Aizome Traditional Indigo Dyeing in Kurume

A recent visit to the Chikugo region of Kurume brought me to the steps of a workshop specializing in the production of indigo textiles. The most highly regarded products are called Kurume Kasuri which feature intricate, handcrafted, dual tone patterns.

Kurume Kasuri Textiles
Kurume Kasuri Textiles

To be considered true Kurume Kasuri (an official national handicraft of Japan), textiles must follow rigid standards: be dyed with natural indigo, woven on a traditional handloom, and use hand-wrapped pre dyed thread).

Weaving looms
Weaving looms used to make Kurume Kasuri

Since the workshop I visited was participating in a special event, there was an experience avaliable for guests to try indigo dyeing themselves. While I didn’t get to make Kurume Kasuri, I learned aizome, a traditional indigo dyeing process. I had never seen natural indigo before, so I was excited to work firsthand with it and make my own souvenir!

Step 1: Preparation – Sticks, Bands, Ties, and String

During my visit, the “Kurume Kasuri 2021 Spring Thanksgiving” event was taking place. For ¥2000 I bought a white shirt and got to learn about Japanese indigo dyeing.

White shirt to be dyed

The staff introduced me to the common tools used to create different designs. Among them were sticks of different thicknesses, rubber bands, flat shapes, clamps, and plastic string. After studying a few sample designs for inspiration, I settled on using a combination of shiborizome (tie-dyeing) and danzome (graduation dyeing) techniques.

With the different tools at my disposal, and creative juices ready to flow, I set to work folding, twisting, and tying the shirt.

As I worked, it was difficult to envision what the shirt would look like in the end as there were many folds and twists in the fabric. The anticipation was quite exciting though and I got fully immersed in the creative zone… so much so that when I had finally finished preparing my shirt, it looked like a trussed chicken ready to head into the oven.

Wrapped shirt ready for dyeing
Wrapped shirt ready for dyeing

With my shirt fully bound, I headed into another room for the dyeing. To protect my clothes, I was outfitted with a pair of rubber boots and a plastic apron.

Vats of indigo dye
Vats of indigo dye

In the back of the room were sixteen large vats of indigo dye. I was surprised that they were literally holes in the ground filled with liquid. (I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that 😂). The fermenting indigo gave the room an odd smell: a mix of earthiness, stringency, and subtle hints of wet dog.

Bubbling indigo dye
Frothy indigo dye

Up close, the pots of indigo had frothy surfaces that were deep in color and looked more green / brown than bue.

Step 2: Multiple Dips in Indigo

Before dyeing the shirt, I first gave it a quick rinse in the sink.

Then, squatting by one of the indigo holes, I dipped my shirt. After each dip, I had to squeeze out the excess dye before dipping again. Because I was going for a graduated color, I inserted a bit of the shirt in at a time so that the bottom would become the most saturated and the top would receive the least amount of color.

Step 3: Rinse and Reveal!

Throughout the dipping process, the shirt looked green instead of the deep blue I was expecting. (Later I learned that this is normal- the color changes as it oxidizes!) After my shirt had been dipped numerous times, I headed to the sink to rinse out the excess dye and remove the wrappings. With each tie that was released, bright white fabric was revealed, and my excitement grew.

A small spinning machine removed all of the remaining water and finally I was left with my finished shirt!

Spinning dryer
Spinning dryer

I’m so happy with how it turned out! On top of the creative and hands-on fun, I now have a handmade keepsake to wear and remember the experience!

Final dyed shirt!
Excited for this dyed shirt!

I wore the shirt to school the next week and was surprised it received so many compliments. My classmates were impressed to hear that I had made it myself, saying it looked like something I could sell. Time to open an indigo dyeing business!

Final Notes

Workshop : Ikeda Kasuri Kobo (久留米かすり 池田絣工房), 1840 Hisadomi, Chikugo, Fukuoka 833-0056, Japan

Since this workshop was located in a pretty remote area, it was a bit difficult to reach. (A bus runs right by the workshop, but the schedule is very infrequent). I was able to reach the workshop by taking a train from Hakata Station to Araki Station then riding a bus to the workshop. For the journey back, I skipped the bus and walked half an hour to the nearest station.

(I love being able to explore so much of Japan without a car, but it’s times like this when public transportation is lacking that I find myself wishing for a pair of wheels…)

The staff at the workshop was so nice and one of the ladies in charge spoke great English. I recommend visiting this shop if you have an interest in indigo as they have a variety of goods for sale and such fun dyeing experiences!

To follow more check out their Instagram.

Looking for more things to do in Japan? Check out these blog posts!

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