Chusen-dyeing workshop in Tokyo, Japan

the art of chusen dyeing

by Patricia Belyea

TOKYO JP Three very special people actualized my dream of visiting a chusen-dyeing factory in Japan.

Artist Sanae Naito, a university lecturer and creator of her own chusen-dyed textiles, arranged the tour. Mr Toyoda, a collector of Japanese arts and crafts, joined us. And Mr Abe, the factory owner, welcomed us to his family business at the north end of Tokyo.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

Mr Abe explained that his factory specializes in dyeing tenugui as there is currently little demand for hand-dyed yukata cottons.

We took off our shoes and donned provided slippers before we stepped into the factory. The entry area was filled with cottons, stretched into rolls and ready for dyeing.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

First we watched resist paste being applied to the narrow-width cottons. Artisans rolled one meter lengths of cotton across their work tables, pulled down the lacey-cut stencils, and swept blades of resist paste across the patterns. This step was repeated 24 times to prepare each 24-meter tanmono (bolt) for dyeing.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

A huge vat of resist paste perched beside each artisan. By the end of the day, two-thirds of the paste was used up.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

The piles of prepped fabric were wrapped with sute-nuno (old cloths), placed on the floor, and covered with sawdust to protect the resist paste. Watch your step!

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

Dyeing artisans placed the folded fabric on vacuum tables, tucking the edges under heavy lengths of black rubber. To keep the colors separate, they made dams around the different dye areas. When pouring the dyes, the artisans activated vacuum compressors with foot pedals. The strong suction pulled the dyes through all the layers.

Dyed from the top, the piles were flipped over and dyed from the other side—permeating the fabric with color.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

The artisans easily filled the long-spouted dye pots by scooping them into buckets of vibrant liquid color.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

Mr Abe’s son poured dyes with both hands. He looked so graceful as he waved the flowing pots of dye across the table while pressing the foot pedal in synch with his actions.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

Once the dye colors oxidized, the yardage was vigorously washed to remove resist paste and any extra dyes.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

After four wash cycles, the fabric was spun in an extractor until lightly damp.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing

To finish drying, the long lengths of fabric were hung outside in the sun. This sight made my heart soar.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

We tromped upstairs to a barn-like room with clotheslines stretched down its length. On rainy days or when the factory works through the night, the dyed fabric is hung here to dry. Or it’s fed through a mammoth iron that dries four bolts of cloth at one time.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

Stacks of stencils filled one end of the room, organized by customer.

Historically the stencils were made of “bitter paper”—washi paper painted with bitter persimmon juice and smoked until waterproof. To hold the pattern pieces together, silk gossamer was laminated across the stencil.

These days the stencils are made with “chemical” paper and “chemical” threads, explained Sanae.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

From upstairs we got a great view of the nearby river. Originally the factory had washed out its fabrics in the river. Today Mr Abe oversees wastewater holding tanks to ensure that his factory does not pollute the environment.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

Back to the gorgeous fabrics. To finish, the fabric is wound on a roller to remove wrinkles, and folded back and forth to the tenugui length (90cm). Then it’s shipped to Mr Abe’s customers.

The Art of Chusen Dyeing in JapanThe Art of Chusen Dyeing in Japan

In a cab back to the train station, Sanae told me that Mr Toyoda has one million pieces of tenugui in his collection. Although Mr Toyoda doesn't speak English, he nodded his head affirmatively when I exclaimed “A thousand, thousand tenugui!”

Mr Abe had given each of us a tenugui he designed himself when we departed. For the Year of the Monkey, his tenugui was decorated with expressive red monkeys.

So now Mr Toyoda has one million and one tenugui! And I’ve finally visited a chusen-dyeing factory!

To visit Sanae’s website to see her modern chusen-dyed textiles +click here

To purchase tenugui in Tokyo, dyed at Mr Abe’s factory, visit Blue & White +click here 

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  • Patricia Belyea
    Julie—I agree, going back to the source gives a whole new perspective on the project. And working with wonderful fabrics is inspiring. Best, PB

  • JulieMiller
    I love the authenticity of the quilting craft which includes the wonderful magic, care and dedication to culture that is presented in the beginning of each inspiration for a new original quilt which of course starts with wonderful fabrics.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Pat—I have searched the web to try and understand chusen dyeing because I import vintage chusen-dyed yukata cottons. No one has ever included all the steps—such a fipping over the fabric and dyeing from the other side. So that’s why the post is so long! Thanks for reading. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Lenore—Thanks for joining me on an experience that I found so satisfying. There will not be factories like this forever because, you can imagine, tenugui can easily be printed in a digital machine. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Tesi—It was amazing. There are so many details of this visit that I didn’t write about. And I took 250 photos! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Ray—You’re welcome. I like to discover interesting things to write about. PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Beverly—This trip has been plagued with stomach flu and infuriating wifi problems, yet it’s one of my favorite trips ever to Japan! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Terry—The first time I saw one of these stencils was at Seattle Asian Art Museum about 20 years ago. It was a show about Japanese textiles that I stumbled upon. Crazy how it is now so interesting to me! PB

  • Tesi Vaara
    Really awesome post Patricia! It must have been a wonderful experience.

  • Lenore loftus
    Thanks for sharing this! I really enjoyed your visit to the factory. Simply sumptuous and so informative.

  • Pat
    This is such an interesting story.

  • Beverly Threadgill-Robey
    What a great trip! Thanks for sharing.

  • Ray Burke
    Terrific, interesting article! Thank you.

  • Terry Waldron
    I own one of those stencils from about 30 years ago. It’s beautiful. I need to have it framed, but I want it so that it stands away from the back paper so you can the shadows change with the light. Thanks so much, Patricia, for posting this. Sooooo beautiful!