From tablecloths to duvet covers, iPhone cases to wallpaper and startling calf-skin wall hangings, the ancient Japanese resist-dying technique of shibori has gone mainstream. Vera Wang, Ralph Lauren, Eileen Fisher, Levi’s and innumerable fiber artists are breathing new life into the craft.
“The stillness and beauty of it really centers me,” said Oriana DiNella, who recently launched her own Web-based shibori line, including linen tableware, pillows and throws – and large leather wall hangings – all made to order and hand-dyed in organic indigo.
“It feels like a rebellion against the fashion movement, where everything seems so fast and disposable,” the New York-based designer explained.
Shibori is slow. It takes time, and has been around since about the 8th century.
The word comes from the Japanese shiboru, meaning “to wring, squeeze or press.”
The technique involves twisting, tying, crumpling, stitching or folding fabric – usually silk or cotton – in various ways, transforming the two-dimensional material into a sculptural, three-dimensional form. This sculptural shape is then traditionally dyed, originally using indigo, although a huge variety of colors and dyes are now used. Sometimes, the same fabric is then twisted in some other way and then dyed again. When the wrappings are removed, the folds and creases where the fabric resisted the dye form distinctive crinkled textures and patterns.
A sort of “memory on cloth,” Shibori also encompasses Issey Miyake’s revolutionary pleated clothing, fulling and felting, and other methods of transforming natural fabrics into 3-D shapes.
The work of Hiroyuki Murase exemplifies both the 3-D possibilities of shibori and the bridge between traditional and new. Murase grew up in Arimatsu, Japan, where shibori has been done using traditional techniques for 400 years. Today, his array of Luminaires lampshades and haute couture fabrics, designed for the likes of Christian Dior, are the cutting edge of modern shibori.
Murase’s family company, Suzusan, was founded there a century ago and has designed shibori fabrics for Miyake and other designers. Murase founded and is creative director at a separate company by the same name, Suzusan, in Dusseldorf, Germany.
But shibori is still most widely thought of as a sort of tie-dyeing.
Today’s incarnations are as different from their early Japanese predecessors as they are from the wild, tie-dyed pieces that became emblematic of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
There’s a sense of timelessness and calm to the modern shibori pieces, and also a renewed focus on workmanship and functionality.
“I love the bleeds, the fluidity of it. I love how the light shades of indigo can be so pale and watery and the navies can be such a deep, deep blue,” DiNella said.
Brooklyn designer Rebecca Atwood uses modern fiber-reactive dyes for her Blauvelt Collection, which includes pillows and pouches. And home-design purveyor Eskayel is creating the look of shibori patterns using ink, water and watercolors, followed by digital printing techniques.
“We have wallpaper, rugs, fabric, pillows, baskets, iPhone cases, stationery, prints and wall hangings. Oh, and poufs,” said founder and creative director Shanan Campanero, when asked about the company’s shibori-inspired offerings.
Compared to the tie-dyes of a generation ago, she said, today’s shibori-inspired works feature patterns that are more careful, deliberate and traditional.
Vera Wang’s collection is centered on bedding, while Ralph Lauren’s features swim trunks and clothing. Levi’s has even come out with shibori-inspired jeans. But while mass-produced items lack the nuanced appeal of handcrafted works, they bring a surprising touch of texture and pizazz to the familiar.
For those inclined to take on do-it-yourself projects, shibori has never been more accessible. It can be done easily at home using minimal equipment.
Urban Outfitters sells its own shibori kits, and lessons are widely available online, from basic for beginners to truly advanced. Martha Stewart Living features a project on its website using a standard pressure cooker to make elegant shibori at home.
Serious shibori artists and workshops across the country and internationally can be found through the Berkeley-based World Shibori Network. With a membership of dedicated artisans in Japan and around the globe, it was founded in the 1990s because of fears that the traditional craft would disappear.
Despite widespread interest in shibori in the West, “we are still concerned with its survival in Japan,” explained Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, the organization’s president and co-founder.
Wada, author of “Shibori” and “Memory on Cloth” (both published by Kodansha), has taught and written about shibori for over 30 years, co-founded Berkeley’s Kasuri Dyeworks in 1975, and helped introduce shibori to the United States. Now, her focus is ensuring its survival in Japan.
“There used to be thousands and thousands of artists working on this. Now there are not so many people doing it using traditional techniques,” said Wada.
She said iPhone covers and poufs made using digital techniques, far from being silly novelties, are crucial to the future of shibori, which holds little appeal to most young Japanese.
“Adapting shibori to something contemporary is the key to its survival,” she said. “When the big designers come out with it and young artists take it in new directions, then more people here and in Japan start to pay attention.”
Rebecca Atwood: www.rebeccaatwood.com
World Shibori Network: www.shibori.org
Slow Fiber Studios, a part of the World Shibori Network: www.slowfiberstudios.com
Urban Outfitters: www.urbanoutfitters.com
Martha Stewart Living: www.marthastewart.com