Chuusen 注染 201114

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 empl0yed 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.)

Young couple out for a stroll in 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:

On-line chuusen process video provided by NugooKamakura.

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 sweat bands tied about a worker’s brow, to highly collected pieces of textile art.

The factory stocks a huge volume of sarashi cotton.




A long fiber, high quality cotton called sarashi is used for most tenugui and a little heavier fabric is used for yukata.

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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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 has been placed around the borders of the stacked cloth to prevent the dye from spilling over the edges.

How the dye flows through the layers with the help of the vacuum table.

A vacuum pump is 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 distort the paste-printed image.


I hope the diagram to the right 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.

The top 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!


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?)

Storefront with range of textiles visible. Click on this image for addresses in Japan carrying chuusen tenugui.


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.


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. The dry paste takes a while to reconstitute, so it is OK to remain wet for a short period while the artist works.] 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.

Chuusen Sample 201114

Sample 201114-Chuusen $12 plus postage and tax ($12 even if purchased as part of a set. For more information about sets, click on this text.)

Above 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.

This is a detail of sample 201114 showing where the fold was in the cloth during the pasting and dyeing process.

In the diagram discussed earlier, you can see how the colors blend as the dyes were poured and suctioned through the fabric. Below is what it looks like in real life – notice the mingling of the colors as they are drawn through the weave.

Examples of how the dyes blend as they are pulled through to the vacuum table below.

Many of you may collect Japanese stencils. The katagami used in chuusen is a bit different in how the design is structured when compared to other types of katazome.

First of all, they tend to be much longer–exactly the same as the run of one length of cloth before being folded back on itself.

Second, because the fabric doubles back on itself, it can’t be used to repeat in the same manner as other stencils. Other stencils would be matched top to bottom and top to bottom as the stencil is repeatedly applied in a linear fashion. However, in chuusen, because of the fold, it is repeated in mirror image at each end. Therefore care must be taken to either avoid having any image touch the fold, as in the crane stencil above, or to make sure that any lines hit the edges perpendicular to the fold so as not to form a jarring “V” when the fabric is opened up. Notice how the stem on the flower stencil above hits the edge dead on.

One last image I would like to share:

Well Designed Chuusen Studio in Japan.

Oh, the clutter seen here makes me feel right at home!



Tenugui 手ぬぐい

Isn’t it interesting how something one person will dismiss without a glance, another person will see as a rare treasure? Tenugui often fall into this category.

The word tenugui (手ぬぐい) means hand wipe. And that is what they are. They are also used for head coverings, on occasion for wrapping things, and to wipe up spills on the floor–but not all at the same time! And just because they are used for such mundane purposes doesn’t mean they have to be ugly!

One of the delightful aspects of Japanese culture is how often care and attention is taken to make items used in everyday life not only functional but a joy to use or a beauty to behold. So while tenugui are put to every conceivable use as a rag, a great deal of creativity goes into making them attractive and many people collect them for this reason alone. Try cutting and pasting 手ぬぐい in your browser and see how many links come up – everything from connoisseurs waxing on about the aesthetics of a particular tenugui artist, to pages and movies devoted to showing yet one more creative way to press this treasure into service.

One of my favorite stores in Tokyo is a tenugui store called Fujiya in Asakusabashi. Below are three of my favorite tenugui collected years ago.

Incognito (detail)



This one appeals to me for its stark simplicity and commanding presence. The image is of a woman hiding her identity as she heads toward a bridge from which she will leap to her death. You can almost see her set determination in her eyes. Despite the kind of attention burqas have received in the press over the past few years, there is something very powerful in having all visual clues about a person hidden, forcing one’s attention entirely on the eyes. I think this piece is classic in this sense–and it’s handy to wipe up a spill from time to time.


Bunraku Doll


This image is of a bunraku doll. Here, again, it is the face that captures my heart. What is not visible in the photograph  are the very subtle additions of color to areas of the clothing. See below for an explanation of how this is achieved.


Bunraku Doll (detail)








The image to the right has not been “flipped” accidentally. Keep in mind that chuusen-dyed items have no right or wrong side and may be viewed from either.


And lastly, I find this tenugui to be quite amusing. After all, it is offering a history of its own use and listing the occupation or type of person pressing it into service.

Tenugui as Headgear

See if you can guess any of the occupations of the people below based on their headgear. There are a few you may be able to spot right away: the burglar, the convalescent, the housewife, the fellow returning from the bath, and the clandestine traveler.

Tenugui Headgear (detail)

The above tenugui are all dyed using the chuusen method. Click on Textile of the Week: Chuusen to see how one studio goes about producing these. Read on for a slightly different perspective.

First take a peak at this clip on YouTube: The images below are taken from it.

Array of Colors Awaiting Use


Synthetic dyes boast qualities best suited to chuusen. They are inexpensive, and can be stored for long periods of time. Most require steaming, but bypass the need for a mordant.


Dye Can at Rest


Isn’t this a wonderful shot of a dye can? Simplicity of line coupled with an efficient design make it a joy to use as well as ponder the meaning of life in ever shifting planes of universal bends twists and dings, etc., etc., etc. . . .OK, then.


Stencils Stored Overhead


This season’s selection of stencil images are stored overhead for easy access. Each stencil is attached to a wooden frame from which it may be detached for long-term storage.

Applying Paste

The craftsman pulls from a large batch of paste using a wood debabera to push the paste through the stencil. Layer after layer he alternates the cotton and the paste until a full bolt of fabric has been prepared. The paste image in each consecutive layer must line up precisely with the layer below.

Moats of Paste Help to Contain the Dyes

Additional paste has been added to the top layer of the cloth encircling some areas with a moat. Notice that these boundaries do not follow the lines of the original image or stencil. Instead they are helping to define the areas into which additional colors or shadings will be added. This may be easier to detect in the image below. (I like the plastic jug above that has been cut in half and turned up side down to use.)

Pouring Additional Color into the Contained Areas.

Foot Controlled Vacuum Switch

As dye is added to the fabric it is quickly pulled through the many layers and into a waiting receptacle. The craftsman controls the vacuum suction with a foot lever.

Once all of the colors have been added, the fabric is steamed and the paste removed.

Finished Image

Finished Image

Can you see how the shaded areas relate to the moats above?

The fabric is folded back and forth upon itself and the dye passes through all layers equally. Therefore there is no real right or wrong side to the image (unless text is involved). This is true chuusen.

Tenugui are sold in stores, but they are also quite often commissioned by businesses to hand out free to customers, a bit like refrigerator magnets are handed out here. Often these will contain a company logo, business name, or advertisement of some sort. Because of the labor involved in the chuusen process, cheaper methods are always being explored and exploited.

Automated Silk Screen Set Up

One such method is not so very new. It involves automated silk screening as seen on the right.

Another increasingly common method is simply using an inkjet printer and textile inks with a very wide format printer.

However, in both of these printing techniques there is a sharp difference between the right and wrong side, as seen below.

Printed Tenugui Showing a Clear Difference in the Right and Wrong sides of the Fabric

Chuusen 注染

Chuusen (注染), as described elsewhere in the blog, is a process in which dye is poured through many layers of cotton at the same time, with the help of vacuum suction from below. The first character, 注, is also pronounced sosogu (注ぐ), and means to pour. It also means to concentrate one’s spirit or strength on (the task at hand).

The character is made up of two parts, on the left the radical for water,  and on the right a character meaning master, or chief.

You’ll find this kanji character, 注, as part of many compound words. In the case of chuusen, it is coupled with 染 (sen), which means to dye, and together they describe the core process involved.

Following are a few other compound words to help you better understand how this kanji is employed:
注意  (chuui) – caution, heed, warning
注視 (chuushi) – to gaze steadily, observe
注射 (chuusha) – shot, injection (as in a shot of medicine)