The history of dyeing dates back to ancient times, appearing several millennia BCE in such places as China, India, Rome, and Greece. These techniques were brought to Japan around the 3rd century CE.
“Japan’s oldest history of dyeing is found in books called Engishiki compiled during the early 10th century (Heian period). These describe royal rituals, customs, and clothing, including dye ingredients used for particular colors. The original sources for dyes were derived entirely from plants,” explains Sarasa Yoshioka of Somenotsukasa Yoshioka (Dye Factory Yoshioka), a dyeing factory founded during the Edo period in Kyoto.
Although major production of chemical dye ingredients started during modernization in the 19th century, the 4th generation chief of Somenotsukasa Yoshioka returned to use of natural dye ingredients from olden times. Ms. Yoshioka works with her father (the 5th generation chief), utilizing ancient dyeing methods with natural ingredients only.
She says, “We dye not only silk, hemp, and cotton cloth and thread, but also washi (Japanese paper). For example, we dye washi red with benibana (safflower) and yellow with kuchinashi (gardenia) for ritual use in the thousand-year-old Shuni-e memorial service held every March in Nigatsu-do, Todai-ji temple. So we work with a sense of great responsibility, every year.”
Somenotsukasa Yoshioka continues traditional dyeing methods and makes use of more than 30 kinds of dyeing materials, including indigo (ai), benibana petals, murasaki-gusa (purple gromwell) roots, akane (madder) roots, acorn nuts, and leaves and stalks of kariyasu (rice grass). Dye ingredients chronicled in ancient manuscripts are still utilized in this factory.
“Beautiful flowers of plants around us are colorful and seem useable as dye ingredients to make flower colors. However, there are few flower petals for use as dye ingredients. So instead, we frequently use leaves, stalks, roots, tree bark, nuts, etc. to extract dye colors where none is visible,” says Ms. Yoshioka.