Indigo Noren at the Morikami

On October 16, 2017, an exhibition opens at the Morikami Museum in Delrey Beach, Florida, called Out of the Blue: Japanese Indigo Textiles. I am contributing a number of pieces from my personal collection of Japanese textiles and have also contributed a noren I dyed with the show in mind to help set the mood. I thought I’d like to share what has gone into producing it.

Indigo Dyers at Work, by John Marshall

Natural indigo from my garden was used to dye this piece illustrating the primary techniques used in Japan to dye with indigo: vat dyeing yarn, vat dyeing yardage, and painting directly onto yardage. The weave is called Miyako-joufu (宮古上布), a high quality hand-spun and hand-woven ramie from Okinawa Prefecture. The character 藍 (indigo) is outlined in sashiko-style stitching.

The piece will be displayed in one of the museum doorways. Noren panels are normally joined together several inches down from the top.  However, in this case I skipped the faggotting to accommodate a taller population and to help reduce some of the stress on the fabric through traffic by leaving the panels open all the way. 

Compare the fellows working in this block print to the men with their fabric stretched the full width of the finished noren above, running behind the 藍 character.

I’ve always enjoyed creating props for teaching. My studio is filled with them. I saw approaching this project as an opportunity to educate. I sat down and just rummaged. I rummaged through my fabric stash, through drawers of block prints, and through my library. Here and there I came across images of people  at work, I narrowed it down to just a few images of dyers immersed in their trade and had my starting point.

Stencil of standing dyer.

Selecting six or eight of  these images, I scanned them, re-styled them a bit and worked to give movement to their lines and character to their faces as I carved my stencils. Actually two sets would be required. Noren have an unusual need to be seen from both sides – coming and going. With the exception of any written words, the noren must not have a  wrong side to it. So a set of images facing one way would be needed for one side and a second set facing the other way for the opposing side.

Care must be taken in pasting each side of the fabric since some distortion will always occur as the first side dries and pulls in the fiber.

Once both sides have been pasted and the paste allowed to fully dry, I suspended the yardage over my dye pot and hoisted away as I lowered the yardage into the deep navy blue medium. After each dunk the dye must be allowed to fully oxidize. The paste must be inspected for any deterioration and repaired if necessary.  The second dip yielded a slighter darker shade and so on until I reached a moderately rich blue after six dunks.

Dipping the pasted yardage into the vat for the fifth time. The pot is actually an old soy sauce container from China.

The wet yardage was transferred to a protected area of my garden to hang in the shade and a gentle breeze. Once dry, it was ready for a different approach.

Vat-dyed fabric hanging in garden until dry.

Detail of stretched image to the right. The rice paste is the yellowish area protecting the fabric beneath from the blue. The shinshi stretch selvage to selvage.

Monochromatic indigo can be quite beautiful and become nuanced with age, as can the chance variations you find in indigo dyed with shibori techniques. Appreciation for this quality can be found in many cultures. The Japanese excel at going one step further and adding a multiple range of deliberate shadings. To prepare for this next step I found it desirable to first apply a coat of soymilk – a protein polymer that helps to seal in vat-dyed indigo and act as a bonding substrate when painting directly with pigment.

Since the fabric is pasted on both sides, it doesn’t matter which side the shinshi are applied to. Clamps, harite, hold the arrangement mid-air between posts.

To make the soy easier to apply, the yardage is sewn end to end to create one long piece and then stretched mid-air using traditional equipment – harite (張手) and shinshi (伸子) – somewhat along the lines of a hammock.

With the fabric sized and stretched to a convenient work height, pigment may be easily applied to both sides using a surikomi brush.











The blue pigment may be applied right over the top of the paste. As long as the paste is doing its job the image will remain well protected. Once I was satisfied, I set the fabric aside to cure for a few weeks and then washed away the paste.

As one of the final steps I went back and did one more application of paste to some of the areas that had been protected by the resist earlier. This allowed me to add highly detailed patterning to the blank areas of the clothing using antique Japanese stencils. In addition I added some direct-painted patterning to areas such as the tenugui the man below is wearing on his head.

Can you see the other way in which the shinshi may be used in the image above? They’ve been spaced along one selvage edge giving the worker a nice handle with which to dip the yardage, and at the same time fan the folded layers open while immersed in the vat to give even exposure to the dye. The man standing has just pulled his project from the vat and the man crouching is just now inserting his.

Noren often have the name or logo of a shop boldly displayed in a prominent position. Selecting the character for “ai” (藍) to serve this purpose was an easy task and I already had a font I designed for a similar purpose years ago. You can see the edges of the character in the image above which I’ve chosen to further highlight with sashiko stitching around the edges – not part of the original plan, but it gave greater prominence to the character.

To read more about how the pigment was prepared click Preparing Indigo Pigment from Fresh Leaves and Fermentation.

To read more about how to paint with the indigo pigment click Painting with Indigo Pigment.



Painting with Indigo Pigment

This article originally appeared in Turkey Red Journal, 2006

Dreams of Incarnations (or Holy Cow)
Vat dyed indigo on cotton with painted indigo and other natural pigments.

We are all familiar with the long and rich legacy indigo brings to the human experience of color in nature. But how many of you, as dyers and as artists, are familiar with painting with indigo? All forms of natural indigo fall into the category of pigment dyes. Pigments are topical dyes, and include most mineral dyes, such as Japanese ganryo (顔料), and naturally sourced paints, such as carmine (cocheneal). By virtue of the fact that they are topical, pigments are very easy to apply in paint form to just about any surface, including textiles. Pigments do require a binder of some sort, which is very different than a mordant, to make them permanently grab hold of your fibers. Iʼll be using soymilk.

The Binder: Soymilk is made from soybeans. Soybeans contain the
highest percentage of protein of all legumes. To make soymilk, simply soak a handful of dry beans in tepid water for about three hours, or until fully swollen. Rinse and place in a blender. Fill the blender 4/5 full of cold water, push the high or liquefy button, and churn until the soybeans appear to be fully mashed.

Soymilk ready to be strained.

Froth will form on the surface of the liquid. Pour the contents through a rag and into a bowl. The liquid that flows through the cloth is your soymilk, the crumble left in the rag may be tossed in the garden as compost. The soymilk consistency should be about the same as 2% milk (slightly translucent). Add water to thin if necessary.


Jizome brushes (jizomebake).

The Sizing: I always recommend a layer of soymilk sizing be applied to all weaves before beginning to paint. You may do this with a sponge or a spray bottle, but if you want consistent and streak-free results, I recommend the brush traditionally used for this step, the Japanese jizomebake . Applying soymilk as a sizing will prevent wicking and allow for much richer color, while at the same time reducing crocking.

Aibana (藍花) – the bubbles formed on the surface of an indigo vat.

The Pigment: You will need oxidized indigo. The most accessible source for most of you will be the froth of bubbles that form on the surface of your indigo fermentation vat, the aibana (藍花). This is the reduced indigo that has come into contact with the air and oxidized. Simply scrape it from the surface and use it wet or dry. Another reliable and consistent source is ganryo pigment from Japan made from Japanese indigo. This is basically an indigo lake. You may also make your own indigo pigment as described under Preparing Indigo Pigment from Fresh Leaves and Fermentation.

Various Japanese brushes useful in applying the indigo.
Starting at the lower left: mensou-fude, fude, various sized surikomibake.

The Paint: Add a little soymilk to the pigment, and you are ready to paint. Any watercolor brush will do to apply the pigment, as will sponges, crumpled paper, or bare feet. I use Japanese brushes called surikomibake (摺込刷毛) and mensou-fude (面相筆) for most of my work.


1. Fabric stretched in an embroidery hoop and sized with soymilk. Beginnings of bird outline sketched with pale indigo.

2. Layers of indigo/soy mixture are built
up to create darker tones as the image
takes shape.

3. Completed bird on branch.

4. Detail of head.

From this point on, work with the indigo/soy mixture much as you would paint with watercolors. The sizing will give your weave a stiff, paper-like surface upon which to work. (If properly applied, the stiffness will go away once the work is completed.) Images 1-4 below may help as a rough guide, starting with the lighter shades and working up to the deeper tones as layer upon layer is applied. I tend to work with a moist or nearly dry brush, rather than a wet one.


The Final Steps: The one drawback to using a natural protein is that it requires curing. Curing involves oxidation of the protein, which takes it from a water-soluble protein, to a non-water-soluble protein-polymer. Once cured, the indigo will not crock and will remain washable. It does no good (nor any harm) to steam the dried soymilk. The safest and easiest method is to simply let the fabric sit exposed to warm dry air. I recommend a minimum of four weeks curing for quality work, but some artists will pare this down to just a few days and still have very good results.

Once the soymilk dries you may handle it with ease, even sewing with the fabric if you like. However, it will remain somewhat stiff until you wash it once. Washing does not remove the soymilk, it simply softens the fabric. However it should not be washed before it cures.

Moojo. Vat indigo on woven nettle with detail showing painted indigo lines.

Indigo painting may also be combined with vat dyeing and resists. In the figures below I have used rice-paste resist along with multiple dunkings to create my imagery. In both cases, the rice paste has been applied with brushes to mimic a batik-like affect. As a final step I have painted in deeper lines and details with my indigo/soy mixture and a mensou brush (a 00 watercolor brush is a fine substitute).



Old Friends. Vat indigo on Russian linen with detail showing paste highlights applied before dipping and minimal painted indigo details (eyelid).

Shibori vat dyed silk handkerchief – tsujigahana style with detail at right showing painted indigo accents

Equally interesting results may be achieved by combining the painted indigo with tie-dye, shibori. This combination is what is referred to as tsujigahana.


Detail of Holy Cow (see beginning of article, above) showing a combination of natural pigments, including indigo, applied using soymilk as a binder.

Preparing Indigo Pigment from Fresh Leaves and Fermentation

There are many, many ways to go about preparing pigments from indigo. They all share one thing in common in that the colorant (indican) must first be removed from the plant.

In this article I’ve chosen to use a simple fermentation process. This is not the highly developed method of composting indigo under controlled conditions that is the bedrock of most of the indigo dyeing you seen done traditionally in Japan, but a simple backyard approach to working with fresh plants.

Fresh Polygonum leaves harvested first thing in the morning.



The leaves are harvested with stems, weighed (I’m using 10kg of leaves), and placed in a copper cauldron outside in a sunny location.




Adding warm water to the copper cauldron – just enough to cover the plants.

Cover the plants with  just enough water to cover all the leaves. The pot will be covered and the pot allowed to warm in the sun to encourage fermenting. It will speed things up a bit if you pull warm water from your utility sink as I am doing here.

Plants covered with perforated copper tray.

Stone tortoise added to top of tray to keep leaves below surface.

As the leaves begin to ferment they will float up and rise above the water level. Adding weights will help to keep all vegetation below the surface level.

I’m working in the middle of a California summer, highs are averaging around 100ºF. After the first day, the surface of my liquid has begun to turn a bit blue and little bits of indigo color can be seen floating here and there. The leaves are looking a bit tired – like yesterday’s salad – but there is still quite a bit of green in them. The temperature of the pot at 2:00 in the afternoon is around 80ºF and hovers at about this temperature for the rest of my project.

Day two shows more of a peacock blue on the surface and less green in the leaves, so I decide to let the whole thing go one more day to see what develops. I’ve added a sprig of fresh leaves to the detail shots  to help you compare the difference in color.


Day three looks more along the lines of what I remember Popeye’s canned spinach to look like, and the liquid now has a decided slick of navy blue floating across the surface. It doesn’t look as the the leaves could get any less green.



The next step is to strain out all the vegetable matter, which I will contribute to the compost pile. I’ll be adding calx (calcium hydroxide, or pickling lime) to help the indigo particles precipitate out (flocculate) as the indican combines with oxygen to form indigo. I’ll be moving the liquid to a stainless steel pot. For the 94 liters of liquid I have remaining I’ll add 940g of calx. Generally it follows a 15g/1.5 liter ratio.

New sump pump right out of the box.

Sump pump with ABS pipe contraption I added.






Now comes the really fun part – aerating the mixture! You may stir the whole thing until your arms are ready to drop off or find another way. A clean cement mixer would be really cool if you are looking for an excuse to buy one, or in my case I had plenty of fun with a sump pump. No matter how you decide to proceed, you must keep mixing the liquid until it froths heavily and the mixture turns a deep blue.

Remove the pump, skim the bubbles from the top (which I also save to use as pigment later), and allow the mixture to rest and the particles to settle. In most cases this will take one day. Once the liquid appears to be translucent and there is a sludge at the bottom, you may gently remove the upper layer of waste liquid. It is very alkaline. I pour mine on my compost pile. The sludge at the bottom is what I’ll be saving.

My intention is to use this as a pigment for painting – not for a reduction vat. Reduction vats are very alkaline, so the current high pH of my sludge wouldn’t be an issue. However, I’ll be saving this pigment to use in direct painting on silk and a high pH may damage my protein fiber over time.

With that in mind, I took a sampling from my larger batch and filled a pilsner. The pigment quickly settled out within a couple of hours. You can see the color of the orangey color of the liquid remaining below and the settled blue pigment at the bottom.

These pilsners are 24″ tall. pH from left to right is 10.5+, 9-, 8, 7.5 and 7.

To reduce the pH I will have to repeatedly wash the whole batch – which is what I have done. Washing means pouring off the waste liquid and adding more water. This removes any excess calx from the mixture. With each rinsing I took a new sample.  As the pH level dropped the color of the liquid became more clear, but the pigment yield went down. I probably should have stopped with the center sample with a pH of 8, but I kept going.

In the end I wound up with  a total dry weight of 192g for all my efforts. If I had stayed with the pH 10+, I would have probably had double that weight in return. Having said that, I wound up with an exceedingly fine quality of pigment – perfect for use on silks and other very fine weaves.

Applying my indigo pigment to very finely woven ramie.


What Does “Tsujigahana” Mean?

The term tsujigahana starts out vague and can grow a bit more confusing as we delve further. You’ll find that the Japanese use the term to refer to a great many different techniques, but they all have the same general aesthetic in common. So let’s just take it bit by bit.

woven silk

woven silk tsumugi

The characters for tsujigahana are 辻が花. The first character, 辻 (tsuji), means crossroads. You’ll see it used in other compounds such as 辻堂 (tsujidou, a wayside shrine), 辻店 (tsujimise, roadside stall), or the hopefully extinct custom of 辻取り (tsujitori, an archaic term meaning taking a wife by kidnapping a woman passing by on the road). が (ga) is a term used to link two words, and 花 (hana) means flower. So simply translated it means flower by the side of the road. While this is not a term that describes a specific technique, it does cover a general look. Above and below are a few samples of the design style accurately referred to as tsujigahana along with a description of the techniques employed in creating them. Scroll to the bottom of this article to see more examples.

all shibori on silk tsumugi

all shibori on rinzu silk (collection of the author)

printed or brushed paste along with painted background on silk tsumugi (collection of the author)

fully printed on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

Kinkakuji – The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

And that is about it! Any time you see a flower (or leaves, birds, etc.) drawn, painted, woven, or carved in this style it may legitimately be called tsujigahana. The style itself is said to have become popular in the Muromachi Period (c.e. 1336 to 1573) – this is the time that the famous Kinkakuji was built, Edo (old Tokyo) was established, Europeans arrived, and firearms were introduced. It was a busy time.

the late Itchiku Kuboto

During this period very high levels of weaving had been achieved, but not a lot in terms of surface design. Techniques such as shibori and direct painting had been around at least as far back as the Nara Period (roughly most of the 700’s). It was during the Muromachi period that combining the two into whimsical imagery became popular. During the mid and late 1900’s, the artist Itchiku Kubota worked to revive and expand upon the technique and it is primarily through his efforts that those of us in the West became familiar with this form of artistry.


Additional Shots

woven silk

woven silk and metallic threads (collection of the author)

printed paste over hand-drawn images with painted background on silk rinzu (collection of the author)

pasted outlines and painted background on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

tsutsugaki-pasted outlines and painted background on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

painted wax resist and shibori on silk, painted stamens

fully printed on silk chirimen (collection of the author)

fully printed on silk rinzu (collection of the author)

shibori with gold-leafed grasses and hand-embroidered flowers (collection of the author)

hand painted on silk/gold kinshi (collection of the author)

hand-painted image on silk tsumugi (collection of the author)

hand painted on kinshi with hand-embroidered details (collection of the author)

all shibori and hand-painted details (collection of the author)

kanoko- and nui-shibori on silk rinzu with hand-painted details (collection of the author)

nui-shibori and hand-painted images on silk chirimen

nui-shibori and hand-painted images on silk (collection of the author)

Japanese textiles, dyeing, weaving, culture, John Marshall, katazome, somemono, natural dye