Spring 2013 Japanese Indigo Textile Workshop

Fujino, Japan

I am  originally from the West Coast of Canada and have been living in Japan for 24 years. I’ve farmed and processed indigo for 19 years, and bred and raised silkworms for 15 years. The silk cocoons are reeled, dyed with natural dyes and woven into Japanese textiles using old local tools.  I run a small textile school at my 150-year-old traditional silk farming farmhouse that focuses on indigo dyeing, natural dyes, shibori, stencil dyeing (katazome), thread making from silk cocoons, and weaving on traditional Japanese looms. The farmhouse is situated in a quiet tea growing mountain village in Fujino just outside of Tokyo. The village was designated as one of ‘The Most Scenic One Hundred Mountain Villages in Japan’. Spring and autumn are beautiful times of the year here.

Japan is famous for it’s cherry blossom season and the following verdant transition into spring. I am offering two courses that correspond with these times of year.

April 14th, Sunday - April 24th, Wednesday. (Cherry Blossoms)

May 12th, Sunday - May 22nd, Wednesday. (Fresh Green)

Savoring and appreciating old Japanese textiles that were made by anonymous craftsmen gives you a glimpse into a distant,  rich and unique cultural heritage.  It is a refreshing break from our branded consumer lives to know that there are people who dedicate their lives to creating these unsigned masterpieces. There were and are artisans to whom self-promotion was/is an unknown practice. It would be wonderful to run my workshop retreats in this spirit. Leave the teacher out of the picture and focus on the magic of indigo and the old techniques and things Japanese.

The workshop is for ten days.  You will be at the indigo vat right away and hopefully in the vicinity of one the entire time. Hands-on, or in this case ‘hands-in,’ is the best way to know what indigo is about.

This workshop is a great introduction to indigo dyeing and Japanese textiles in general. For those individuals considering setting up an indigo vat at home this is an excellent opportunity for beginners to learn the basics.

The material covered in the workshop is also a reasonable hands-on introduction to Japanese culture in general. The ideas and  technical approaches to textile work are similar to those of many other things Japanese. I’ll share my insights into Japanese culture and history and of the wonderful things that have kept me in this country.

I am looking forward to hearing from you,


The farmhouse on the right side on the edge of the shadow seen from tea fields in mid -October.


Day One: Sunday

Many International flights arrive in the morning at Narita/Tokyo airport. I will meet you at the airport and have your luggage sent to the farmhouse by special delivery. We will then travel by Narita Express to the Shinjuku Hotel Century Southern Tower for an overnight stay. After long flights it is good to refresh and get a good night’s sleep before heading out to the countryside. You will have the afternoon and evening to explore  the Shinjuku area on your own. If you are arriving at an earlier date or at a later time in the day everyone will meet at the lobby of the hotel at a designated time the following morning. Please keep in mind the date difference when booking your flights to Japan. We are one day ahead.

Day Two: Monday

I will pick you up at your hotel after breakfast and drive to the quietness of the mountain village only an hour and a half away. Your suitcases will be waiting in your rooms and after unpacking you will be welcomed by a hand-made sushi lunch prepared by my neighbors and friends. Not wasting any time we head straight for the indigo. The first step will be to set up an indigo vat and get a clear idea of the variety of processes involved.  We will dye Japanese towels and thread for the weft in our weaving project. For your welcome dinner we will eat out at a local Japanese grilled-chicken restaurant.

Day Three: Tuesday

Everyone is excited about being in Japan and their projects. Breakfast seems to be the only time that everyone will sit still for any length of time. So every morning we will take a half an hour after breakfast to discuss aspects of Japanese Textiles and indigo.

Today the talk will be about Japanese shape-resist dyeing, shibori . Then you will be soon back at the indigo vats to try your hand at shibori. For each step of the dying process I will share 20 years of experience of working with indigo.  By the end of ten days you will have a clear understanding of how indigo works with the various additives of different kinds of dye vats and the reaction of indigo with different kinds of fabric.  Lunch will be hand-made (with your hands) udon noodles and seasonal vegetables.

In the afternoon you will be introduced to katazome stencil dyeing in preparation for tomorrow’s outing and a walk around the village as well as more time at the indigo vats. Before dinner you will go to a local hot spring for a relaxing outdoor bath. Dinner at a local restaurant.

Day Four: Wednesday

The after-breakfast-table-talk will be about stencil dyeing in Japan. We will visit my katazome teacher at his working studio. You will not only witness the astounding techniques and skills but the values and aesthetics that make Japanese textiles so interesting. This will also be an opportunity to learn more about and use (and smell) naturally fermenting indigo.

After the studio visit we will take a leisurely walk back to the station and explore the uniquely Japanese shops along the way.  Dinner will be nabe (traditional Japanese soup) at home.

Day Five: Thursday

The after-breakfast-table-talk will be about katazome and we will expand the discussion of the techniques that incorporate other dyes and pigments.  We will cut simple stencils and attach a fine silk mesh net with lacquer today to use a few days later. We will make two natural dye baths using gardenia pods (kuchinashi) and madder  (akane) to under dye yellow and red to combine with indigo to get greens and purples. If you decide to use indigo at home this is a useful skill to expand your color palette.  We will dye silk scarves with these dyes and we will dye cotton scarves with shibori techniques. Lunch will be a simple Japanese hot tofu dish. Dinner will be a simple traditional Japanese salmon and rice, ochatsuke.

Day Six: Friday

We will visit the Japanese Folkcraft Museum in Tokyo (http://www.mingeikan.or.jp/english/ ).This is the place to get back to the source of where everything Japanese derives. Understanding the origins of Japanese crafts, feeling and absorbing the subtle seasonal nuances will give you further insight into things Japanese. We will also visit several antique Japanese Textile shops in Tokyo.


The view from the top of the village.

Day Seven: Saturday

The lacquered mesh on the stencils you cut two days ago will be dry and we can use them today. Each person will have cut a stencil and it is wonderful to exchange the patterns we have made with your fellow ‘indigo friends’.

There are four activities this weekend. We rotate and overlap through them.

One: We will make some shifuku style bags from our textiles we have dyed or woven.

Two: We will weave on traditional Japanese looms with a pre-set indigo warp. It will take approximately three hours for a beginner to weave 50 centimeters. If you are a weaver and or really enjoy weaving there will be plenty of warp left to weave as much as you please.

Three:   Braiding cords on kumihimo stands.

Four: We will use your new katazome skills for creating a variety of surface-patterned textiles.

Dinner will be a Japanese style river trout barbeque at the farmhouse.

The indigo vats will be in good condition for you to slip outside and dye to your heart’s content.

Day Eight: Sunday

The day will be spent on the same activities as Saturday: weaving, braiding, stencilling and sewing. Depending on the weather, and how everyone is feeling, we will eat in or out. There are local potters and artisans and we will have the option to visit their studios.

Day Nine: Monday

Today we will all drive one hour to Mount Fuji to visit a Shinto shrine, a Japanese potter and a Japanese traditional glass bead maker. If participants are interested, we will visit the Kubota Itchiku Shibori museum ( http://www.itchiku-tsujigahana.co.jp/). Lunch will be at a local brewery and restaurant. Depending on our energy levels, we can eat in or out.

Day Ten: Tuesday 

This is a free day to finish projects, pack, catch up on your emails and blogging.  The luggage delivery service will come to the farmhouse to pick up your bags and take them to the airport terminal for your departure. In the afternoon a friend will come to the farmhouse and perform a tea ceremony. After ten busy days, dinner will be a quiet Japanese affair at home.

Last Day: Wednesday 

I will take you in the morning to the train to catch your flights home. If your flights are in the afternoon it is possible to spend some hours in Tokyo last minute shopping before going to the airport.

Front entrance to the farmhouse

Farmhouse Details:

The house sits on a relatively steep hill. The guest rooms on the third floor were completed last spring. The rooms are comfortable and cozy. There are two new bathrooms on the first floor and a shower/bath on the first floor as well. (A second traditional wood bath outside is in the planning stages.) There is WiFi at the farmhouse. The staircases are not long but relatively steep. There are healthy snacks and drinks and fruit in the kitchen at all times. If given notice in advance I can try to accommodate some diet restrictions such as no-red-meat vegetarians and gluten free diets. Breakfasts are simple: eggs, toast, cereals, fruits and yoghurts, good coffee and tea. Simple with almost no processed  foods is policy. No smoking in the house itself. Washing machine runs everyday. It is cool in spring so a warm sweater and your favorite warm socks are necessary.


Payment of Fee and Registration Details

When you reserve your place, a deposit of 50, 000 Japanese Yen will be required. The balance of the payment is due January 15th. You are welcome to pay by installments up to this date.

Your deposit will be refunded if you inform me that you intend to cancel by January 1st. (Less a handling charge.) In case of cancellation on the Japan side, the fee and deposit will be promptly refunded. I regret to say that I can’t take responsibility of refunding the cost of airfares and travel insurance in case of cancellation.

If the tour is fully booked you can be placed on a waiting list.

For more information please contact:

Bryan Whitehead

email: japanesetextileworkshops@gmail.com

Visit my blog at: http://japanesetextileworkshops.blogspot.jp/

Telephone: +81 42 686 6757

*Note to Potential Workshop Organizers:

It is possible to reserve the entire workshop for your own private group or reserve and customize a workshop for you and friends. If you have seven participants I will invite the eighth participant (you) to participate for free and pay your airfare from your home country. You would need to help me with the logistics including gathering fees and participants flight details etc. This offer does not extend to those who will advertise for participants but to those who have their own close personal network of friends and fellow craftspeople who would be the participants.

Spring 2013 Japanese Textile Workshop in Japan

250 000 Japanese Yen

Roughly($3150 US.) (2400 Euro)

Fee includes:

*All fees for the workshops include materials (some additional silk and cotton scarves and linen material will be available at cost for the super enthusiasts). You are more than welcome to bring cloth and pre-tied shibori from your home country to dye. All cloth should be 100% free of oil and starches and sizings. Silk does not take indigo well. Synthetics do not take indigo at all.

*All accommodation (first night at hotel and additional ten nights at the farmhouse, double occupancy.)

*All breakfasts.

*All transportation in Japan. Includes Narita Express train. Excursions to Mount Fuji  and Tokyo.

* Luggage transfer to Farmhouse and back to the airport.

*Folkcraft Museum Entrance Fee

*Cost of Indigo workshop in Hachioji.


*International airfare

*Travel Insurance

*Hot spring entrance fee. (700 yen)

*Restaurant meals except welcome dinner. Some dinners will be decided on that particular day according to how we feel. Dinners in are covered. Dinners out are not covered.

Farmhouse made indigo balls.

Participants from previous workshops have raved about their experiences in their blogs. Please check a few of the past participant’s blogs for some idea of how members felt about the workshops.





Summary her is short and the material we cover is limited. Here is a look at what we will look at and what we will make. (It is going to be tight.)


Indigo is central to these workshops. It’s long history stretches back to Egypt. There are over 25 different plants around the world that have the indigo pigment in their leaves. How the pigment was processed from the leaves, to getting it on the cloth has been different in each culture. As the essential pigment properties are the same, the processes are all following  similar steps. The steps are not that simple whether at a primitive village level or in the colonial mass production era.  

The production of the indigo dye is complex enough but the actual dying of thread and material are  complicated by a dye and then oxidation cycle and the fact that the pigment makes a mechanical bond not a chemical bond with fibers. The limitations of the dye itself provide the boundaries indigo dyers have worked against and with for millenium.   The Japanese use of indigo through history through thread dying and weave patterns, stencil dyeing techniques, (Katazome, Bingata, Tsutsugaki) and shape resist dyeing, shibori reaches some rather dizzying sophisticated heights in the top-end samurai and merchant class stuff and on the folkcraft end of the spectrum.

Getting your hands in the indigo and using it  while reading and listening to indigo stories is the best way to wrap your head around the subject.  Some light will be thrown on the complex mystery of indigo dyeing.

*You will learn to make and maintain hydro sulphate indigo vat.

*You will receive printed material on how to grow indigo and process it in several ways.

*You will look at many pieces of Japanese indigo dyed cloth and discuss how they were made.

*You will look at several contemporary Japanese indigo dyers work and see how indigo survives in modern Japan.

* You will learn how greens and purples are made with indigo by under dying with vegetable dyes.


Shibori should not be translated as ‘tie-dye’. It is not a quick technique for patterning a funky t-shirt. (It takes quite an effort to distance yourself at any cost from this aesthetic.) It has a 1300 year history in Japan of being a dignified, poetic and even humorous textile surface-design family of techniques. Highly addictive... we will look at the ingenious techniques and try a few out. (Not necessarily the techniques pictured below!) The play of the resist with the mercurial properties of indigo will make you smile and the potential combinations of techniques will keep you awake at night wanting to sneak out and have a midnight tryst with the indigo vat.

We will use several techniques to make a dozen tenugui Japanese towels and one large indigo cotton shawl. You are welcome to use the indigo with your own experiments with shibori in the evenings and mornings. I can supply cloth or you can bring it from your home countries.

Shibori work from students.


Katazome is a paste resist family of techniques. There is a layered persimmon tannin soaked paper (kakishibugami) that was developed to use as stencil paper in Japan. When wet it is like a soft leather, flexible and strong.  The pattern is cut out with a razor like knife or punched out with a variety of punches. Single pattern stencils are common. Patterns using up to 40 overlapping stencils are also used. The variety of patterns on these stencils is mind boggling. We will cut out some simple stencils and do some simple resist dyeing with them. This will enable you to make some sense out of a huge genre of surface design techniques used in Japan from ancient times and are continued to be used traditionally with indigo and with chemical days contemporarily.  

With Katazome we will dye material for small bags and gifts for each other. I will have a variety of cotton and linen on hand and we can discuss what objects you would like to make. Unlike shibori,  the unavailability of materials, complex nature of the paste making and delicate dying skills needed you might not be able to repeat these katazome techniques without further study in your home countries.


Weaving on the spring tour of 2012 was not a big hit for first time weavers.  I set up two stripe warps on Japanese looms for the participants to weave. Hmmmm. Sure it is not that easy. This time I will try again but slightly simpler.  Any textile enthusiast should have some idea of what it like to weave. Period. Sorry about being a stick in the mud. If you make it all the way to this village you are going to have to weave at least 20 cm or you can’t go home.  

Indigo has been used in each culture throughout history and all over the planet to create check and stripe weaves. Even a few hours at a hand loom will make you appreciate the endless potential expressions and variety of textiles designed with a few simple blue shades contrasted with white using a simple warp and a weft.

 We will look at how indigo is used in Japanese weaving through samples and printed material.


Kumihimo is not necessarily part of the indigo world but what would a indigo bag be without a hand braided silk drawstring? Not much. The four bobbin technique is fast and enjoyable way to spend time before bedtime.


Japanese Textiles are fascinating in their precise structures and complicated techniques and aesthetic sophistication. There are hundreds of books on the subject and hundreds of samples of cloth at the farmhouse and the shops and museums we will visit. The recycling techniques of old rural Japan of sashiko, sakiori, (reinforced stitches and rag weave) are particularly interesting with the Zen Japanese aesthetic of refined poverty obvious in every stitch and shuttle pass.

I will do my best to email back and forth to  participants before your arrival in Japan so I can get an idea of who you are and what I can share with you to make your visit memorable and worthwhile.