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)

The Beauty of Tsujigahana

Sometimes I’m asked, “So what’s the big deal about tsujigahana? It’s just glorified tie-dye isn’t it?” Well, yes and no…

First let’s take a look at two of my favorite shibori pieces in my collection. The first is all tie-dye, no embellishing details or techniques to augment its beauty. (Larger photos of this piece and a more detailed description may be read here on my blog.)

beautiful and nuanced landscape created through repeated tying, capping, re-dyeing (collection of the author)

I selected the above example to focus on the sophisitication of image and not so much on the colors involved. Next let’s take a look at a very colorful piece. It is still done in the same manner as the kimono above – wrap, stitch, and cap areas to prevent dye from getting where you don’t want; building up areas of color while repeating the process over and over again.

furisode of compound kanoko-shibori dyeing (collection of the author)

There is another, softer approach that can be taken in shobori in which the dyes are allowed to wick into other areas, overlaying them, combining with them, and just generally allowing them to fraternize. This can create a blurry image, much like looking out at a garden through a heavily rain speckled window, or putting on your spouse’s eye glasses by accident.

a very soft mood comes from allowing the dyes to run together a bit during the dyeing process

The textile shown above is a beautifully subtle example of repeated layers of dyes in combination with shibori techniques. It is exquisite as is. Having said that, it could also be described as blurry and ill-defined.

notice what a difference it makes to add just a few crisp lines and a little shading

Add to this a few crisp, clear lines and the result is no longer “blurry and ill-defined” but subtle and understated. The difference? The crisp lines give a point of reference stating clearly that the artist is capable of well-defined imagery, and has deliberately chosen muted for the background. It gives the brain something to focus on.

a fine example of how the painted details of tsujigahana can perk up a piece out of proportion to the volume of dye added (collection of the author)

An analogy that comes to mind is a tip given to me when I was young and working in Tokyo. It was expensive to have my suit dry-cleaned on a regular basis, and having only one, it was also a matter of timing. To prolong the “fresh” look of a dark suit, I was told to simply make sure that the handkerchief in my breast pocket was always immaculately clean, well starched, and ironed. The pristine handkerchief gave the employer/client something to focus on in judging the rest of my attire, distracting them from the fact that the suit itself was looking a bit tired. The crisp lines in tsujigahana can have the same effect on the viewer – emphasizing that the blurry lines are indeed a subtle, deliberate effect, not simply washed out or ill-set dyes.

Creating the Tsujigahana “Look”

Despite the fact that many textiles employ the aesthetic discussed under What Does “Tsujigahana” Mean?, it is the mastered combination of shibori (string resist) and hand painted images that first comes to mind when we speak of tsujigahana, and this is what we will be focusing on in this article.


Here are a few sample designs representing typical images found in tsujigahana. I’ve redrawn them from  samples in my collection.



The first step is to prepare a cartoon. A light table comes in handy when transferring the image to the silk.

using blueflower and a brush to transfer the cartoon image to silk with the help of a light table

Blueflower (青花, aobana) is used as the transfer ink. It disappears on contact with water. The next step varies with the artist – the permanent lines may be inked in at this point, including the shading, or the images may be inked in once the shibori process has been completed which is the example I will follow below.

The next several images have been borrowed from this site to allow me to add captions in English.

aobana design stenciled onto cotton used as a guide in stitching

Most shibori techniques employ very strong string as the primary resist, allowing the craftsperson to pull the gathers tight.

strong cotton or hemp thread is used to stitch around the outlines of the design and pulled tight




Once the outlines are tied off, the areas that won’t be dyed for the time being must be protected.

top: old-style bamboo sheath cap bottom: the sheaths that cover bamboo shoots as they emerge in spring have many uses in Japan

These areas are capped off. Traditionally the sheaths from bamboo shoots were used, but today various types of plastic are preferred.

top: contemporary artists prefer to use a form of plastic wrap as caps bottom: contemporary plastic caps

Section by section, color by color each segment of the design is addressed.

left: all areas except that which is to be dyed green are capped off center: once the green is set, the fabric is untied and then retied to expose only the areas to be dyed purple right: the stitched threads are removed and the results inspected

To ink in the lines a number of synthetic dyes may be used, or simply soot or indigo pigment mixed with soymilk. A fude-style brush is used for the outlines to give sharp detailed lines, and a surikomi brush is used to do the shading around the edges to soften the look and add some whimsy.

left: inking in the details with a fude-style brush right: finished textile

Black is not the only color used to paint in designs. The colors and designs are limited only by the artist’s imagination.

natural dyes on silk tsumugi using a wide range of colors with a traditional look (collection of the author)

nui-shibori edges between the green and orange, coupled with more realistic looking leaves gives a more contemporary impression (collection of the author)

Tsujigahana – Real or Fake?

Friends have come to me with treasures in hand – beautiful tsujigahana kimono they have purchased in the hopes that it is real. What is real?

hand-painted details, brushed background dyes (no shibori)

Their hope, of course, is that they have stumbled upon a piece created by someone as famous as Itchiku Kubota, or at least one that has been stitch-dyed by hand, with hand-drawn detailing. And I would hope that will be a reality for all of us – even if unlikely. However, unlikely does not mean impossible. So let’s take a look at how to judge what you have.

We’ve covered what goes into hand-stitched, hand-painted tsujigahana elsewhere. But let’s take a close-up look and see what we find.

notice the needle holes left behind in this hand-painted, nui-shibori piece – also notice how the holes correspond to the variations in the dye caused by the pleating when the string is pulled tight (collection of the author)

There are many, many ways to create the same general look. Stitched shibori will leave behind tell-tale evidence of having been sewn in the form of tiny needle holes, see above. However, when the fabric is stitched and untied several times during the dye process these tiny holes may disappear through handling.

the holes are easy to spot in this example, but notice how they do correspond to the wrinkled pleats we can see, but not to the dyed pleats (collection of the author)

Often in this case, once the entire piece has been dyed and details painted in, the artist will go back and give one final stitching to the whole piece to add back in the holes and creases that have flattened out during the process and give it back that distinctive shibori look. In this case the holes left behind don’t really correspond to the pleated lines of the actual dyework.

this example illustrates a piece that has been entirely printed and only during the very last stage of production had any shibori work done – notice how the center of the flower has been twisted, a bit like having one’s nose tweaked (collection of the author)

With this look in mind, some artists skip using stitch-dye techniques altogether by printing, screening, or painting the design. If this is followed up with a final stitching and setting of the creases as mentioned above, the final look will be much the same at a glance with a lot less effort expended.

printed flowers with rice-paste overlay to protect as the back ground dyes are painted – notice the lack of blurring around the edges of the flowers and the simple round dots of the stems (collection of the author)

In addition, the printed versions don’t have the soft blurring of edges seen in the stitch-dyed work. Often tiny dots are simply printed in to give the look of string-resisted areas.

notice how small dots have been printed to mimic the holes left by the needles employed in nui-shibori (collection of the author)

If you look closely at this type of work, you can even see how cleverly some artists have printed in minute black dots to appear as if they are the holes left behind by needles.

Next let’s take a look at the painted details.

hand painted lines and shading – notice how the brush has skipped a bit along the surface of the weave (collection of the author)

Outlines painted by hand tend to have variations in thickness and darkness. They may appear a bit broken up or made up of small bits of dots or dashes. Look closely and you will see that it is the brush skipping along the surface of the weave that has caused this look. Shading done by hand should be true shading, not pixilated shading as you might see of an enlarged version of a photo from a newspaper, made up of spaced dots. However, true shading may be a bit uneven if it is affected by the surface of the weave.

lower-quality printed shadings can have a pixilated look, which at a casual glance can be deceiving (collection of the author)

Below are a few more examples of true brush work.

very simple stitched out line, minimal hand drawing, brushed in colors on flower(collection of the author)

hand-stitching and hand-painted details on figured silk chirimen (collection of the author)

hand stitched and hand-painted details, hand-painted colors in flowers (collection of the author)

hand stitched, hand-painted details, hand-painted tints to petals (collection of the author)