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The Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations exhibition at Japan House London (5 April – 19 May 2019) explored Japanese people's deep appreciation of colour, as well as the often close relationship with their natural surroundings and sensitivity to the changing of the seasons. This passion for colour was presented through the work of the 200-year-old Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop in Kyoto.

This family-run workshop creates vivid colours from plant-based, natural materials, using historical documents and textile samples to continue to recreate colours from throughout Japan’s history. The workshop has managed to save these almost forgotten skills from extinction, using age-old natural dyeing techniques in order to bring colours to life – from light cherry blossom pinks through to deep shades of indigo. 

Flourishing arts in the Heian period

The Heian period (794 – 1185 CE) is an era of Japanese history known for the sophistication of its classical court culture. It is closely associated with Japan’s former imperial capital city Kyoto, once called Heian-kyō, the ‘Capital of Peace’. It was a time of the flourishing of the arts, especially poetry and literature, and the spread of Buddhism throughout Japan. The beauty and elegance of the refined sensibility of the Heian court is known as miyabi. It was during this period that kasane – the art of layering colours – developed. Long after this classical period of Japanese history ended, its artistic influences can be seen in the works of artists and poets in the subsequent centuries.

Appreciation of colour and seasons in the Heian court

Kasane can refer to layering colours with any number of materials, including fabrics or paper. The aristocracy of the Heian period delighted in using colour combinations to reflect aspects of the natural world around them, such as the plants in bloom each season, or to indicate an occasion or rank. Kasane would often be used in written correspondence or poetry, imbuing an extra layer of meaning alongside the words. Members of the court would write a poem containing, more often than not, seasonal words and expressions, and then enclose it within several sheets of seasonally coloured paper. Such uses of kasane would indicate one’s good taste and sophistication to the reader. 

Layered colours to denote rank and sophistication

The lifestyle of the imperial courtiers was highly formalised. Noble women, for example, would not show their faces to any men other than their closest male relatives. Hidden from the outside world behind screens, the only way a woman could communicate her cultural standing and sophistication to onlookers was by showing the colour combinations, kasane, they had selected in the hems of their kimono. The most formal kimono, worn by the highest-ranking women of the court, was the jūni-hitoe, literally ‘12-layered robe’. Dyed silk cloth was cut into sizes each slightly different from the other, producing small offsets at the neckline, cuffs and hems. 

A return to natural dyes

Born in Kyoto in 1946, Master Dyer and Colour Historian, Yoshioka Sachio is the 5th-generation head of the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop. After graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo, he founded Art Books Shikosha Publishing Co., Ltd. In 1988, he returned to Kyoto to take over the family dyeing workshop and made the decision to move away from the use of synthetic dyes. His study of art and literature has provided inspiration for the colour palettes and methods used in his craft. ‘The Tale of Genji’, for example, by Lady SHIKIBU Murasaki, contains detailed descriptions of colours and Heian court apparel throughout the novel. 

Restoring national treasures

The craftspeople of the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop dye textiles such as silk, hemp, cotton and washi (Japanese paper), using only plant-based materials and techniques from Japan’s dyeing history. Yoshioka is much in demand and often receives requests to help restore national treasures, from historically significant temples to shrines.

For over forty years the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop has produced red and yellow washi camellia flowers for theOmizutori ceremony every February. This has taken place without exception ever since the learge statue of the Buddha was consecrated at Tōdai-ji, the large Buddhist temple complex in Nara, in 752 CE.

The process of natural dyeing

The Japanese method of organic dyeing requires clean water, space, and most importantly the correct natural materials. Extracting pigment from plant substances is a long process involving many complicated stages, including plenty of waiting time while colours and materials are allowed to ferment. To enable the process of extracting pigments and fixing them to fabrics, other substances known as mordants are also used. An example of a mordant used by the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop includes ubai – smoked plums which are mixed with boiling water. 

Colours from nature

Dyes can be found in any number of natural materials, for example the roots, leaves, bark, fruits and petals of a variety of trees and plants. The Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop use materials such as purple gromwell, safflower, sappanwood and Japanese indigo among others, each of which requires a different method to extract the colour within. For example, safflower petals are picked and dried, then washed over and over again in cold water and kneaded in alkaline straw ash lye to produce a brilliant and beautiful shade of red. After dyeing, the colour is fixed in a solution created from ubai. Other materials, such as purple gromwell, require a different process: pounding in a stone mortar before being placed inside a hemp bag and steeped in hot water. The colour produced is then fixed to fabric with an alkaline solution made from the ashes of burnt camellia leaves.

Living Colours at Japan House

In spring 2019 Japan House worked with the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop to bring an exhibition on natural dyeing techniques and the art of kasane to London. The Living Colours: Kasane – the Language of Japanese Colour Combinations exhibition shone a spotlight on the Yoshioka family as guardians of the tradition of natural dyeing. While walking through a ‘forest of colour’, with reams of dyed silks indicating the changing seasons, visitors could learn about dyeing techniques employed by the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop and explore the materials used in creating their vivid colours. The exhibition exposed visitors to Heian-period culture, literature and court fashions – the sensibilities of which still resonate in Japan today.

A continuing legacy

In recent years, Yoshioka Sachio’s daughter Sarasa, a 6th-generation Yoshioka, has taken the leading role in running the workshop, alongside head dyer FUKADA Denji. After working at an apparel design company, she joined the Silk Museum in Seiyoshi Village, Ehime Prefecture, to study silk production, including silk reeling, throwing, dyeing, and weaving. Since 2008 she has been back at the Yoshioka workshop in Kyoto, continuing her father’s work to preserve and cultivate the hand-dyeing tradition. Sarasa travelled to London with her father for the Living Colours exhibition at Japan House. Guests to the exhibition were greeted by her washi paper creations, which had been dyed in the seasonal soft pinks and green hues of cherry blossom.

Living Colours at The Shop

The Shop at Japan House has a selection of items available from the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop. All materials used in the production of each item are hand-dyed at the workshop in Kyoto using natural materials. The product line includes silk stoles, incense sachets and business card holders. Visitors to Japan House can enquire with a member of The Shop team to locate Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop items on the ground floor.