Japanese warp kasuri (ikat dyeing)

Learning the technique of Japanese warp kasuri (経絣, tate kasuri).

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When I started my exchange at Joshibi University of Art and Design this past April, the first course in the textile curriculum was warp kasuri, or  経絣 tate kasuri, as it’s called in Japanese. I thought I’d walk you through the process a little, because I found it fascinating and very different from the type of weaving I’ve done before. At the end of this post, there links to a few videos on kasuri, be sure to check them out!

The first stage, as in about any project, was planning. After a regular class (3 hours) of learning the basics of the technique, we drafted different patterns, and finally chose one, of which we had a produce a 1:1 painted sample. This was something I had never had to do before. Although the painting the sample was quite long (the size being about 50x40cm), I do now see the point of making one though: you really get a better idea of the outcome!

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My design was based on a photograph I took of streetlights, with yellow, orange and white on a blue background. I quite frankly had little idea about what kasuri patterns usually look like (apart from some samples I had seen), and so I had the idea of exploring how to transform this said photograph into a kasuri pattern. Given that in the photograph the lines are blurred, I thought that the photo would lend itself well to kasuri dyeing and weaving, since in kasuri the pattern always blurs a little by definition.

Warping was a process in itself, since in kasuri, there are a lot (A LOT) of calculations to be made. Basically, one has to determine how many different vertical patterns there are in the pattern, and how many different patterns sections (bundles) in total; mine had 14 bundles in total with 3 different patterns. Then, after calculating the width and the number of warp threads per each bundle, the warping is done one bundle (vertical pattern) at a time, tying it tightly at the ends in order to keep it together during the tying and dyeing process.

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For the tying process, the warp is stretched into its full length—4.5m for mine—and the bundles with the same pattern are put side by side, as they can be tied together. This saves a lot of time compared to tying every bundle separately! The pattern in marked with aobana (青花), which is a kind of pigment “paint” made from a blue flower (hence the name, which literally means “blue flower”). It’s dark blue when applied onto the yarn, but dissolves perfectly when immersed in water. Magic! The pattern is marked on the warp with the help of a sample cardboard pattern. After, the tying can begin: after determining which colours are dyed first, one always ties the sections which are NOT to be dyed.

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As my first dye was yellow (parts of which were later to be dyed over with red to produce orange), I first tied all the blue and white sections, and the warp was ready to be dyed! We used a plastic “tape” (which, although called tape, it does not have any glue..) for the tying, and additional plastic wrap (kitchen type) underneath for any sections longer than 5cm—this makes it easier for the wrap to stay in place when the tied section is longer. For a long warp like this, the tying can take literally days, and for a new colour, there is always more tying/untying to do, so altogether the tying and dyeing process took a few weeks!

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We dyed with acid dyes (as our yarn was 100% wool), which was quite new to me, but surprisingly easy in the end. First, the tied warp is soaked in hot water for 30min, after which the dyeing process took about an hour, and still the colour really only does dye the visible parts! I was always in pure awe when untying the warp, as I was super suspicious about my tying actually working. But it did!

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After dyeing the warp, it was time to dye the weft. While the bulk of the weft was dyed in one colour, we also produced kasuri for some of the weft. After calculating the width of the fabric and the number of weft yarns that are required for the kasuri section, the weft yarn is measured into a bundle of the fabric width, stretched, marked & tied in a similar manner to the warp kasuri.

All this planning and preparation took roughly 4 weeks, working about 6h/day. After that, the weaving itself was actually very quick! Kasuri is usually woven with plain weave only, though one can use twill weave as well in order to make the colours pop a little more. My weave was a combination of mostly plain weave and some twill.

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It goes without saying that for a project like this, meticulous planning is key, as are detailed notes! Despite of planning, I managed to make a couple of mistakes especially in the dyeing process. You know, 2% colour and 0,2% colour are only one missed calculation apart… Well, now I remember to double check every time! All in all, this was a very rewarding project, and I’m hoping to make some more kasuri fabrics later during my exchange year. 

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There are some fantastic videos about Japanese kasuri online; these ones are my favourites, be sure to check them out if you’re interested! Here’s a video on Ryukyu kasuri from Okinawa as well as two videos on Kurume kasuri from Fukuoka (Kyushu), explaining the process of using both indigo and chemical dyesThis last video is perhaps less informative if you’re not already familiar with kasuri, but the images are ever so beautiful!

To view more images of the finished fabric, check out the project page!

© 2019 Elisa Penttilä

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