Bushwick BLUE: Revival of a Dying Art
“This is not the indigo used for blue jeans,” instructor Kakuo Kaji explained to the class. I had come to BUAISOU. in Bushwick, Brooklyn to learn indigo dying but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was.
Before getting started, we learned that indigo is a plant-derived dye. While it is often associated with India, the Japanese have been processing it for about 2000 years. According to Kaji, the difference between Japanese and Indian indigo is the plant species and refinement method. Because both techniques are labor and time intensive, they’ve been replaced commercially by less expensive synthetic versions. At BUAISOU. I was hoping to learn the benefits of bringing old ways back.
The first clue is the 100% natural process. Farmers, like our instructor, grow indigo plants and compost them into a mixture called sukumo. The compost is then blended with ash lye derived from trees, calcium hydroxide, and wheat bran. The mixture is so safe, that dye makers calibrate its ratios by touching it with their fingers. At the back of the studio, in huge plastic barrels nicknamed “hell vats,” stood the final product. When the covers were removed, we peered in and saw dark, frothing dye fermenting with the smell of decayed fruit.
“Today we are practicing the batik dying method,” instructor Kaji announced as we stared at the dark ooze. “You will paint on a piece of cloth with wax, when the wax dries, we will submerge the cloth in the dye. After that we boil the cloth to remove the wax leaving your design behind.”
I couldn’t wait to play in the indigo, but I was nervous about the design painting part. After a few tentative brush strokes, I relaxed and allowed the wax to decorate my square of cloth in messy drips and drabs. “Be sure to hold your piece in the dye for a minute and in the air for another minute.” we were told. “The oxidation process is equally important to achieve a pure indigo hue.” As soon as I submerged my piece, the white, contrasting beauty of the wax revealed itself. It felt like magic.
After completing a handkerchief and coaster, I was ready to sign up for another session to work with garments of my own. That night I became a practitioner of a 2000-year old process. I left BUAISOU. convinced that a purchased pair of blue jeans could never give me the same satisfaction.
—– Reported by Devon Brown
Instructor Kaji is only twenty-five years old, but his organization BUAISOU. is the only producer that executes the entire indigo process from plants to finished garments. Co-founder of BUAISOU., Kenta Watanabe is having workshops in Brooklyn Lab until Dec. 30.
Dying methods for indigo are numerous but batik, using wax and a paintbrush, allows for free flowing design that is easy for beginners.
In order to achieve a deep blue color, fabric must be submerged several times. The deepest blues can require up to twenty rounds.
After two dying rounds and a boiling water bath, my handkerchief could be washed right away with all white clothes without transferring any of its beautiful hue.