Japanese Indigo Comes to Brooklyn!
July 5, 2014

The Japanese art of indigo dyeing, or aizome, experienced a boom in the Edo period.  Using leaves from the indigo plant, the process dyes natural linens and cottons in a spectrum of blue shades.  Japanese people are nothing if not keenly detailed; apparently, 48 shades of natural indigo have been identified, from the palest of icy blue (ai-jiro, or white indigo) and bluish green (sabi-asagi or rusted turquoise), to aubergine purple (appropriately named nasu-kon or eggplant navy) and grayish blue (kachi-iro, kachi being a homonym for "victory" and consequently used by Kamukura period samurai warriors for their gear).  At the beginning of the 19th century, Japan annually produced close to 9,000 tonnes of sukumo, the organically composted indigo that serves as the basis for the dye.

The preparation of organic indigo dye is a labor of love that takes close to a year.  During the winter months, farmers must cultivate the indigo leaf fields.  Starting in March every year, the farmers sow the seedlings, first into pots.  Come May, the seedlings are planted in the fields and tended to throughout the summer months.  A crop of indigo leaves can usually be reaped twice in the months of July through September and then dried.  In the autumn months, the dried leaves are composted.  In winter, the fermented mixture is stirred once a week for four straight months.  Finally, in around February, the sukumo is ready.  Limestone (alkaline substance), wheat husk (a fermentation aid) and wood ash lye--all natural ingredients--are combined with the sukumo and fermented for approximately 10 days, and, only after that is the dye finally ready to be used.    

Given the painstaking and lengthy process involved, fewer and fewer Japanese farmers grow indigo.  However, Tokushima prefecture is still widely known in Japan for its aizome.  BUAISOU. is the artisanal duo of Kenta Watanabe and Kakuo Kaji who have decided to place their roots in Tokushima in order to carry on the aizome tradition and create products for contemporary times.  Focusing on each and every step of process, they are involved in harvesting the indigo leaves and creating the sukumo, all the way through to product design and production.  (BUAISOU. is the name of the house that 20th century Japanese businessman, Jiro Shirasu, lived in, and legend has it that Shirasu was the first Japanese person ever to wear jeans.)  BUAISOU. currently produces limited editions of bandannas, totes, and other accessories.

Dye swatches by day show the varying strength of aizome shades

All this talk of small batch, artisanal, organic products is bound to get any Brooklynite's heart a-flutter.  Lucky for us, BUAISOU. has started to run private aizome workshops in Bushwick!  At BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab, I had the chance to experience the first batch of sukumo brought to NYC.  Dipping my white linen shirt into the vat of aizome (which had liquid at the top and the fermented compost at the bottom), I was instructed to swirl the shirt around in the liquid portion of the vat.  Then, as the shirt was brought out and pulled taut, the indigo was exposed to air, and the oxidization set the color.  Repeating the process about three times and letting the color sink in overnight resulted in a gorgeous denim-like color.

Indigo shirts!

Beautiful aizome trench coat

The second batch of sukumo will soon be ready and available at BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab.  For those interested in attending a private workshop or potentially collaborating with BUAISOU., please contact here.

Also, come check out an installation of BUAISOU.'s art objects in Bassanova Ramen.
From July 13, 2014 - August 31, 2014 at Bassanova Ramen 76 Mott St (between Canal & Bayard Sts)
Opening Reception: July 13, 3-6pm
If you've already experienced BUAISOU. Brooklyn Lab, please come wearing your dyed creations!

Photos courtesy of Sayaka Toyama.