The Art of the Shibori Dyeing Technique

A beautiful Japanese craft that gently embraces a universal audience

Contrary to popular belief, natural hand-dyed garments are not a new phenomenon. People have been naturally dyeing fabrics for at least 30,000 years. This sacred and almost ceremonial process saw individuals forage through nature in search of natural dyes. This included materials like plants, trees and minerals. The result was the most inspiring and colourful garments. 

And just when you think that you cannot be more captivated by natural dyeing, we are gifted with the beauty of the shibori dyeing technique. 

This well-curated and deeply grounding Japanese dyeing form is the epitome of artistry and artistic expression. And it’s a beloved pastime that is being shared from their hands to yours. 

What is shibori?

Shibori is a beautiful resist-dyeing technique that originates from Japan. I should point out that shibori is often confused with tie-dye, but you will soon see that these two intricate techniques are, in fact, different.

The shibori dyeing technique involves folding, bunching, stitching, twisting, compressing or even bundling fabric and then binding it (you can use almost anything for binding as long as it’s sturdy). After binding the fabric, you’ll then completely submerge it in your dye, usually a gorgeous, naturally-sourced indigo dye.

The results are incredibly captivating as your fabric takes on different patterns and prints depending on how you bind your fabric. From both geometric and organic shapes, you are guaranteed to be enthralled by this entire process. I know I always am!

The history of the shibori dyeing technique

Shibori, as practised in Japan, is a 1,300-year-old technique which naturally evolved after its original introduction in China.

It’s so interesting how this technique is still used widely today and is still so similar to the traditional Japanese methods. According to some, shibori was uniquely adapted by the Japanese after being introduced in China along with the Chinese style of dress. 

It is now one of the oldest indigo dyeing techniques in all of Japan. 

A lower-class craft with a rich heritage

Shibori dyeing in indigo was particularly popular amongst the lower class in feudal Japan. This was because fabrics like cotton and silk were incredibly expensive. The alternative then became cheap hemp clothing – which offered the perfect canvas for the shibori dyeing technique.

This was particularly the case during the Edo period (between 1603 and 1867) when the lower class was forbidden from wearing silk. Shibori emerged as a technique to renew old, faded, stained and damaged clothes.

Later on, during the 17th to the 19th century, when trade and arts and culture flourished, shibori became more popular. Many different regional techniques emerged, and shibori became sought after, not just in hemp fabrics for the lower class, but also for decorating silk for the aristocracy, who would later commission artisans to create stunning kimonos.

The artistry and versatility continued, which later set the foundations for the popularity of the shibori dyeing technique today.  

Shibori dyeing patterns

There are six approaches to shibori dyeing: Itajime, Arashi, Kanoko, Miura, Nui, and Kumo. Let’s explore each one, shall we?

1. Arashi

This is done by twisting and wrapping your fabric around a pole and then binding it in place before dyeing. This approach creates a “storm-like” pattern when done with traditional indigo shades.

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2. Itajime

Itajime is done by sandwiching blocks, usually pieces of wood, on each side of a tightly folded piece of fabric. String or bands hold the blocks in place while the fabric is dyed. The final result is a gorgeously repetitive square-ish pattern. 

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3. Kanoko

This approach is pretty similar to tie-dye because it’s done by winding and twisting the fabric and then binding it with string (or rubber bands) to block dye. The contrasts between the blocked and dyed areas create beautiful swirl-like patterns.

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4. Miura

Also known as looped binding, this method involves taking a hooked needle and plucking sections of the fabric. Then a thread is looped around each section twice. The thread is not knotted, and tension is the only thing that holds the sections in place. 

The result is a water-like design. This technique is very easy to bind and unbind so it’s one of the more popular approaches.

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5. Nui

A simple running stitch is used on the cloth and then pulled tight to gather the cloth together. The thread must be pulled very tight to work, and a wooden dowel (a round wooden stick) must be used to pull it tight enough. Each thread is knotted so they are secure before being dyed.

This technique allows for greater control of the pattern you make and a greater variety of patterns, but it is also much more time-consuming – so keep that in mind.

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6. Kumo

Kumo shibori is a pleated and bound resist. This technique involves pleating sections of the cloth very finely and evenly. Then the cloth is bound in very close sections. The result is a very specific spider-like design. This technique is very precise and produces this very specific design.

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How is shibori different from tie-dye?

The name ‘shibori’ is derived from the Japanese word “shiboru” which means to wring, squeeze or press.

The main point of difference between shibori and ordinary tie-dye is that it requires the use of thread to create the patterns as opposed to just winding and tying the cloth in a knot. Shibori is also distinguished by the use of only one colour, whereas, with tie-dye, we try to make colourful patterns more often than not. 

Originally only indigo was used as the dye in shibori, but as the technique has modernised, any colour can be used.

At Talú, I am crazy about all of the various natural dyeing techniques that exist. They fuel our creativity and desire to create beautiful art forms with our hands. If you’re interested in learning more about the stunning shibori technique in all of its varieties, keep an eye on our workshops or take a look at our natural dyeing services.