Treasures from John’s Collection: Chuusen 注染
As a dyer, I have my own preferred techniques, but I have always been fascinated by how the creative human mind has been able to come up with such a wide variety of methods to pattern cloth. Chuusen is one of the more modern techniques.

Until very recently, chuusen was the most common method employed to dye lower and medium quality range yukata for traditional summer wear. Yukata are commonly seen worn by both men and women at summer festivals, such as Tanabata, or any casual summer outing. (They are never worn for formal or semi-formal wear at any time of the year.)
The dye is poured using a watering can.
Using a pitcher that looks like a watering can, the dye is poured over the surface of the fabric. Notice how a moat of paste has been placed around the borders of the stacked cloth to prevent the dye from spilling over the edges.
Young couple out for a stroll wearing matching yukata.
What distinguishes chuusen from other traditional techniques is its use of a vacuum table. I haven’t been able to find any documentation to corroborate stories of the origins of chuusen, but the tale commonly told in Japan is that the process originated in Scandinavia. Once developed, a profitable use could not be found and so it was abandoned, whereupon, it was appropriated by traditional dyers in Japan to greatly speed up the process involved in producing inexpensive fabrics for mass consumption.

Let’s take a look at the process. The following images have been taken from an on-line video clip. Click on the first image below to view the movie, and then read on for a step-by-step description of what you have just observed:
The dye flows through the exposed areas of the layers with the help of the vacuum table.
A vacuum pump is positioned beneath the table. When switched on, it will quickly suck the dye through the cloth and away from the paste. This is the truly innovative step in the process. By pulling the excess dye away from the fabric as soon as possible, it allows the paste to stay wet throughout the entire procedure without degrading. If the dye lingered, it would dissolve away the paste and blur the edges of the paste-printed image.
I hope the diagram above helps you to visualize how the paste stacks up into pillar-like columns. Although only one color is shown being used in the movie, any number of colors may be employed. A distinctive blending of colors occurs where the boundaries overlap.
Ukiyo-e print depicting character wearing tenugui as a hachimaki head band.
As with most traditional textiles in Japan, the standard width of the fabric used for chuusen is 31cm to 36 cm (around 12″ – 14″).

The factory shown in the above clip is dyeing tenugui, an all-purpose piece of cloth used as everything from a rag to wipe table tops, to sweatbands tied about a worker’s brow, to highly collected pieces of textile art.

A long fiber, high quality cotton called sarashi is used for most tenugui and a heavier fabric is used for yukata.
The top layer of cloth has been removed to expose the image.
Once the top protective cloth has been removed, the design is clearly visible.
It seems to be a miner or hiker of some sort, although it could also be a battery-operated nose-hair clipper with legs. Add a fan and a cane and you’ve got quite a saucy dance routine… But in the right market, I’m sure it will be a hot seller!
Ukiyo-e print depicting character wearing tenugui as a hachimaki headband.
Automated swishing device to remove the paste and excess dye.
The movie clip doesn’t show this, but normally at this stage the wet dyed/pasted cloth would be moved to a steam room so that the dyes may be set. From there it is taken to be washed, removing all the paste and the excess dye. (Isn’t this a cool apparatus they have to swish the fabric clean?)
The factory stocks a huge volume of sarashi cotton.
This done, the fabric is hung high overhead to dry and then it is off to the store shelves.
The piece shown in the various steps of this movie is most likely a commission piece. It is very common for established businesses with a more traditional frame of mind to hand out tenugui with their company logo or slogan printed along with an image of their product or some other seasonal depiction.
This artist is using hand-made mulberry paper, called shibugami, to create a stencil. (Most contemporary artists will use a synthetic version of this stencil paper.) Once the image is cut, it will be lacquered with netting and stapled to a frame.
Storefront with range of textiles tenugui and yukata bolts visible.
A stencil is prepared using smoked mulberry paper. In this case, the artist is using a photocopy overlay and cutting through the copy and the stencil paper (shibugami) at the same time.
So, just a brief summary:
-fabric is laid out on a vacuum table
-paste is applied using a stencil, care is taken to lay the stencil in exactly the same spot each time
-vacuum pump is switched on and the dyes poured through
-fabric is steamed to set colors
-fabric is washed to remove paste and excess dye
-fabric is hung to dry

Using the vacuum pump allows the entire process to proceed quickly (and this is important) before the paste dissolves. [In most katazome processes, the paste must dry before the dyes are applied.] So boom, boom, boom…the fabric can be taken from one step to the next with no delay, allowing an entire bolt of cloth to be completed in one day, rather than the weeks that would normally be required.

For this week’s Textile of the Week, I have chosen a sample of cotton chuusen originally dyed to be used in a woman’s yukata.
Paste is prepared to act as a resist.
A huge bowl of paste is prepared for the project. The bowl has a blade at the bottom attached a motor to help the craftsman keep the paste churned and elastic.
Notice in the sample below how the colors blend as the dyes were poured and suctioned through the fabric.
The stencil is placed in position and the paste applied.
Using a large wooden spatula called a debabera, the paste is applied through the stencil to the cotton fabric below. This will be repeated many times as the fabric is folded back and forth over the previous layer of pasted cloth.
Examples of how the dyes blend as they are pulled through to the vacuum table.
This is a detail showing where the fold was in the cloth during the pasting and dyeing process.
copyright John Marshall, 2011
The white cotton is placed over the previous layer of wet paste.
As the layers build, columns of paste are formed through all the levels. Placing the stencil in precisely the same location each time is very exacting work and crucial to achieving high image definition.
Chuusen  注染
In my article about tenugui I mentioned how important it is to design the drawing to allow for a mirror image at the fold. This is a very good sample of that concept taken into account. I’ve added a red line to help you identify where the fold used to be. Notice how the wave lines have a nice curve even though they hit the fold at a right angle, and also how the petals of the flower have been arranged to keep a very natural look.
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