The Japanese Technique That Found a Home in STL

By Jessica Leitch
In Culture

The unmistakable hue of indigo dye has been popping up on everything from home goods to clothing in intricate patterns that seem to call forth another age. Shibori, the traditional Japanese resist-dyeing technique that uses folded, wrapped and pressed fabrics to produce complex patterns, is thought to be well over 1,000 years old. As Americans embrace the power of slowing down to focus on process, Shibori is finding a new home in art studios across the world. St. Louis artist Angela Malchionno concentrates on traditional Shibori methods, incorporating the indigo-dyed patterns into her textile works and teaching classes about the resist-dyeing techniques at Enamel Studio.

All photos by Jennifer Silverberg.

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When were you first introduced to Shibori?
Two years ago. Kelsey Wiskerchen, a resident at Craft Alliance at the time, knew how to do Shibori. She led the first workshop at Enamel, which was an informal, just show up and dye event.

What drew you to Shibori?
It’s just a really, really beautiful, timeless kind of process. I think that in our DIY culture, we tend to do things fast and kind of skim the surface, but there’s such a specialization to Shibori. It’s about the craft, the care that goes into it and the skills required of the artisan. That really appealed to me. Also, how hands-on it was. There’s kind of a ritual about all the different steps.

Take me through those steps.
It’s a slow process. Traditionally, indigo pigment (from the plant) doesn’t like to dissolve in water, and it also doesn’t like to fix to fabric. The way that you get it to do those things is to reduce the indigo bath so it will take to the fabric.

Typically, it’s not just a one-and-done thing. It’s almost like baking bread or brewing your own beer. There’s a starter to it and a process. It’s not something you’re able to do with immediate gratification. There are dye baths that are 20, 30, 40, even 50 years old that people keep, just like you would keep a sourdough starter.

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There are a million different ways, recipe wise, to set the bath up. It gets a shiny, coppery crust on the top and can take two days, minimum. The bath itself is not blue—it’s a greenish color.

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Using any kind of well-cleaned, natural fabrics such as cotton, hemp or linen, you choose how you’re going to fold it before putting it in the dye bath. The technique we’re most used to the in the West is tie-dye—the kind where you’re twisting and using elastics to bind.

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The technique that we use most at Enamel is Itajime Shibori, which uses shaped blocks (matching pairs of circles and squares) to resist the fabrics. The fabric is usually folded in a way so that the pattern repeats; an accordion-type fold or folded down into squares. We also use Arashi Shibori, which translates to ‘falling rain/winded rain.’ We wrap the fabric around really wide pipes to get a pattern of repeated stripes. Kumo Shibori is a really extensive family of tying and binding patterns into the fabrics.

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We use clamps and rubber bands to apply even pressure, and after that the bundle goes into the vat of dye. It stays in the vat for just a little bit. Take it out, unfold it, let it oxidize. The thing about indigo dye is if you want it darker, you need to let the air hit it, then dip it back into the dye. Just letting it sit in the vat of dye will not make it darker.

Try your hand at Shibori dyeing during one of the Shibori Happy Hour events at Enamel. Learn more at theenamelproject.com

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