The 19th-century saw the industrialization of various manufacturing processes. One of which was the way in which materials were dyed. In the mid-1800s, the creation of synthetic dyes slowly pushed the use of natural dyes out. Traditional means for dying fabrics by using dyes made from various plants thus fell to the wayside.
Somenotsukasa Yoshioka, located in Kyoto, is a dye workshop reviving these traditional processes and dyes to discover pigments that have been forgotten. The workshop has been dying fabrics for five generations and has been led by colour master, Sachio Yoshioka, since 1988. After turning to synthetic dyes, themselves, the workshop has recently returned to natural dyes. Yoshioka is committed to the process that he believes offers richer, better colours.
Yoshioka’s return to traditional dying processes is not about preserving the art form, per se. He, instead, is striving for the colours of bygone eras that have been forgotten. To do so, Yoshioka has heavily relied on historical textile samples and documents.
Returning to natural pigments has been a lifetime devotion. Yoshioka has spent over 30 years working to better understand the processes of traditional pigments. He was motivated by the over-saturation of colours in today’s world. Not only have synthetic dyes changed the way we view colour, but enhanced digital colours have also altered our ways of seeing. Yoshioka was interested in returning to unadulterated, and often underestimated natural colours.
Traditional Japanese colours are typically considered to be muted, earthy tones. Through his research, though, Yoshioka found that Japanese dyers not only imported dying processes but pigments that produced vibrant colours contradicting the usual notions of dying. This period of bright and vivacious colours was found during the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods. From the Edo (1603-1868) period, however, lower cases were banned from wearing traditional and vibrant hues. Bright colours transitioned to greys and browns more commonly associated with Japanese culture today.
Yoshioka has pointed out, though, that traditional dying is not suited to today’s society. Traditional dying follows the seasons closely, according Yoshioka’s workshop. Plant care and health are paramount to the production of pigments as is the use of pure water which is drawn from 100 metres below surface level. Key ingredients, clean water, space, and time are main reasons why painstaking natural dying processes are not easily maintained in today’s world.
For Yoshioka, though, the process is well worth the effort. The range of colours he produces are extraordinary and require reconsideration of natural dyes.
The V&A is now showing a series of four documentaries that capture Yoshioka’s process to reclaim ‘forgotten’ colours. ‘In Search of Forgotten Colours’ celebrates the work done by Somenotsukasa Yoshioka in highlighting the tenuous process of traditional dying systems. A compendium of the documentaries is also available online, here, for those unable to visit the museum during the small installation’s run.