As a child in Japan, I was surprised, when my mother undressed, to see bright red under her kimono as she removed her layers of kimono and sashes. Later I learned that while shades of passionate red are commonly used to decorate young women in the blush of youth, after marriage, reds appear only in undergarments, where they keep hidden their zest for life.
In ancient times, various shades of red were specifically named and featured prominently in Japanese textiles and ornaments. For example, Kurenai (Castilian red), Shinku (orange red) and Enji (deep carmine) were achieved through the use of sappan wood or Brazil wood (Caesalpinia Sappan L), Asian madder (Rubia akane), and the flower ‘benibana’ (Carthamus tinctorius). In fact, one definition of the word iro (colour) is ‘a palette containing red’.
Since the Heian period (794-1185) fabrics dyed with safflower red have been worn close to the skin to evoke physical healing power. Safflower petals, plucked at just the right moment, are fermented, made into a patty called benimochi, and processed into a vibrant rouge used by courtiers and courtesans to colour lips and as an accent at the outer corner of the eyes. This precious dye was laborious, thus costly to extract. By its weight, it was as expensive as gold. Beni red symbolises style, passion, femininity, and wealth.
Safflower petals yield a range of colour from burning sun red on silk to neon pink on ramie but the dye fades over time, which adds another layer of cultural meaning to the Japanese aesthetic of ephemerality. The most elaborate examples are seen in the Kasane; a garment comprised of a set of two to three layers worn together. While the outer layer may be restrained in pattern and colour, the inside layer has an upper part patterned in a bright red and white design often dyed with beni-itajime shibori (carved board clamp-resist dyeing with red).
Chemical dyes were introduced in the late 1800s along with other technologies from the West. Synthetic dyes were developed that were easy to use, colourfast and less expensive. Artisans stopped using natural dyes, except for indigo. Japan’s rich history in fibre arts, kimono culture in general, and beni, in particular, were threatened. In an effort to keep this precious dye from becoming a cultural relic, Dr. Kazuki Yamazaki, an authority on natural dyeing, has developed educational textile arts programs at the Tohoku University of Art and Design (TUAD) in Yamagata.
This field-to-studio, seed-to-silk approach connects students with process, environment, and community practice. The culmination of the course is in January when students soak the petals for several hours in cold, clean water to keep the natural dye pure as they perform a series of extractions. The first yields yellow, the next orange, then red and finally, shocking pink.