By Michael Haverty
Risshuu no kon ochitsuku ya Iyo kasuri
At the start of fall, dark blue puts my mind at ease
–Iyo kasuri – Natsume Soseki 夏目礎石
The famous author and poet Natsume Soseki dedicated one of his renowned haiku to the calming beauty of dark blue Iyo kasuri, a fabric export carrying the name of Iyo Province, modern day Ehime Prefecture. But what is Iyo kasuri exactly?
Often translated as “ikat,” kasuri (絣) is a fabric dyeing technique that involves tying cotton around threads before submerging them in a vat of fermenting indigo dye. After being dipped in the vat of dye many times and allowed to oxidize into a dark blue color, the cotton is untied from the threads, leaving behind undyed, white areas. Anyone who has experience with tie-dye would be familiar with this. However, unlike tie-dye, individual threads are dyed instead of an already finished cloth. Patterns are painstakingly calculated and mapped out using bamboo rulers so that when weaved together, the white and blue sections of thread create a repeating pattern. If the dyeing on the thread is off even a little, it can ruin the whole product. The resulting pattern often has a slightly hazy outline, called kasure (掠れ), meaning “blurred” in Japanese, a likely source of the name Iyo kasuri.
This technique came to Japan from India via the Ryukyu islands and spread throughout the country during the Edo and Meiji Periods. However, the Iyo Province version became one of the most well-known with its smooth finish and more lighthearted designs. Matsuyama native Kagiya Kana (1782-1864), considered the mother of kasuri, thought up many of these fanciful designs such as diamonds, 6-pointed star hemp leaves, hexagons, and more. According to legend, she was inspired after watching farmers change the thatching on their roofs. Over time, the bamboo had weathered and aged, but where they had been tied together, the bamboo was its original color. Besides the fun patterns, a few other elements aided in the quick rise of Iyo kasuri’s popularity. The Iyo Province already had a strong textile trade network established by the production of striped cotton fabric. Also, because the dyeing process strengthens the threads used in the fabric, Iyo kasuri was often used as durable but fashionable working clothes, a market that had been largely untapped. Furthermore, traditional hand looms used in Japan were inefficient, taking a lot of time and energy to weave with. However, Shinsuke Kikuya (born in 1773), a merchant with a store in Masakicho who was familiar with textiles, bought a loom from Kyoto and began experimenting with ways to improve it. Eventually, he invented the takabata (高機), an upright, treadle-operated loom which would allow weavers to create fabric much faster and more easily than ever before. Iyo kasuri is alive and well even today. The iconic navy blue and white patterns can be found in everything from kimono to Western-style clothes, hats, coin purses, folding fans, and more. Some dyers have even been inspired by tie-dye and have created a hybrid using Iyo kasuri dying techniques on finished cloth to formtie-dye-like patterns. Other colors outside of dark blue have also been introduced through artificial dyes, expanding Iyo kasuri’s possibilities. One place where Iyo kasuri is alive and well is Mingeiiyokasurikaikan (民芸伊予かすり会館) or the Iyo Kasuri Folk Arts Museum. Located near the Kinuyama Iyotetsu station in Matsuyama, the Iyo Kasuri Folk Arts Museum offers visitors many different experiences for only 100 yen. (You can download their app at the front desk for an English guide to the museum.)
The first part of the museum shows the many steps taken in making Iyo kasuri. Set up like a mix between an old Japanese home (where dying originated) and a modern textile factory, visitors can walk through while seeing examples of thread preparation and design creation, tempering the thread by boiling it, the measuring and tying of the threads, dying, untying, winding the warp threads, weaving, and examples of the final products. There are also historic photos of some of the original dyers and weavers running along the wall along with quilts and clothing made of Iyo kasuri.
The next section goes over the history of Iyo kasuri, also including many examples of historical pieces including screens, clothes, and decorative panels. The designs range from simple geometric patterns to depictions of nature, such as birds and fish. A few pieces even display religious figures from Japanese mythology . After learning all of this history and walking past the very tempting gift shop, visitors enter a room filled with indigo vats and looms. For around 2000 yen, visitors can try their hand at making their own Iyo kasuri tie-dye handkerchief. Visitors can also take a turn weaving at a loom. The dyeing can take close to an hour to do, and it closes before the rest of the museum (around 2:30 pm), so I would recommend going early or calling in advance if you want to take part in this. Along with an Ehime-themed dining areaand a gift shop that sells an assortment of Iyo kasuri goods and Ehime-themed omiyage, the museum also houses an exhibit of Ehime folk art. At the end of the route, which loops back to the entrance, is a room filled with handmade paper, pottery, glassware, and much more including, of course, Iyo kasuri.
A dark blue fabric for both the workers and the nobility, painstakingly made by inventive minds, Iyo kasuri is a treasure from Ehime’s history that has spread throughout the country of Japan and into the present. Smooth, durable, and decorated in fun and playful patterns, it is no wonder Iyo’s style of indigo dyed fabric was such an instant hit. It is also no wonder the sight of it in early autumn made Natsume Soseki pause, relax, and find a bit of peace in the fast-paced and quickly modernizing world of Meiji Japan.
I would like to thank 民芸伊予かすり会館 and its workers for providing information that was used in the writing of this article.
Written by Michael Haverty, a first year JET living in Chuyo, Ehime. Michael also took the photographs that accompany his article.