Yoshioka Sachio: Master Dyer in Kyoto

Textile (noren) by Sachio Yoshioka in Kyoto

Yoshioka Sachio (b.1946, Kyoto) belongs to the fifth generation of master dyers and weavers founded in the 1840s by Yoshioka Jinnosuke in Kyoto. From the beginning of the 20th century, chemical dyes have been increasingly used in the textile industry and the Yoshioka family are committed to promoting the more natural and traditional methods of dyeing.

After World War II, the Yoshioka family workshops were moved from central Kyoto to Fushimi in the southeast, famous for sake breweries, as its soft spring water had less iron content, where they dug their own well to gain access to purer water – more than 100 m below ground. Taking charge of his family concern in the 1980s, Mr Yoshioka made a commitment to revive traditional dyeing and weaving by reverting to Nara (710-794) and Heian period (794-1185) organic dyes.

The basis for his inspiration is Genji Monogatari, the Tales of Genji, circa 1008, by the Lady Murasaki Shikibu, where detailed description of colours and Heian court apparel appear throughout the novel. To recreate colours and weaves true to this period, Mr Yoshioka resorted to ancient techniques and had a 14th-century, Chinese-style loom reconstructed. His efforts have resulted in a wide range of traditional natural fabrics and important textile and paper artefacts which he makes for templesnot only in Nara, but throughout Japan. In Kyoto, he discusses his ongoing efforts to revitalise natural and organic textile production to the Asian Art Newspaper.

Asian Art Newspaper: Why were you determined to revive the use of organic dyes?
Yoshioka Sachio: Although it was a risk to work with plant-based dyes, I decided to switch completely from synthetic to natural dyes. During my grandfather and father’s generations, newly developed synthetic dyes were perceived as progressive. However, having seen as a student in Tokyo the polychromatic sewage on the Tamagawa River – whose water was not visible under its foam – I decided never to have anything to do with synthetic dyes.

My commitment is also because of my admiration for the colours produced during Nara and Heian Japan, the pinnacle of the Japanese art of dyeing. Research into old natural dyeing techniques can still be made from valuable religious objects from that era preserved in the Shoso-in, the Treasury of the Todaiji temple, as well as the Horyuji temple, in Nara.

AAN: What are the special qualities of natural dyes as opposed to chemical dyes?
Yoshioka Sachio:
Synthetically produced colours appear thin and flat to me. Colours obtained from slower, old-fashioned and simpler methods of natural dyeing produce a depth and shine from within. They gently change depending on the angle viewed and incidence of light. I have no idea what this phenomenon is scientifically – perhaps the time taken to treat the fabric allows the dye to penetrate the fibre and its layers, or as plant dyes are not 100 per cent pure, their small impurities bring the colour to life.

AAN: What is entailed in this process?
Yoshioka Sachio: One of my favourite dyes is the benibana, safflower dye, extracted from its blossom leaves as a deep orange, and best picked in the morning. The orange colour contains yellow and red dyes. The former must be washed out first by soaking the leaves in water overnight. In the morning, the leaves are placed in a gauze filter to be pressed out.

The yellow dye flows out as a muddy broth. This process is repeated until a clear light yellow liquid emerges. Meanwhile the leaves have changed to a deep red. To deepen their intensity they are put twice in a solution of straw ash to increase their alkaline level. Rice vinegar is added in small amounts. To fix the dye, it is treated with citric acid extract from ume, Japanese wild plum, whose smoked fruit, ubai, is used for conservation purposes. Hot water is poured into the infusion, and left to sit for three days.

Then the clear liquid is skimmed off and diluted in warm water. In this acidic environment the dye is fixed to fibre. To increase its fade-proof and wash-proof qualities, I dye the red fabric again with kihada, cork tree dye, containing kihada bark, a yellow base dye. It acts as a protective film over the benibana dye without changing its red colour.

AAN: Why is the Tales of Genji an important resource for the production of colours and dyes?
Yoshioka Sachio: The novel contains valuable reference to colours, from flower, fruit and plant origins, in all of its 54 chapters. The amount of space devoted to describing colours, and the attention paid to them on paper, apparel and flowers seems to me that the Heian court was very conscious of colour. For instance, shikon, purple root, yielded purple, Nihon akane, Japanese madder (red), tadeai, indigo, (blue) and yasha, green alder, (brown). The names of dyes used in court fabric varied according to the changing seasons. Spring was associated with kohakubai, red and white plums and yanagi, willow, summer with kakitsubata, iris, and autumn with kiku, chrysanthemum, and momiji, maple. A five-layered kimono, called sakura hosonaga, cherry blossom, was seasonally correct for spring. In a single text, they are more than 80 different names for colours. The benibana flower, referred to as suetsumu hana, ‘flower which is picked at the end’, is also the title of the sixth chapter.

AAN: Why did you want to reconstruct a Chinese-style loom from the 14th century to weave your fabrics?
Yoshioka Sachio: I obtained the diagram of a 14th-century Chinese loom from the Tiangong Kaiwu, ‘The Exploitation of the Work of Nature’ by Song Yingxing, an encyclopaedic treatise of industrial and engineering production through the ages. Kyoto carpenters specialising in loom-making crafted a loom measuring 8 m long and 4 m high for me. It requires three people to work it. One at the top to position the threads. The two at the bottom weave the fabric, and check the condition of threads during the weaving process. The loom is constructed to use very delicate threads – to make very soft, tactile textiles – and weavers always have to monitor their condition to check if they are split. Several buckets of water placed around the loom give out humidity so that threads are less likely to split during weaving.

AAN: Are there differences between the quality or texture of traditional apparel made during the Nara and Heian periods and those made today?
Yoshioka Sachio: Based only on hand-woven and naturally-dyed materials, there are two major differences. First, the transparency of colours created in Nara-Heian fabrics is exquisite. It is extremely difficult to achieve this quality. I tried, by adopting natural dyeing techniques from the Engishiki, Heian era ceremonial records, containing natural dye recipes. Secondly, the softness of the threads is unique – perhaps due to the special way they were woven and spun. The craftsmen seem highly skilled at the time, being able to master such complex dyeing and weaving processes.

AAN: Important religious institutions like the Yakushiji temple and the Todaiji temple in Nara have drawn on your expertise to recreate historically important, textile and paper objects from the 8th century?
Yoshioka Sachio: Yes, I make ban, religious banners for the Yakushiji, and kesa, Buddhist priest’s shawl and decorative paper flowers for Omizutori, religious ceremonies for the Todaiji. The ban entails my favourite technique called Itajime-kyokechi, ‘wood binding’, still evident in textile objects conserved from Nara and Heian times. I use its design principles to interpret very traditional Japanese aesthetics in a modern manner.

First, the designs are carved on wooden boards with several holes to soak up dye solutions. Thorough preparation from the start determines exactly how the fabric is to be dyed and which colours are needed. They are executed according to specifications to achieve the desired design. The two wooden boards with the motifs are used to clamp the fabric, which must not warp even with temperature changes, and placed in a large dye bath. Sometimes one or two sheets of thick Japanese paper is cushioned between board and fabric, because their softness can modify irregularities in the fabric or threads. Two people are required to carry out this process as the clamping devices are too heavy for one person to handle.

AAN: Your expertise extends also to the making of other natural fibres such as bashofu, banana fibre and paper. Are there any technical differences?
Yoshioka Sachio: There is no difference for fibres. But there are enormous differences in dyeing paper. One of the oldest Buddhist rituals preserved in original form – the Shunie gathering at the Todaiji held annually in March, requires colourful paper tsubaki, camellia blossoms. Our yellow paper from kihada, cork tree dye and red, from benibana, safflower dye, are entirely handmade.

Every January to February, two people start extracting the dyes. The dyeing of the paper alone requires 60 kg of dry benibana blossom leaves. A highly labour-intensive process follows, lasting several days, of alternate dyeing and rinsing using all sorts of citric fruit solutions. The aim is to achieve purity of dye. It ends with the bonding agent of soya bean infusion. Finally the dye is brush painted on the paper four times on both sides until the fresh colour of the camellia appears.

AAN: How do you think you have contributed to revitalising the use of natural dyestuffs and fibres in the Japanese textile world?
Yoshioka Sachio: Hopefully, I am continuing the long tradition of Japanese dye craft and its culture of colours. They have origins outside Japan and came from the Chinese mainland via Korea one or two centuries before the Nara and Heian eras. Working with plant colours and dyeing techniques, I feel there are no barriers between cultures. The entire textile history is a network of movements. Techniques and formulae adopted and passed on.

Raw materials and finishes exchanged and traded. Styles imitated and transferred. None of these stop at any border. Despite cultural differences, the aesthetic of colour is the same everywhere. I hope to contribute to the beauty of natural dyeing used before the Industrial Revolution, not only in Japan but at the global level.


You can find our more about the textiles described at Yoshioka Sachio’s website