The Lost Art of Natural Dyeing

Written by Sophie, April 2021

I recently watched the most captivating video about a Japanese craftsman, rediscovering the art of natural dyeing. Sachio Yoshioka is a fifth-generation craftsmen, and the head of the Somenotsukasa Yoshioka dye workshop in Kyoto.

Once widely used, natural dyes – dyes made from berries, bark and roots – fell into disuse with the invention of synthetic colourants. In fact, they were so pushed aside that many of the recipes for vibrant natural colours were forgotten. Even the plants used have become more and more scarce. When he took over the family business in the late 1980s, Yoshioka-san decided to revive the lost art of natural dyeing. He hasn’t used a single synthetic colour in the 30 years he has been running the dye shop.

In order to rediscover lost colours, Yoshioka-san scoured historical texts, and cultivated endangered species of plants and flowers. One such flower is the purple gromwell, which contains a vibrant purple colourant in its roots. Working with farmers in Taketa, Western Japan, Yoshioka-san is helping revive the cultivation of the plant.

Other than Yoshioka-san’s dedication for reviving this forgotten craft, I was struck by how much more labour intensive these methods of producing dye and dyeing cloth were. For example, it took 1.5 kg of flower petals to produce enough red dye for a single sheet if washi paper. He then gives the paper to the Tōdaiji temple in Nara, to be used in their Omizutori ceremony that heralds the start of spring.

Not only does natural dyeing require a lot of raw materials, it also involves lots of lengthy processes. When you see the finished product, you can see why Yoshioka-san is so committed to preserving these ancient methods. I was under the impression that natural dye produced soft, pastel colours in yellows and greens. I was blown away by the depth of colour achieved by Yoshioka-san’s workshop.

You really should watch the video for yourselves – it’s utterly fascinating!

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