Focus on Dirt (J-025 Phoenix Tatewaku)

Focus on dirt? Yes, dirt! The garment you see below was dyed entirely with colors from the earth, including real gold.

Helen Petrulio Modelling the Phoenix and Tatewaku Robe, J-025, Natural Dirt Pigments on Silk

I love this photo. Helen Petrulio came to visit my studio one day and on an impulse she modeled this garment for me as she stood under my studio skylight. Her hair, skin, and the gold leafing in the garment all seemed to capture the sunlight and hold it suspended for a brief moment. (The pigments below Helen were photoshopped in later.)
Helen has since passed away and this image serves as a wonderful reminder of her warmth and humor. She was very active in the Sacramento Center for Textile Arts and is greatly missed to this day.

For more views of the garment, click on either of the images.

Detail Showing the Difference in Colorways Between Top Layer and Bottom

One of the unique features of the small string of volcanic islands that make up Japan is the variety of naturally occurring colors of soils. The majority of these are varieties of iron oxide, featuring a full range of reds, greens, blacks, lavenders, and yellows. The variations occur because of  the other minerals with which they combine to form alloys.

Below, in brown type, is an article I wrote for the Turkey Red Journal describing how to make your own soil-based pigments. Turkey Red Journal is a wonderful on-line magazine published and edited by Pamela Feldman. If you are interested in natural dyes you’ll want to pay Turkey Red Journal a visit.

by John Marshall©

Can’t get that Georgia red clay out of your new white jeans? You’ve just discovered a wonderful natural colorant, right under your very own…knees.

Pigments are a great source of natural colors, boasting a long and illustrious association with textiles. Traditional bingata dyeing of Okinawa, to site just one example, stands out proudly.

Bingata utilizes a paste-resist process (katazome or tsutsugaki techniques) to define the pattern or images. Areas are often undercoated with vegetable dyes, applied cold, and then overlaid with pigments. Pigments do not make use of mordants. Instead, they are encouraged to make a lasting bond with the fiber through a protein based adhesive. While there are many sources for this protein, such as the milk in cassein paints, soy is the most versatile, forming a friendly relationship with natural fibers.

To make your pigments, any pretty colored dirt will do. Avoid those that glow in the dark, collected near restricted military areas.

Make a muddy slurry by adding water, allow it to stand for just a moment and pour off the top three quarters of the mixture. Most of the rocks and nails will have settled out into the bottom one-quarter.

Thin the mixture a little more, stirring thoroughly, allow to sit, and again, pour off the top three quarters. Continue in this manner until you have a rather thin mixture, free of pebbles, worms, and assorted vegetable matter.

Allow to sit over night, then decant as much liquid, which should be fairly clear, as possible without disturbing the sediment. Allow the sediment to dry. It can be stored away indefinitely for future use.

See how many different colors of dirt you can collect on your journeys!

Once you have a high quality pigment in hand, you’ll need to add the soy milk.
Take a handful of dry soy beans and soak them in water until fully swollen, then rinse. Fill your blender approximately one quarter full with the swollen beans, adding clean water to the fill line. Blend on high for around three minutes and then strain through a cloth to remove the crumbles. What you have left is unadulterated soy milk. Aim for a consistency similar to 2% milk.

Add a little soy milk to the pigment, thinning the mixture gradually with the soy until you have a solution of whole milk consistency. This is your dye.

You will achieve best results if you layer the pigment in thin coats to achieve the intensity of color you are after, rather than caking the colors on. What cakes on, cakes off.

The soy pigment mixture will need to be set, but not through steaming. Simply leave it alone to cure. The longer you allow it to rest before molesting it further, the better quality washable and dry-cleanable product you will have. If using a resist to create patterns, allow it to cure for around two months before washing.

Happy dyeing!

Originally appeared in Turkey Red Journal

Note to Paula-
I’m adding the image below just to give you an idea of how the pigments work on paper. This is commercially made washi, the dyes were applied to the back (rough) side of the paper. Otherwise treatment and application are basically the same as for any fabric piece.


Seven Treasures and Dancing Lions by John Marshall, Natural Pigments on Hand-Made Paper


Imitation Bingata (手挿調琉球紅型) 201107

Sample 201107 Imitation Bingata

I prefer to think of the sample for this week as being an imitation bingata (紅型) silk rather than a fake, largely because of the quality. While it is not real bingata, and would not have the same sales value of comparable imagery at a comparable scale executed with true-bingata techniques, it nonetheless is a masterful accomplishment. A curious aspect often found in Japan is the need to re-invent or imitate, and in the process often create a whole new range of items equal to, or at times better, than the original.

Sample 201107-Imitation Bingata $15 plus postage and tax ($12 even as part of a set. For more information about sets, click on this text.)

The technique employed here does count as katazome (型染め), which literally means stencil dyeing. Rice paste is still applied (as you can see in the white outlines of the images shown on this page), but rather than hand brushing in all of the colors and accents as you might expect, each color is applied with the help of a stencil.  At least one stencil was needed for each of the following colors, plus white:

Sampling of Colors Used in 200107

In most cases, the synthetic colors are prepared by adding the dye to rice paste or a thickener such as sodium alginate and then pushing them through the stencil one color/one stencil at a time. This process is called nassen (捺染). However, in the case of shaded areas, as you can see represented by the deeper green above, pigments work best and they are applied using a peony brush as you see in the shot below.

Applying Shaded Areas Through a Stencil Using a Small Peony Brush

[If you are interested in taking classes in nassen techniques, Akemi Nakano Cohn is an excellent teacher with years of experience. Her web site is]

Let’s examine some of the information that came with the bolt. On the beginning end of the fabric is the information included by the artist or dye house. It states the following; 手挿調小紋 (in the style of hand-brushed dyeing) 琉球紅型 (Ryuukyuu bingata). So this tells us right away that the colors were not applied with brushes, but in a manner which simulates that appearance.  This is a very different approach than that taken by the producers of 201106, who do not tell you that their piece is other than the real deal.

Dyer’s Information at End of Bolt

The label goes on to give us the artist; 伝統工芸士 (traditional craftsman) 西村英明 (Nishimura Hideaki). His name is followed by his stamp in red.

There is one more element to this whole label, and that is the gold one you see to the left. I’ve enlarged it for you  below. It is one you see affixed to many very high quality, and expensive textiles.

Traditional Craft Products Designated by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry

The label tells us the following: 通産大巨指定伝統的工芸品 (certification that this item was produced by a designated master of traditional crafts), registered item number A0477602, 京友禅 (kyouyuuzen), 京都染色共同組合連合会 (Kyoto Dyers Cooperative Association).  These gold labels are issued by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. If you would like to read more about what goes into achieving this designation, click on the gold label to the right.

All this can get a bit confusing, so let’s take a moment to recap:
1. The label states upfront that this is not real bingata (all real bingata has colors applied with brushes, or by dunking in an indigo vat).
2. It also claims that it is Ryuukyuu bingata, which we know to be impossible since it also states that it is kyouyuuzen (in this case nassen), which is produced in Kyoto and not Okinawa; and is certified as such by the Minister of Economics, etc.. To give a charitable spin on the label, we may take it to mean that the imagery is designed to look like Ryuukyuu-style bingata (which it does), and after all, real yuuzen has its own high merit and value.
3. It does not state that it is of natural dyes, so we can assume that was dyed with synthetics.

Kimono by Hideaki Nishimura

4. We know that it was produced by a very fine craftsman, Mr. Hideaki Nishimura. A quick Google search brought up a sample of one of his beautiful kimono accessorized with a Nishijin-weave obi.

All of this tells us that this is a very exquisite piece of fabric, executed by a highly accomplished dyer, and fully documented. There is just one more detail I would like to point out to both dyers and collectors, so let’s take a look at the back of our sample.

If we didn’t have the full end piece (beyond the portion with all of the written information) it would be natural to assume that this is a vat-dyed piece, at least the background blue, anyway. It has all of the hallmark characteristics: clearly defined imagery on the front side, and variations in the intensity of indigo blue on the backside corresponding to the areas dyed on the front. But look again–

Backside of 201107 Showing Undyed Portion at End

Notice the undyed section to the left in the image above. You can’t have a white section like this if the bolt is vat dyed since the piece would be fully immersed. The dye could have been brushed over the background on the front side, and then brushed again on the back; however there are no tell-tale brush strokes showing at the border between the blue and the white. This leaves us with only one likely conclusion–the artist made use of nassen techniques (in which case the cloth was covered in paste saturated with blue dye). This also accounts for the very even coverage throughout.

Real bingata would most often use one stencil to apply the entire design with the help of rice-paste resist. The unpasted, or exposed areas would have dyes made of plants or minerals (although nowadays synthetic dyes are also commonly used) applied with brushes. Once the dyes have set (this means just leaving them alone for a specified period of time), then the paste is washed out with water. If the artist would like to add color to the background, in a style called oborobingata, then more paste is applied to protect the colors already dyed, and any exposed areas, such as the washed background, are available to receive additional colors.

In this piece, a stencil was used to apply the resist to white silk. Additional stencils were used (at least seventeen additional ones) to apply each color or shade of color. The dyes were most likely applied with the help of a thickener and applied through the stencil with a squeegee. A thick paste of blue was applied over both sides of the silk and then steamed. Steaming reconstitutes the paste and activates the synthetic dyes allowing it to stain the silk. All of the layers of paste are washed away with water to leave us the finished piece.

In comparing the two processes, can you see how the simpler, more direct traditional bingata allows for much more flexibility and spontaneity? But it is labor intensive and doesn’t lend itself to volume production work.

The yuuzen approach, on the other hand, is far more complex with many more steps and a larger investment in supplies and equipment. But having invested in an infrastructure, many virtually identical bolts may be dyed–this at the sacrifice of spontaneity and individual human quirks of the artist. So in an attempt to mimic the traditional bingata, a far more complex and exacting process was chosen.

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Pigments 顔料

This is really and for truly Ryuukyuu bingata. While a simple and traditional motif of toy horses, this piece manages to capture the essence of true bingata in its surrealistic use of colors and shadings.

Toy Horses by Iuchi Aijirou on Bashoufu, Mounted as a Scroll with Silk Borders

Information About Artist Found on Back of Scroll

This image was dyed using natural pigments on a fabric long associated with Okinawa, bashoufu (芭蕉布), woven from the fibers of a banana-like plant.  The artist is Iuchi Aijirou (井内愛次郎 琉球大学) of Ryuukyuu University. It was finished in January of 1969, and is stamped with the characters for Ryuukyuu University (琉球大学少印).





Notice how the accent colors, called kumadori (隈取り), are used to give the image a sense of volume but in no way attempts to add realistic shading to the figure. The bold colors of the kumadori (accent marks) give bingata a distinctive and exotic tropical look, greatly adding to the appeal of this traditional art form.


Through an entirely different source, I came into a piece of fabric dyed in a nearly identical manner to the image above. It is dyed on thin, cotton sheeting, but otherwise it is not much inferior to the sample above.

Toy Horses, Artistu Unknown, Natural Pigments on Cotton Sheeting

Katazome 型染め

The use of a wide range of terms in Japanese can be very confusing. There is the nit-picky, precise meaning of a word, and then there is the common usage. This confusion can be compounded by the fact any given textile will have many qualities, or many techniques employed, allowing each sample to correctly be called by many names.

Katazome (型染め) is most commonly accepted to mean techniques employing one or more stencils to apply a rice-paste resist to fabric. This is the style in which I primarily work.  However, technically it can be any form of dyeing (染め) that uses a stencil or block or form (型).

One Layer of Rice Paste Applied




By this definition, it may be fabric dyed from a single stencil used to apply paste,

Two Layers of Stenciled Rice Paste Applied



fabric dyed using multiple stencils to apply rice-paste resist,

Colored Paste Pushed Through Stencil Much Like Silk Screening





fabric dyed using multiple stencils to apply dye-saturated paste,

Dyes Applied Through Multiple Stencils Using Peony Brushes





and fabric dyed using multiple stencils without paste to brush on the dyes.



It can even include prints made with vegetables or wooden blocks because they, too, are kata (型)!