Survey: Quilt Artist Yoshiko Jinzenji's "bamboo dye"



A world of "white" discovered in a lifestyle surrounded by nature

A single white cloth, hung in the corner of a gallery where handmade crafts are worked on. The almost transparent hue and soft hand feel resonated deeply in my heart, and when I asked what type of cloth it was, I discovered that "it was created by a dyeing and weaving artisan with a special technique using green bamboo." There are many traditional natural dyes found throughout the world, including indigo, sappanwood and madder, but I had little knowledge about the technique of using bamboo as a dye. Furthermore, I was intrigued about the idea of dyeing a piece of silk yarn white, which was already white to begin with. Captivated by this technique, I decided to visit Yoshiko Jinzenji in her studio located in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.

Yoshiko welcomed us at her studio, a beautiful open space surrounded by greenery and basking in the natural sunlight located halfway up Mount Hiei. "Before moving here, I built a studio on the island of Bali in Indonesia, where I lived for over 20 years, with the local traditional style of architecture, and have always been close to nature." Ever since Yoshiko, who boasts a long and distinguished career as a dyeing and weaving artisan and quilt artist, returned to Japan five years ago, she has started holding workshops and other activities inside her own studio, which is equipped with a spacious earthen floor kitchen and a small tearoom.

Yoshiko Jinzenji's studio, "Kitchen House Jinzenji Kyoto."

Yoshiko's relationship with textiles, which she works with on a daily basis as an artist, can be traced all the way back to the late 1960s.
"I' did ikebana (Japanese art of flower arrangement) since I was a student, and went to the United States during my mid-20s to study flower arranging. I guess I always had an admiration for the United States. When I actually went there, the country was still feeling the effects of the Vietnam War, and the young people who were part of the hippie movement desired spiritual enrichment rather than material wealth and they were sending a message to everyone to 'return to nature.'

However, if you looked at Japan on the other hand, the country was in the midst of rapid growth with the formulation of the "Income Doubling Plan." Everyone was frantically trying to earn as much money as they could by working hard. I was still young and didn't know much about the world, and I was surprised at how drastically different peoples' way of thinking could be depending on where one was."

Japan was aiming to become more like the United States, its subject of admiration following its defeat in World War II, a symbol of wealth and happiness; Japan was attempting to escape from poverty and strive for economic growth. Initially, She felt culture shock at the unfamiliar sense of values that she experienced in this land. What attracted her the most out of anything was the handicraft quilting culture, having been passed down in this country, which had a long history of immigration.

"I became more obsessed with quilting rather than the ikebana that I was studying, and started by mimicking quilts made by others.

I was living in Toronto, Canada at the time, where the province of Ontario was home to communities of Mennonites, members of a Christian sect, who lived in rural areas away from modern civilization and led self-sufficient lifestyles. On the East Coast of the United States, there were the Amish, a group of people who led similar lifestyles as the Mennonites. They rode horse carriages to get around and made various everyday tools by hand. Inside the basements of their homes and churches, large framed quilts sewn by the women of their communities were hung on the walls. The origins of American quilting can be discovered in their lifestyles that revolve around nature, and remained unchanged for over 300 years. I was very inspired after visiting their communities and experiencing their spiritual world."

After being mesmerized by the world of quilts, Yoshiko continued her creative activities as an artist, and in 1980 she returned to Japan. Once back home, she ends up turning her eyes to a completely new world.

"My father-in-law, who was a researcher of art, had traveled to Indonesia numerous times and showed me local fabrics colored with natural dyes. I was very impressed by their beauty, and immediately made a trip to Indonesia myself.

I didn't have any experience or knowledge about dyeing, but I traveled around the small islands and began learning about the various techniques from local residents. At the time, they were still making all of their clothing by hand. Many traditional vegetable dyeing methods, including the dark brown "soga dye," which is used to make Javanese batik patterns, were passed down from previous generations. Tropical islands experience high rates of photosynthesis from the sun, which makes the colors of the plant life so rich. I felt firsthand what it meant for a culture to be born from the climate and natural features of the region."

However, no dyeing techniques using bamboo exist in Indonesia or its neighboring regions, which possess a rich culture of plant dyes. So why did Yoshiko decide to incorporate this unique method into her works?

"In 1994, I decided to hold an exhibition together with other distinguished Japanese lacquer artisans, and when I was thinking about what kind of pieces would go well with the powerful and elegant red and black lacquer, I was suddenly inspired by the color "white." I had thought that it was a message from God. However, I had never heard of a natural white dye.

I knew that there would be some kind of plant that would work, so I tried using everything from flowers to vegetables and even seaweed, but none of them worked out. I was at a loss as to what to do, until one day I noticed small bamboos growing in the yard of the studio. At that point, I had never once tried using bamboo as a dye, because I had read in a book written by a famous dyeing master, "bamboo could not be used as dyes." Relying on that reason alone, no one, including myself, ever even attempted to use bamboo. I decided to try it anyway, and at first the result was a somewhat brownish color. I thought that it wouldn't work and I began to wash the cloth when it slowly started to turn white. I then dried the cloth and after several hours of sunlight pouring down onto it, I noticed that it was shining with a beautiful white shade. I was so surprised at the result."

Everybody believed that it was impossible; no one ever tried using bamboo as a dye. Yoshiko, who realized its possibilities, used continuous trial and error on a daily basis to eventually pave the way for a new world of bamboo dyeing that the world had not yet witnessed before.

"Just as the sliding doors and partitions in Japanese living spaces are all white, white is the most pure and solemn color. It can also bring out much in other colors. The white color produced from natural plants features a sense of depth and weight that is unlike any white color produced from chemical dyes. I have cloths that were dyed over 20 years ago, but they have aged beautifully even after all of this time."

The process of collecting the bamboo used for dyeing takes place in the early morning. Only the trunks of young bamboo with thick flesh are cut out and washed clean. They are then cut finely while immersed in water, and after letting them simmer in a firewood kiln for over two hours, they produce a light brown broth. After removing the bamboo and straining and cooling the solution, the yarn and cloth are slowly immersed into the dye. The dyed cloth is then washed with water and dried under the sun in a well-ventilated area.

"I write down all of the instructions and ways to make dyes in my book. However, there are no instruction manuals that can teach you how to create exact colors that you want. Even when using the same types of bamboo or bamboo from the same region, each one possesses its own unique properties and the climate can change at any moment, so you can never really get the same color. It's all different each and every time, so you just have to try doing it."

("Engineered Quilt "Ripping Waves")(Produced in 2009~2010.) A quilt made of organic cotton and dyed with natural green bamboo and mahogany that took several years to create. It was decided in October 2018 that this quilt would be permanently preserved in the International Quilt Study Center & Museum located at the University of Nebraska.

"(Embossed Quilt "White Repose") (Produced in 1996.) Expanding from the image of white handmade Japanese washi paper, a handmade green bamboo dyed silk cloth was made into an intricate machine sewn quilt.

The quilting culture was born over several hundreds of years through traditional lifestyles where people used their own hands to create things. The world of white created by bamboo dyes was inspired by natural dyeing techniques, which have been passed down through generations in the nature of tropical regions. All of these elements organically combined inside Yoshiko's creative mind, which helped her create countless works. Some of her works have been permanently preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. Even in her 70s, she still remains as creative as ever.

"In 1988, when I was living in Bali, I met a producer by the name of Toshihiro Imai, who suggested that I hold an exhibition of my works. Up until then I was simply making quilts for my own happiness and I didn't have any desire to sell them, but Mr. Imai told me "that unless I put a price on my works and pass that value onto other people, it would not become a true culture." Hearing these words left a deep impression on me. However, even if I make high quality quilts, it's up to the recipient to continue developing them. I hope to pass on the spiritual nature that lies within these techniques that have been perfected by ancient people down to the next generation through my creations."

A shot of Yoshiko Jinzenji's self-produced "KON" exhibition, which was held at "Gallery SUGATA" in Kyoto, October 2017.

Survey, defined as: to examine or inspect. In these features, we will be reporting on things, people, places, or cultures that inspire us in our daily work of making products.

edit & text: Kosuke Ide
photo: Keisuke Fukamizu