matohu matohu



Japanese indigo does not dye fabric, but resides in it.
This was something I experienced first-hand on my journey to find authentic aizome (Japanese indigo dyeing).

This is not an exaggeration, but rather a realistic description. Unlike chemical dyes that penetrate deep into fibers, natural Japanese indigo is composed of large molecules, so it’s more apt to say that it resides in between the threads. The pigment of Persicaria tinctoria leaves, which could be called fragments of life, change their form and reside in this space. When this aizome touches the skin, the vibrational waves of the plant create small ripples in your heart. Different people will feel this differently of course, but it has the power to protect, purify, and soothe the heart of the person on the receiving end. It is pointless to talk about aizome without talking about this experience. Simply comparing its color with synthetic indigo similarly has no merit. To speak from the heart, aizome is more than the color seen by the eyes—wearing it envelops you in the circularity of nature’s life.

What serves in this purpose is the power of fermentation by bacteria. Without fermentation, Japanese indigo would not be able to remain in fabric, and instead would be washed away. Sukumo masters call the earthen floor where fermentation takes place the “bed,” and the straw mat used to maintain the temperature the “bedding.” From these terms as well, we can see how people have treated Japanese indigo as a living thing since ancient times.
Persicaria tinctoria seeds are planted in spring, and its leaves are harvested in summer and then dried. Spraying water on the leaves and mixing them activates the bacteria to begin the fermentation process. Before long, the pile of leaves reaches a temperature of 60–70 degrees Celsius, with clouds of steam rising from the leaves. The smell of ammonia hangs in the air, piercing the nose and making your eyes water. After three months of stirring the leaves some 20 or more times over the course of a winter, the resulting product is called sukumo. This fresh sukumo resembles black soil. It is then dissolved in liquid and fermented once again to produce the dye solution that is used in aizome. Aizome is made possible entirely by nature’s magic of fermentation.

Chemical indigo synthesized from coal and petroleum was invented at the end of the 19th century and quickly pushed aizome to the brink of extinction. Not only Japanese indigo, but medicines, fertilizers, paints, dishes and containers, fabrics, and detergents became made from chemical substances, and polyester and plastic have come to blanket everything in our lives. As a result, our lives are now dominated by the economic system of mass production and consumption, with environmental contamination and mountains of waste produced daily.
In the 21st century, our awareness is gradually changing. The human race has finally begun to reconsider our system of production, consumption, and waste and search for how to live as a society in harmony with nature by reusing and not producing waste. We have only just begun this endeavor. At the same time, however, there are valuable hints close to our lives as to how to go about achieving it.
Sustainable goods and practices can be found in traditional handiwork. Crafts like aizome and koginzashi (a type of sashiko embroidery) that have been around for hundreds of years have been proven through history to be sustainable in the true sense of the word. We can look to the blessings of nature that can be harvested year after year, the wisdom and techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation, and the reuse of resources and circularity with nature.

This was once our past. At the same time, it is the future we will live. Journey in the palm of your hand will teach us the way.