What You See Is Not What You Get
"What you see is NOT what you get" usually means you're going to be disappointed with something that doesn’t live up to expectations.
In the world of natural dyes, such adages don’t apply. They often have a delightful element of lively unpredictability.
Kakishibu exemplifies this. You don’t get what you see: you get much, much, more.
A traditional natural dye from Japan, kakishibu is made from the fermented juice of unripe persimmons. Because of its high tannin content, the color matures over time, darkening and developing a depth and complexity not initially apparent. Exposure to sunlight and oxygen hastens this change.
Technically, kakishibu is not a dye, but a coating. It does not chemically bond to the fiber the way chemical and natural dyes do. In Kakishibu, tannin molecules bind with each other, creating a colored coating around the fiber.
Because you are not trying to drive a chemical reaction, coloring items with Kakishibu is much simpler than using chemical or plant dyes:
- Kakishibu dipping is done at room temperature.
- There is no waste water. You simply dilute the Kakishibu to the desired strength (typically 2 parts water to 1 part kakishibu).
- The Kakishibu bath is exhausted when all the liquid is gone.
- Kakishibu is a safe, natural, product, used in both the cosmetics and sake industries, and thus no elaborate safety equipment is required.
Dyeing had always intimidated me: complex formulas, fiddly weights and measures, chemicals with scientific sounding names, etc. It was too much like mathematics and chemistry for this humanities major.
Kakishibu proved the antidote to all my apprehensions. The Japanese have been using kakishibu since the ninth century, and kakishibu coloring isn’t any more complicated now than it was a millennium ago, which suits me just fine.
Basic Cloth Dipping
Coloring cloth with kakishibu is simple. All you need is: kakishibu, water, a measuring cup, a bowl, the item to be dyed, and somewhere for it to dry.
The only calculation is easy: 2 parts water to 1 part kakishibu. A 2:1 ratio is the standard dilution, but this can be altered to suit your project anywhere from straight, undiluted kakishibu to 10 parts water to 1 part kakishibu.
Kakishibu is suitable for cellulose and bast fibers, silk, and some synthetics and synthetic blends. Because Kakishibu is a coating, the color is affected not only by fiber content, but weave structure as well. You can have ten pieces of cotton, each with a different weave structure, and get ten variations on the final color.
The basic procedure is:
- Soak the cloth in water. This step is optional, but some fibers—like cotton—benefit from being pre-wetted. (Silk, on the other hand, readily saturates with kakishibu when dry and does not need to be pre-wetted.) Wring as much water out of the cloth as possible.
- Put a quantity of diluted kakishibu into a bowl or tub large enough to hold the cloth. There should be enough kakishibu to cover the cloth.
- Place the cloth in the kakishibu. Manipulate it to expose all surfaces to the liquid. Work your hands over the cloth to dislodge bubbles. You can allow the fiber to soak in the dyebath to allow maximum penetration, but longer soaking will not result in darker color. The way to get darker color is to allow the fiber to dry and then re-dip in kakishibu.
- Remove the cloth from the dye and allow it to drain for 5–10 minutes, changing its position occasionally. Catch the runoff, as it can be added back into the dye basin. Do not wring the cloth out.
Note: What you see when you take the cloth out of the kakishibu is NOT what you will get. The color darkens over time—dramatically. The majority of the color change is complete within two years. The bulk of that change comes within the first three months.
- When dripping has tapered off, flip the cloth edge-for-edge and hang it from a line. What had been the lower edge will now be at the top. This allows the free-flowing kakishibu in the cloth to migrate back through the cloth, resulting in more even color. Flip the cloth edge-for-edge periodically until cloth is dry.
Note: If you prefer a graduated effect, you can leave the cloth in its original position, allowing a greater concentration of kakishibu to gather at the lower edge and a lighter color at the upper edge.
Note: If you are using clothespins to attach the cloth to the line, be sure to reposition them regularly, to avoid leaving a pale spot on the cloth.
- After the cloth is completely dry, it can be redipped in kakishibu to achieve darker colors. Pre-wetting is not necessary for a second application.
Kakishibu cloth will be stiff when dry. This is due to the coating that forms around the fibers. Repeated rinse/dry cycles in fresh water as well as allowing the cloth to flap in the wind will soften the cloth. Be sure to alter position occasionally to equalize sun exposure.
Something to bear in mind when designing garments to be made from kakishibu cloth is that because kakishibu is a coating around the fibers, it is susceptible to abrasion. Over time, kakishibu will abrade off the areas receiving the most wear, similar to a pair of well-worn blue jeans. This isn’t a good thing or bad thing, it’s just something to plan for in the design stage.
Because the color in kakishibu develops more strongly when it is exposed to sunlight, you can create designs by manipulating the cloth to expose some areas to the sun and shield others. This is my favorite use of kakishibu as it utilizes its inherent character to create things of beauty.
Choose a nice, sunny day. Follow the basic cloth-dipping instructions through Step 4. Instead of hanging up the cloth, lay it out on a flat surface. Porous and non-porous surfaces give different effects. I typically use a piece of plywood. After laying out the cloth, create high and low spots by pleating vertically, horizontally or diagonally (regularly or irregularly), randomly scrunching up, twisting or otherwise manipulating the cloth.
The high, exposed areas will be the darkest, low, shielded areas will be lightest.
Allow the cloth to thoroughly dry in position. Resist the temptation to spread it apart to "check on it". The pattern of lights and darks will be permanently set by the time the cloth is dry. Cloth can be removed from the flat surface as soon as it is completely dry or left in place from hours to days to increase the contrast.
After removing from the flat surface, give the cloth a fresh-water rinse and hang to dry. Multiple rinse/dry cycles will soften the cloth.
Kakishibu alone gives a range of earth tones: burnt pumpkins, brick reds and walnut browns, depending on fiber content and weave structure.
Although no chemicals or mordants are required for coloring with kakishibu, there are several modifiers that will alter the color. The two main modifiers are bicarbonate of soda and iron.
Baking soda right out of your kitchen cupboard is the simplest source for bicarbonate of soda.
Mix as much baking soda as will dissolve into room-temperature water (about 1-1/2 teaspoon baking soda in 2 cups water). After the kakishibu has thoroughly dried on the cloth, submerge the cloth in the modifier bath. Rinse in fresh water and hang to dry. Bicarbonate of soda gives a true brown or a bronzy brown. It also softens the cloth, making it a good option for fabric that will be used for garments.
The tannin in kakishibu reacts with iron. This is something to keep in mind during the dye process. Contact with anything iron can result in discoloration. Iron for modifying kakishibu cloth can be obtained from a number of sources: a bucket of water with rusty nails soaking in it, ferrous sulfate (an iron mordant used in conventional natural dyeing), an iron pot, etc. My well water is so high in iron I can use it to modify kakishibu-colored items.
Iron gives colors anywhere from dishwater grey, through gunmetal grey, to black depending on the concentration. On silk, if the planets are in alignment, the relative humidity is just so and you hold your mouth juuuuuuust right, you can even get into the purple-y range.
Avoid using too strong a concentration as iron can damage fibers. After the kakishibu has thoroughly dried, submerge the cloth in the iron mordant, rinse thoroughly in fresh water and hang to dry.
Water which is mineralized or heavily chlorinated can also affect the color obtained from kakishibu. If you’re in doubt about the quality of your tap or well water, use filtered or bottled water. There are undoubtedly other things which will modify kakishibu, just waiting to be discovered.
Dyeing yarn with kakishibu is as uncomplicated as dyeing cloth. The same fiber choices apply to yarn as cloth: cellulose and bast fibers, silk, some synthetics and synthetic blends.
- Skein the yarn into hanks about the diameter of a quarter to a half-dollar. Too much yarn, and it is difficult for the kakishibu to penetrate into the center of the hank. Too little yarn, and it’s difficult to put enough twist to drive the kakishibu into the fibers. Tie the skeins loosely as you need to be able to change the position of the ties.
- Soak the yarn in water. This step is optional, but some fibers—like cotton—benefit from being pre-wetted. Wring as much of the water out as possible.
Note: I’ve found that dry skeins of silk, bamboo, tencel, and rayon all take kakishibu easily, and do not need to be pre-soaked.
- Place the diluted kakishibu in a bowl large enough to hold the yarn. Add the skeined yarn. The yarn should have enough room to move about freely.
- Push the kakishibu into the yarn by either squeezing the yarn with your hands, or by using the Japanese method: the two-dowel twist. For this you need two hardwood dowels, each 18 inches long and 3/4-inch in diameter. The following photos illustrate the procedure.
- Repeat the dipping and twisting to increase the amount of kakishibu coating the yarn. My teacher in Japan advocated dipping and twisting the yarn three times. I prefer to dip and twist twice and then, after a third dip, to wring the skein out by hand. This retains a bit more of the kakishibu and results in a slightly darker color.
- Slip a rod through the skein and suspend. Grasp the bottom loop of the skein and give it a couple of sharp snaps. This straightens and separates the strands. Rotate the skein on the rod frequently while the yarn is drying. Flip the skein inside-out to expose inner strands to the sunlight. By the time the skein is dry, the pattern of lights and darks will be set.
It is impossible to get perfectly even color when dyeing yarn with kakishibu. The exposed surface will receive the most sunlight and be darkest. No matter how much the position of the yarn is changed, there will always be some unexposed areas. This creates varigation in the color of the skein. If the position of the yarn is changed frequently during drying, these variegations will be subtle. Fewer position changes creates a more dramatic contrast.
In addition to the irregularities of surface color, the color of the yarn's core will never be as dark as the surface. Kakishibu is prevented from penetrating into the core of the yarn by the coating that it forms on the outer surface.
After the yarn is dry, modifiers can be used in the same manner as for cloth. Because modifiers alter the kakishibu color on contact, this opens up unlimited potential for creating patterns while weaving.
Kakishibu is especially suited to on-loom warp painting. You can warp your loom with kakishibu-colored yarn, then paint a pattern onto the warp using bicarbonate of soda, iron modifier, or more kakishibu.
Other Uses for Kakishibu
Traditionally, kakishibu was valued not for its color, but for its strengthening and anti-bacterial properties. It was used as a wood preservative, waterproofer, insect repellent, folk medicine, on washi (Japanese paper), fans, parasols, clothing and to clarify sake.
Over the years, Kakishibu use has declined, replaced by petro-chemical substitutes.
Recently, however, there has been a revival as artists and craftspeople are rediscovering kakishibu and coming to appreciate its unique characteristics, the deeply organic colors kakishibu produces, and its ecological- and dyer-friendliness.
Simple enough to be accessible to novice dyers and dynamically complex enough to challenge the most experienced dyers, kakishibu brings a whole new dimension for textile artists to explore and incorporate into their creative pursuits.
Chris Conrad lived in Japan for over seven years. Her last residency was spent devoted to studying kakishibu. A longtime fiber artist, she now spends her time creating kakishibu works, lecturing and teaching kakishibu workshops. She works from her studio in Everson, Washington, sharing the farm with her husband and nine angora goats. More detailed information about Kakishibu is available in her book,Kakishibu: Traditional Persimmon Dye of Japan.