Indigo and Sashiko

Japanese Indigo Plants

Indigo and Sashiko

The word “Indigo” in Japanese evokes special feelings – of both fondness and nostalgia – among many Japanese people.

Indigo is actually the name of a plant. First introduced to Japan from ancient Egypt via China at around the 3rd century A.D., it has been cultivated as a source of dye since then. Cotton dyed in indigo is strong, warm in winter, cool in summer and rarely moth-eaten. Cotton dyed indigo fabric became popular throughout Japan during the Edo period (1603 – 1867). But while the dyed fabric itself needed little care initially, extracting the dye from plant was quite a troublesome and time consuming task. And it took more effort than for other natural dyes to keep indigo in usable condition.

The life cycle of indigo dye is said to resemble that of a human being.

Indigo processing
Soaked indigo leaves are strained though a nylon mesh bag

In the beginning, indigo in a pot is pale in color. As it matures, it becomes darker in color until it ends its life as a dye. Like man, indigo is born, grows, matures and ages. In fact, according to a Japanese saying, nursing a pot of indigo is as difficult as bringing up a child. Although today our work is made easier by the existence of chemical dyes colored indigo, the dye extracted from the indigo plant is still highly valued.

sashiko denim
Sashiko Embroidered Shirt

The pattern craft called “sashiko” was originally employed to make sturdy, warm work-clothes. In order to clothe their husbands in outfits that were both warm and strong, the wives of farmers and fishermen sewed together two or more pieces of fabric and lovingly adorned them with original designs. These patterns were passed on to later generations and their use eventually spread throughout Japan.

Using such traditional materials as indigo-dyed cloth and through the use of the simple technique of sashiko, we have fashioned artistic works which suit contemporary lifestyle.

This article is extracted from Sashiko Blue and White Quilt Art of Japan by Kazuko Mende and Reiko Morishige.

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