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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.

Even plants in existence from ancient times can be uncommon in today’s world. For this reason, Ms. Yoshioka also actively devotes herself to cultivating rare plants, working together with farmers.
She says, “We receive colors from the natural life of plants. That’s why I want to understand the process behind growing and harvesting these precious plants, and often visit farms to see how the plants are grown. In this way, I can use and preserve valued things and renew my dedication to my work, with gratitude.”
The dyeing process begins with the production of dye liquid. Artisans extract this liquid by boiling down roots, leaves, and stalks of plants, or squeezing out petals of flowers; adjust dye concentration by imagining the finished color; soak materials first in dye liquid and next in mordant (dye fixative); and wash. The length of this process of dyeing and washing depends on dye concentration and number of repetitions; use of a single dye liquid for one color, or several dye liquids for overlapping colors; and the experienced artisan’s instinct for whatever is needed to finish.
“Timing varies based on types of dye ingredient in use. A small piece of cloth like a stole takes half a day to dye, and a large bolt of kimono fabric takes three to 10 days to finish dyeing. While this process takes time, the enduring beauty of 1,300-year-old clothing conserved at Shosoin (Treasure House in Nara Prefecture) and Horyu-ji temple shows that colors remain vivid and clear — something impossible without the use of natural dye ingredients,” she says.
The role of a dye artisan is to serve as a relay point, according to Ms. Yoshioka.
She says, “My work is to extract necessary colors from plants, dye material with colors requested, and deliver dyed goods to customers. In my case, I don’t intend to reflect my individuality in my work. So I feel I act only as an intermediary between plants and goods to be dyed, and serve in a similar role to take over a legacy and pass it down to the next generation. I am simply a relay point.”

[photo]Sarasa Yoshioka

Sarasa Yoshioka

Born into the family of Somenotsukasa Yoshioka, whose dyeing factory has survived more than 200 years since the Edo period. After working at an apparel design company, Ms. Yoshioka learned sericulture, traditional silk reeling, silk throwing, dyeing, and weaving at the Silk Museum in Seiyoshi-mura, Ehime Prefecture. In 2008, she returned home and started work in Somenotsukasa Yoshioka, devoting herself to ancient dyeing methods to produce naturally dyed goods. She is also in charge of dyeing washi for ongoing thousand-year-old memorial ceremonies in Iwashimizu Hachimangu shrine and Todai-ji temple.