The drive up to Tetsuya and Sayoko Matsueda’s workshop in Kurume was pretty spectacular, lots of small holdings and rice paddys and old wooden houses along the way. Their house/workshop turned out to be at the foothills of a beautiful, high ridge of mountains, right next to a bamboo forest tucked away from the rest of the village.
Once again we were welcomed in with tea and elaborate little pink cakes and lots of introductory bows. We had arrived in the late afternoon and the light coming in to the room made the indigo blue of their clothing so intense, I could tell this visit was going to be a very memorable part of the trip. I love the indigo blue patterned Kasuri design which we had seen dotted about on our travels every so often and this interview was one of the ones I had been looking forward to most.
We were taken into another room to see the dyeing process. The light streaming through the window made the whole room so atmospheric, hopefully the photos capture at least some of this.
The intensity of the indigo blue is so incredibly beautiful. There are several labour intensive processes that go into Kurume Kasuri dyeing and that is before the weaving process even begins. Indigo dye come from the leaves of a plant which has to be ground and squeezed into juice which is actually a pale blue colour. It then has to be dried and fermented for 100 days. This is called ‘sukumo’. It arrives into the workshop in sacks made from straw.
The fermented indigo is then combined with water into the indigo pots called ‘Aigame’ built in the floor, which helps to regulate the temperature. The water and indigo is mixed at a 5 to 1 ratio. As it is unable to mix with water once it is dried after the fermentation process, it has to be combined with a lye which is made from burnt wood ashes. Mr Matsueda mixes the ashes with hot water and filters it before adding it to the Aigame. As 20 kg of ash is needed each time, he explained that since there is a limited supply of wood ash available, he uses the ashes from the kiln of ceramics workshops in Fukuoka. He will then return the fitered ash to the ceramics workshop who will use it for the glaze. I love that the crafts can be connected in this way and support each other in their different processes. The other ingredients added will be starch Syryp, pure rice sake and ground up shell. Because the indigo is fermented, and in a sense alive, it is all down to the art of the fermentation that will determine the depth of the colour. It will need to be stirred once a day and tasted on the tongue to see if it is ready which takes around 3 months. It takes a true master to decide if the fermentation is complete or not.
The word “kasuri” originated from a Malay: “bind” or “tie.” Kasuri-textile is a technique to twine and dye vertical threads and horizontal ones together so as to weave up a design. The technique is originally from India, and is also found all over Persia and South Europe, from China and Southeast Asia to Ryukyu.
The representative types of kasuri made in Japan are Hingo-kasuri in Hiroshima, Iyo-kasuri in Ehime, and Kurume-kasuri in Fukuoka. Kurume-kasuri was born from the daily life – people worked their loom and wove clothes for their family. Now of course the real handcrafted fabric is so labour intensive it is mainly used for specialist kimono makers.
Indigo is also able to dye brown, green and blue. He can also dye it to red. They call it “Indigo red”. To dye thread to green, he will first dye the thread yellow and then indigo. The Blue is achieved by oxidation. Mr Matsueda explained that indigo is now being studied, after its long use as a Chinese medicine, researchers have confirmed that it has many medicinal uses and is particularly good for atopy, dental desease, diabetes and athletes foot.
The skeins of thread will need to be dyed 30 times to achieve the deepest blue. After dyeing it will be hit on the floor 30 times to allow the air to get to it. Between each 5 dyes he will thoroughly wash the cotton skein and begin all over again. This is how he will produce the deep beauty of the indigo blue.
Mr Matsueda explains that they can get bacteria from kasuri that was made 200years ago. A Researcher figured out there were different DNAs in kasuri now, compared to 200years ago. This particular bacteria is still used but has evolved because the indigo plant now comes from Tokushima (in Shikoku).
Kurume Kasuri work with cotton which means the indigo requires a long fermentation process to allow the material to take the dye. Mr Matsueda explained that Silk can be dyed from the fresh leaves of the indigo because it is already an animal protein where as cotton is a natural , plant based fabric.
Before any of the dyeing process takes place they will need to create the desired pattern so will hand paint a special paint on the cotton while it is stretched on a frame. Then they will have to tie pieces of linen or if they want a pure white relief pattern they will tie it with plastic. If you imagine the amount of time and mathematics it takes to create a pattern when you are dyeing and weaving both directions of the thread, so you can match it all together, It is pretty in incredible to think how much intense work goes into the process of Kasuri altogether. I am in total awe of this special craft.
On the wall spread all over the house are patterns which have been passed down from Tetsuyas grandfather, and also some new patterns he has created himself. When I asked which was the most complicated he pointed to one which almost looks like he has cut out a square of a clear nights sky and framed it on the wall. The intensity of the deep dark blue-black sky with the constellations and the Milky Way look so real you can almost see the stars sparkling. Sayoko also talked about the circle being a very challenging shape as you have to calculate the pattern to the mm for every single thread to achieve a perfect round shape.
Tetsuya Matsueda is the grandson of Tamaki Matsueda, a National Treasure of Japan who lived to the age of 86, a true pioneer of Kurume Kasuri. He spent his life creating new patterns and colours in Kasuri dyeing all of which he passed down to his grandson. His presence is everywhere in the house. We sat and watched a short film about him, it was wonderful to see him working the very same methods we had just witnessed moments ago.
When we asked what will become of the future of their combined skill and knowledge they both smiled and talked about their son who is now in his 20s and confessed how grateful they are that he has expressed interest from an early age to keep the Matsueda traditions alive. We were shown pictures of him dyeing the cotton at 7 years old and weaving age 11. And so the tradition continues. They also talked about the workshops they regularly do in schools and the 5 apprentices they are about to train.
Sayoko then brought out a long box and began lifting out kimono after kimono which, it turned out, had been made by Tetsuya’s grandfather. These are so rare and so beautiful that one of their long standing clients, being so passionate about the art of Kurume Kasuri, collected and donated them back to Tetsuya so as to preserve their wonderful history. There is over 20 of them carefully wrapped up in Japanese paper all hand stitched. When I asked how they preserve the fabric so well she explained that the indigo dye has a special component in so it naturally preserves the cloth, which is why even the oldest pieces look as if they have been woven yesterday.
To make the fabric for a whole kimono it will take 3 months. When we asked about the market for their work they explained despite the fact that Kasuri used to be for normal workmans clothing, nowadays it is much more exclusive and each piece they make contains so much work it has to be priced accordingly and so they have a very niche market. A kimono made from Kurume Kasuri is worth around ¥700,000-1,000,000 which works out around £4,500 – £6,000.
I am blown away by the skill and workmanship involved in Kurume Kasuri and the beautiful works of Tetsuya and Sayoko. When I asked what they think the future is going to hold for them they replied if they continue to tailor and perfect each and every step of the process, as if each step is the only job they have, the more beautiful the cloth will become and that is their neverending goal.