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Natural Dye from Kyoto – Bringing a 1500-year-old ethical dyeing method to the modern age, Kyoto Kawabata Shoten

Natural Dye from Kyoto – Bringing a 1500-year-old ethical dyeing method to the modern age, Kyoto Kawabata Shoten

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IDEAS FOR GOOD is a web magazine with ideas for improving society. From cutting-edge technology with the potential to change the world, to compelling advertising and design, we bring you great ideas from around the world.

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IDEAS FOR GOOD is a web magazine with ideas for improving society. From cutting-edge technology with the potential to change the world, to compelling advertising and design, we bring you great ideas from around the world.

Interview by Mari Kozawa, February 2nd, 2021

 The fashion industry is said to be responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions generated by human activities and consume the second largest amount of water. In addition, incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse shed light on labor issues surrounding the world of fashion. 
 
 Due to this situation, a search for “ethical fashion” practices that can contribute to easing environmental and labor problems has been on the rise. In Japan, there is a traditional method that promotes ethics in fashion. Kusakizome which uses botanical and other natural dyes is a dyeing method that accords well with the traditional way of life in Japan in which harmony with both society and with nature has been valued. Kusakizome has been used in Japan from ancient times and has been a part of everyday life. 
 
 I went to a workshop run by Kyoto Kawabata Shoten, a company in Kyoto that has adopted a 1500-year-old kusakizome method in their production. I learned about the company there, and then interviewed the president, Yasuo Kawabata, on a project he worked on with students. 
 

Creating ethical products using the Shin-Manyozome method from 1500 years ago

 Kyoto Kawabata Shoten was first founded in 1924 as a kimono company. The company stopped dealing in kimonos in 1995, but the company continued textile printing using petroleum-based dyes which was still rare at the time. However, some employees suffered from skin problems caused by contact with chemical dyes or headaches caused by the smell of them. The first time the possibility of using natural dyes came to president Yasuo Kawabata’s mind was when he was talking with the employees and seeking a solution.

 Printing using petroleum-based dyes is a relatively easy and efficient method that didn’t require expert skills. On the other hand, it can have substantial negative effects on the environment and human health. 15 years ago, Mr. Kawabata took the plunge and started developing a type of kusakizome method with Mr. Mitsuo Kimura, who was professor emeritus of Mie University. The result was a dyeing method named “Shin-Manyozome” using natural raw materials such as plants and insects. For example, vivid dye colors are made using marigolds for yellow, cochineal for pink and logwood for light blue. Kyoto Kawabata Shoten sells shawls dyed with the Shin-Manyozome method. 

 The characteristic features of the Shin-Manyozome method are that it requires minimum time and dye, and that no heating is needed for dyeing. Developing the Shin-Manyozome method and shifting to kusakizome dye has had good results, including being able to dye wonderful hues that couldn’t be made using synthetic dyes. Plus, the way the air smells in the factory improved and the wastewater became easier on the environment because both the dyeing solution and the mordant solution are now able to be returned to nature.
 
Image by Kyoto Kawabata Shoten - From left to right: pagoda tree (off-white), marigold (yellow), Indian madder (madder),cochineal (pink), logwood (light blue)

The new yet ancient Shin-Manyozome became a key to solving wastewater problem

 Behind the development of the Shin-Manyozome was Mr. Kawabata’s interest in kusakizome dyeing which is said to have been brought to Japan more than 1500 years ago. At the same time, Dr. Kimura who co-developed the method was wondering “how textiles and fibers were dyed in the Nara period (710-784).” Dr. Kimura was interested in investigating how dyeing could be possible when there was no modern heating equipment, making it hard to bring the solution temperature to over 100ºC. (The name Shin-Manyozome literally means “the new manyo dye” after the name of a famous anthology of 7c and 8c poems called the Manyoshu)

 Also, environmental pollution was increasingly seen as a serious problem during the time Shin-Manyozome was being developed. At the time, Kyoto Kawabata Shoten was doing silkscreen printing, a printing method used to print patterns on textile, and was facing issues related to the disposal of the discarded ink and wastewater. Then, in order to solve the problems, the Shin-Manyozome method was applied to develop a new printing method called “e Print.” E Print does not use petroleum-based or synthetic dyes and instead uses only natural pigments to print on products like T-shirts. All ingredients, including the auxiliary materials, are made from natural ingredients so the wastewater can be returned to nature when it’s discharged. Finally, findings through developing e Print were then applied to improve the Shin-Manyozome method’s quality of color development and wastewater.
 
Photo by: Mari Kozawa

Passing on the rediscovered ethical dyeing method to the next generation

Photo by Yumi Komori
 In the autumn of 2020, Kyoto Kawabata Shoten took the initiative in a collaborative project with fashion schools in Kyoto and Osaka. Organically grown marigolds which were planned to be disposed of were harvested by students in accordance with the universal goals set in the SDGs: “Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns,” and “Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.” Then the marigolds were dried and made into a dye, and the students each created items using the marigold dye. The project involved the producers, sellers and young people together in creating links between traditional Japanese technology and ethical fashion.

The future apparel industry will value not only efficiency but also ethics

 After learning about the company, I interviewed Kyoto Kawabata Shoten’s president Mr. Yasuo Kawabata on the project he did with fashion schools.
Photo by Yumi Komori

Q. What led you to initiating this project?

 In 2019, a major typhoon ruined the marigolds that were waiting for harvest and we needed to take emergency measures to find means to secure the material. We contacted botanical gardens and parks in Osaka saying, “If you have any marigolds you plan to dispose of, please allow us to take them.” I also explained our motivation, saying that “We will reuse the waste for dyeing done by nature’s gifts.” Then, Osaka’s Expo’70 Commemorative Park gave us permission with a designated date for harvesting. After that, I consulted Marronnier College of Fashion Design and Ueda College of Fashion, and this project was launched.

 Recently, major apparel companies have started to state their support for ethical fashion and the SDGs, but I have been worried that there aren’t enough instructors that are capable of addressing these themes in schools. I expect that conventional apparel companies in Japan will see a great decline in their business. The Shin-Manyozome method is an innovative method that goes beyond conventional kusakizome. Upon planning the project, I also hoped to offer the students a chance to learn about this novel technology which Dr. Kimura invented using clues from ancient technology.
 

Q. How did you find working with students on the project? Did any thoughts come to your mind through communicating with them?

 The harvesting process with the students went very smoothly and quickly, and I think the branding went in a good direction, so I saw the potential for merchandising. Although it was our first try and didn’t end with actually producing merchandise in collaboration, I felt that it could serve as a model for cooperation between industry, government and academia for sustainable practices. It was an initiative that made me feel hope in that way.

 Also, I think I was able to spread the concept of environment-friendly production through this project. Whether it be the fashion industry or not, the students are sure to work in an environment where efficiency is constantly required. I think that, even amid that environment, there will soon be pioneers in the world of fashion that will opt for ethical production and skillfully practice it.
 

Author’s postscript

 Listening to the story behind developing the Shin-Manyozome method, Mr. Kawabata’s enthusiastic approach to finding solutions to his employees’ health concerns and wastewater issues, and his quest for an ethical dyeing method, left a lasting impression on me.

 I also thought that exploring and passing on traditional technologies that have been practiced since ancient times may be an approach that will be important when contemplating the future of ethical fashion. When we look back on history, we can see that we have always created items for our daily lives using materials that existed locally. Production within our living environment would have naturally made us establish relationships with others in our community and with the natural environment.

 The lack of relationships with others and nature in modern life due to the large-scale division of labor, caused by prioritizing efficiency, may be the background to various social issues that are recently surfacing. Because we don’t have a clear vision of the cycle of production and our relationship to that cycle, we unknowingly do harm to the environment and to workers.

 The concept of “ethics” in industry may sound like a whole new field, but in fact, coming to terms with cultural traditions that have been passed down for generations might be the first step to be taken. Like the proverb says, “He that would know what shall be must consider what has been,” it might be a good idea to turn to traditional, local expertise to find answers for encouraging a future of ethical production.

Reference (Japanese): 

Edited by Megumi Ito
 
About the author: Mari Kozawa
 Director of TSUNAGU. In 2018, Mari Kozawa joined the ethical fashion brand TSU.NA.GU. and has promoted the transparency of fashion through designing business models and prompting bilateral communication between the producers and the consumers. She also curates and runs projects related to Generation Z and promoting social good. 
 
 
 

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IDEAS FOR GOOD is a web magazine with ideas for improving society. From cutting-edge technology with the potential to change the world, to compelling advertising and design, we bring you great ideas from around the world.

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