(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 14, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Indigo is recognized as both a color and a plant. It has been known to the world for nearly 4000 years. Several plants can be used to make the blue color, but the plant Polygonum tinctorium is the one that they have used in the city of Tokushima for hundreds of years.
With the advent of synthetic dyes, the time consuming procedure of growing and extracting natural indigo has fallen out of favor, but in Tokushima, they cultivate this little-known art and families still pass down to younger generations the techniques and secrets that have served them well for centuries.
The city of Paducah was graced by these smiling little ladies with their beautiful quilts. They knew very little English and most of us knew even less Japanese, but we shared a common bond that transcended language. They were artists among other artists and a common language was not necessary to see how much love and care went into their presentation.
Twenty one quilters made the journey from Japan with their artwork and every offering was stunning. The three women pictured with their quilts are: top left Midori Iwasaki with Cherry Blossoms On Water, top right Sumako Tsukihara with Song Of Forest and bottom left, Kazuko Amano with Ray Of Light. They happily posed for the photos with their creations and quickly pointed out the pieces of indigo fabric that they had worked into the designs. Quilters own the copyright to their quilts so images of them cannot be reproduced without their permission
The Japanese people love quilting and have raised it to a much respected art form in their country. They are known for precise construction and an intuitive way with color. To the trained eye a Japanese handmade quilt can be easily identified from a distance.
These quilts were no different in that respect, but these women had an uncommon theme with the treatment of the ancient hand-dyed indigo cotton fabric in their creations. It was used throughout the quilts in a subtle manner, never over-powering, but as a tasteful subject that bound their exhibit called "Cotton Poem" together in a beautiful, but unspoken way.
With friendly smiles and much gesturing, each showed off her creation proudly. Several pieces of the indigo fabric were on exhibit and although the language barrier prevented us from conversing in depth, the message that they used a "very special cloth from our city" was easily understood. A little research into how indigo was grown and processed proved just how special this cloth is.
Each Spring the fields are planted with the seeds of Polygonum tinctorium. They are carefully tended throughout the Summer, making sure that the plants do not suffer from drought. That seems to be the one thing that this plant cannot tolerate. They do not recover from wilt when soil is allowed to dry out.
At the end of the growing season, the plants are harvested and the leaves are separated from the stems. Only the leaves are used to make the finest indigo dye and it takes a great number of them to make a small amount. They are carefully piled in rooms and dampened with water. The indigo leaves will start to ferment and produce heat much like a compost pile. The temperature is carefully monitored and the leaves are turned by hand to keep a constant level of heat throughout the pile. This process takes months to complete and the result is a substance that resembles blue soil. This is indigo dye.
Now, the dye is not useable until it undergoes a chemical transformation. This is done by fermentation. The indigo solid is placed in a stone crock, water, bran flour and wood ash are added. The resulting liquid bubbles, foams, and begins to ferment. Yarn or cloth is placed into these vats and the whole unit can ferment for several months until the desired shade of blue is reached. It is a time consuming process that requires much skill by the person maintaining the dye crocks. It is no wonder that people who understand this art are becoming harder to find.
We were so very fortunate in Paducah to have been visited by these ladies and their beautiful quilts. Their desire to share their work, and the ancient craft from their hometown was a rare event that few will ever get to experience. They honored a very old profession with their modern artwork and bridged the language gap with very few spoken words.
The subjects of their quilts expressed their love for their gardens, nature, and their home. Universal topics that everyone who saw the quilts could understand without the use of a common language. It just goes to show us that we are all the same. We are moved by nature's beauty, we have a desire to create a memory of our inspiration, and we have a deep respect and admiration for those who have gone before us. This group of women came half-way around the world to share these intimate feelings with strangers, but what we all found out, was that we knew each other much better than we would have ever thought.
These quilts are copyrighted, and likenesses may not be reproduced without permission from the artists. Thank you in advance for respecting this.