Aizome - Is an ancient Japanese craft the key to better textiles?
Textiles keep getting smarter and a lot of research is put into creating better fabrics. On one hand, this trend sprung out of new possibilities thanks to technological development, on the other an increased transparency demand make customers request textiles that are better for their health and the environment as a reaction to fast fashion and its impact on humans and the planet.
While the quality of fabrics is often in the limelight and people demand alternative textiles such as organic bamboo and organic cotton, the dye is often overlooked. It is common practice that highly certified organic products are still chemically dyed. With increased transparency, this is bound to change.
Many plant dye traditions have already been extinguished by cheap chemical competition and the cultural knowledge has been lost. Aizome, or 'Japan Blue' as it was poetically called, is the Japanese art of dyeing fabric with plant indigo dye. The color was known to also have medicinal and other properties such as making fabric durable, repel insects and sickness (bacteria) and was also believed to keep bad spirits away. Aizome clothing was also worn by samurai under their armor, as its disinfecting qualities helped wounded skin heal.
The fact that out of all countries Japan has almost no dye craftsmanship remaining is a pity. Japan was without question the country that had refined the craft of dyeing to its perfection. As mentioned in an early post, the very fact that you can wear a cotton fabric dyed with indigo from over a century ago without concern of it falling apart shows how high the quality of the protective dye is.
Indigo has found its way into in modern medicine. This is no coincidence. In Chinese, indigo is known as Qing Dai (青黛) and is used for various ailments. Promising research has been conducted about using indigo in various skin-related treatment for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. It is used by cosmetic brands because of its clinically proven efficacy on psoriasis and eczema patients. Due to special fermentation, indigo remains active on a molecular level even in the form of dye. It is thus speculated that dyed textiles act as a repository release of active ingredients that are continuously dermally absorbed.
This is an exciting trend that will revive plant dyeing of textiles. It is an indisputable fact that plant dyes are infinitely better for the environment. The leftover from dyes can be used as fertilizer and very little water is used. On the other hand, chemical dyes often need up to 4000 liters of water per shirt to cleanse the toxins out of your shirt - toxins which permanently damage the environment as they are flushed into rivers and oceans. (In some Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi cities you can tell the color trends of the first world by the color of the river water.)
In Japan, there are only a handful of workshops left that dye fabrics traditionally (read: without chemicals). In the next blog post, I want to explore this artisan craft and provide you with an inside to their craftsmanship. Let's see what we can learn about Aizome indigo plant dye and how it could be useful!