. It is only when leaving the tank, and in contact with oxygen, that the famous blue will appear. You can repeat these baths as many times as you want depending on the intensity of the desired blue (from 2 baths for a light, almost white indigo (shira ai) to 8 baths for the darkest indigo, the kachi-iro, an almost black indigo). The last step is to untie and release the fabric while bathing it in clean, warm water.
This technique was used from the 8th century for the manufacture of kimonos for nobles and samurai clothing, under the armor.
There are all kinds of patterns: concentric patterns, fine lines, spider webs, very geometric or very random ones. Here I let you admire some examples of shibori patterns:

Shibori the different patterns

The different Shibori techniques

Some links to explore the subject in more depth:
- Blue, story of a color (2014) Michel Pastoureau
- The magnificent site of Laurence Corteggiani Atelier Ikiwa to inspire you, take you on a journey, and help you discover all the richness of Asian craftsmanship.
- Indigo, blue journey of a textile designer (2012) Catherine Legrand
- The Shibori Museum in Japan, Arimatsu