Japanese Master Itchiku Kubota found his calling when he came across an old silk textile at the Tokyo National Museum. A rare example of the lost Japanese textile process known as Tsujigahana. The extraordinary beauty, design complexity and saturated colors of the piece fascinated him.
Overcoming war and poverty, he spent more than 40 years in search of the centuries-old dyeing technique, finally finding the secret at age 60.
The artist varied the combination of methods based on the requirements of each kimono design. The methods described here outline the general sequence of production. Kubota continued to expand and develop his techniques throughout his lifetime; some remain secret.
A single kimono can take up to a year to complete. Kubota’s atelier continues production under the supervision of his sons. Here’s a sneak peek at the process:
Drawing the Design
1. Components are cut from white silk crepe and temporarily basted into the shape of the finished garment.
2. The design is sketched on the white silk with charcoal.
3. The design is drawn in detail with aobana—a light-blue liquid extracted from the flowers of the dayflower plant; aobana disappears during the dyeing process.
4. The garment is disassembled and the design is extended to the edges of the fabric.
Creating the Resist
5. Large patterns are outlined with stitches of dye-resistant plastic thread in a technique known as stitched tie-dye.
6. Threads are pulled up tightly, wound three times and secured with a double knot.
7. Areas that “puff up” are covered with plastic sheets and secured with a plastic binding thread. These are “resisted” design elements—parts of the fabric that remain protected from coloring during the dyeing process.
Dyeing the Ground
8. The kimono sections are re-sewn into a single, long strip and immersed in the dye bath for the ground color. Kubota originally used natural colorants, but after 1959 he used synthetic dyes, which have a tendency to separate and mottle when heated. After years of experimentation, Kubota learned to control this effect and incorporate it to advantage in his work.
Brushing on Color
9. Where required by the design, dye colors are brushed on exposed areas. The fabric is then steamed and washed.
Steaming the Silk
10. The silk cloth is steamed to fix the dye; it is surrounded by newspaper after it is placed in the steam box to prevent the steam from damaging the fabric. The depth of color can be controlled by varying the temperature. Usually, the cloth is steamed at 180? for 40 to 90 minutes.
11. To assure proper penetration of the dyes, this process is repeated up to 10 times.
Rinsing the Silk
12. The cloth is rinsed to remove excess dye. Because silk can only absorb a given amount of dye at a time, rinsing between applications allows the piece to be dyed multiple times.
Drying the Silk
13. Bamboo stretchers with pins on the end keep the cloth taut.
14. The cloth is suspended to dry in a room with good ventilation.
(The process of tying, dyeing, cutting the threads, steaming, rinsing, dyeing and re-stitching is repeated in various combinations up to 30 times).
Applying the Ink
15. While the dry cloth is still stretched taut, designs are drawn and shading added with a brush and ink.
16. The entire piece is stitched again and bound to restore the texture originally created by the tie-dyeing and stitch-resist techniques.
Cutting the Threads
17. The threads are cut to undo the tie-dyeing; great skill is required to avoid cutting the fabric.
Removing the Threads and Finishing
18. Pulling the fabric in various directions makes removal of the threads easier and allows for a final check of the dyeing.
19. The fabric is lightly pressed with a steam iron to open the cloth and make the edges lie flat.
20. More free-hand drawing, embroidery or gold leaf may be added.
21. The fabric is sewn into the kimono.
Kubota’s dream was to live to age 100 so he could complete a series of 75 kimonos that would form a beautiful tapestry called “Symphony of Light.” The artist completed 30 pieces before his death in 2003. Today, his family carries on the tradition.
The exhibit, “Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota,” includes 40 oversized kimonos featuring patterns inspired by nature and a video presentation of the artist’s life and work. The show runs in Canton, Ohio, Feb. 8–April 26, 2009. For more information, click here.
Kimonos, top to bottom: Ohn/ Fuji and Woodland, (1989), Itchiku Kubota Art Museum, Ohn/Fuji and Burning Clouds, (1991), Itchiku Kubota Art Museum, Kikkou-Matsukawa/ Tsujigahana with Honeycomb, (2001), Itchiku Kubota Art Museum, Jo/ Autumn Prologue, (1986), Itchiku Kubota Art Museum.
M.J. Albacete is executive director of The Canton Museum of Art, Canton, Ohio.