You’ve probably seen it without knowing what you’ve seen. You might mistake it for simple tie-dye, although shibori is much more exciting. It is showing up in clothing, pillows and sheets and even rugs.
This ancient technique of hand dying originated in Japan and comes to us through the centuries with the beautiful aesthetic of Japanese culture. As they did with poetry, refining and clarifying until they had created the most elegant forms (think haiku, the three lined jewel, tanka, a five lined poem which ventures to more personal themes than haiku, and haiga, which combines haiku with an image-just to name a few) the Japanese explored and refined shibori until they had created an elegant and surprisingly precise language of pattern. Using indigo dye and natural fabrics these patterns were dislayed in kimonos, robes and costumes. The modern fabric artist can borrow techniques centuries in the making.
Matsukaze arashi means ‘Wind in the Pines.’ It is a shibori pattern formed by wrapping cloth counterclockwise on a pole at a 45 degree angle. Thread is then wrapped around the fabric on the pole in the opposite direction. Then the fabric is compressed on the pole and the pole dipped in an indigo vat. Both predictable and yet random since the maker can not know exactly how the pattern will emerge, arashi is stirring, like wind, and evokes a feeling of both movement and detail.
Boards and clamps are used to create the kikko pattern, or tortoiseshell. Here the fabric is folded and clamped into a neat triangular stack. After submersion in an indigo vat, the fabric is unfolded carefully to reveal a precise but trippy pattern of hexagons with shadowy triangles meeting at their points in the centers.
Folds, clamps, resists were explored and cataloged until each pattern can be reproduced. The folds, clamps and various methods of resist prevent the dye from penetrating the fabric all the way, and hence create a pattern. Thread brings in another set of binding techniques. Midori shibori is a pattern called ‘willow leaf.’ It is produced by pleating and binding sections with thread. Modern shibori dyers can use rubber bands, but don’t picture the garish star-like patterns of 1960’s tie-dye. The refined resist and indigo work of ancient Japan transcends this splashy version.
In my own work with shibori I gratefully accepted the modern person’s conveniences. My indigo vat didn’t come from my own cultivated indigo plants, but was ordered from Amazon as a kit. Rather than thread and twine, I used rubber bands. My poles were pieces of drainage pipes and my binding wood pieces were the stir sticks givenaway by paint shops and squares of balsa wood from craft shops. My patterns emerged equally entrancing nevertheless.
I started with raw, slightly tinted sheets of linen. Washing the fabric first to remove any residue coatings, I bound and tied my pieces before submerging them briefly in cool, clear water in my sink. After pressing out the extra water, I dipped my wrapped pieces, one by one, into my vat-a cobalt blue Lowe’s bucket on my counter filled with the indigo dye I had mixed. In the indigo vat a foamy froth develops on the surface, a bit like the foam that can form in a homemade soup. This foam is called an indigo ‘flower.’ My instructions say I should remove it, but I am too reluctant to do so, as if this foam contained the essence of my indigo. So I leave indigo ‘flower’ that had bloomed on the surface of my dye and simply swish it aside as I dip my fabric. Careful to avoid introducing oxygen to my vat, I help my pieces down with copper wire hooks left over from some other project and now adapted to a selection of hooks in various lengths.
After dipping, I left my cobalt blue bundles to rest for a good hour. The excitement was pressing. Even as I did my other tasks, I couldn’t keep my mind from drifting back to the tight indigo presents I had made for myself, siting on my plexiglass covered kitchen counter.
When I finally rinsed and then unfurled my pieces I was delighted and awed. My inexpert handling of the fabric and dye yielded marvelous variations; shading and pattern repetitions with ghost-like octaves in fainter and fainter blue.
As I went on into my day (which in my case means meeting with my psychotherapy clients) the images of the shibori seemed to be whispering in the back of my mind. The cognitive understanding that I was undertaking with my clients as we explored their relationship patterns was haunted by an echo. This echo was the repetitious and varying patterns of the shibori cloth I had made. Pattern, so disturbing sometimes when to the person who has unknowingly been living one has the opposite aspect in art.
Later, ironing my jewels and marveling again at the indigo markings-strange, pattern-like yet shifting from the sterile regularity of factory made cloth-the conversations from the day returned. ‘Aren’t these the same patterns,’ I wondered. ‘Yes, they are the same, for sure,’ I thought. It seemed to me that the patterns of human relationship were replicated in the cloth. This is after all what concerns us. Working its way through the layers of our unconscious, the representation, like a lotus flower breaking the surface of the water, emerges in art. The swishy burst of Willow (yanagi shibori) is the pattern of closeness then distance between a husband and wife. The dizzying pattern of mokume shibori (Wood Grain) pictured a dense and conflicted family. Itajime, with its pleasant repetition of softened triangles is a healthy and restorative relationship supported by personal ritual. Here they touch, here they grow apart-painted in indigo the dance of our love lives finds its voice. The indigo shapes seem to shift in a comforting rhythm, almost like music. I felt quite sure that the patterns were communicating to me. Pattern is, after all, what we both hate and love depending on what is repeated.
Ordinarily, among the people who come to see me, pattern is frightening when discovered. Perhaps, as is often the case, you find that you married your parent. Of course, not your actual parent, but the pattern of your childhood has been instinctively reproduced against your conscious intentions. Perhaps this is the truth that Sophocles recognized when he wrote Oedipus Rex.
Not all patterns are stultifying. Some we create and will, especially, perhaps, when we create ritual for health or celebration. The body loves repetition. Sleep better when you keep a pattern for sleep. Be stronger when you build your body with a pattern of exercise. The moments of celebration we choose for the fabric of our lives can be happy repetitions. The generations themselves are repetitions of discovery. Each child discovers the butterfly, what walking and tumbling is, what love is.
There are dark patterns, too. The darkest blue indigo-almost black-you feel trapped as if guided by an unseen and diabolical hand. You are steered steadily and without knowing how to repeat what you so yearn to be freed from.
I don’t know where my explorations of shibori will take me. I feel that I am listening to a voice as much as I am creating. That which is beautiful in the abstract-repetition with small variations-can be frightening as lived. From where do these patterns arise? Could we, with great care and perception identify ourselves right there, in the pattern we have created? Is the distastefulness of a blotched pattern a strange representation of what it means to leave the security of a pattern that we live? If we venture too far outside of the norm of our society, is the life we encounter splotchy like an aborted pattern?
I am certain that pattern speaks of meaning. At the Johnson Museum on the Cornell campus, just up the hill from where I live, there is an exhibit of aboriginal Australian abstract art. Paintings in bold colors of line and dot are displayed with small typed explanations. What might appear to us to be a childlike drawing is in fact a story of personal history, or even a map of home and that which is not home.
Perhaps, by undertaking a study of pattern we could indeed discover depictions of relationships. As I iron my cloth, letting the deep blue become a permanent part of my fabric, I reflect on the nature of choice and artistry. As if some unseen hand guides us, we follow our muse and determine what seems beautiful. We are not the source of our determinations, however, any more than we are the source of what inner workings have led us to love one person and not another. Our freedom, in as much as we have it, lies in discovering the meanings that are already present. Our actions and our art reveal our hearts.
I am indebted to the book, Shibori, The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, Mary Kellogg Rice and Jane Barton for technical information about shibori.