True Blue - Indigo Dyeing at Atelier Courbet

All pictures by Peter Koloff

All pictures by Peter Koloff

When Melanie Courbet invited me to an Aizome (the Japanese term for indigo dyeing) workshop in her glorious downtown atelier, I could not resist.  Ran by Bouaisou, a Japanese company from Tokushima, Japan, that now has opened a branch in Brooklyn, the workshop was led by Master Indigo Dyer and Farmer, Kakuo Kaji

Kaji has learned from past generations the ins and outs of indigo leaf farming and is ready to teach me how to do my own leaf dyeing.  For a few minutes, Kaji makes me think of our own  stereotypes: I’m Latin, intense and loud - he is calm, quiet and patient like most Japanese are. Yet we get along wonderfully while he first shows me the actual dried leaves, then the massive ceramic urn where the leaves compost and ferment with ash lye, calcium hydroxide, and wheat bran.  His hands are completely blue, and he just tells me that it will take weeks for the color to disappear, but this man is so passionate about what he does, my intuition tells me that his hands will be stained forever.  

Highlights include the fact that the technique of Aizome has been around for over 700 years and little has changed since it was first used.   The garments dyed in this 100% natural mix turn into deep and luminous "Japan Blue," and they can immediately be washed with other white garments without staining anything else.  The whole thing defies logic and it seems miraculous.

Kaji, his companion and I decide to go with a napkin for a tie-dye pattern.  I wrap a cord around the piece of fabric and follow all the instructions - in matter of seconds I have turned an ordinary square of white textile into the coolest white-and-indigo piece.  

The complexities of indigo dyeing seem to escalate quickly after my napkin is done , the variations are apparently infinite and are applicable to a wide variety of materials.  Kaji shows me gorgeous coffee-mugs that have been delicately stained with the technique as well as a series of portraits that have been created using rice paste over a stencil that yields the most accurate rendition of the subject. There are home decor pieces, utilitarian pieces, art pieces, garment pieces -- all carefully and beautifully made using different procedures derived of the same technique.

Bouaisou has the mission to expand the Master Kakuo Kaji’s Aizome workshop from the farm where the Indigo plants are grown and the leaves are carefully selected and dried to Brooklyn where Indigo workshops will be offered to the local community. Atelier Courbet runs these workshops in its endeavor to share and promote a true appreciation for the craftsmanship, the legacy and philosophy it reflects.  In a world of instantaneous "nothingness" and the rush to get everything done technologically in the shortest period of time -preferably without human contact- I felt magically transported, grounded and reflective.  Completely worth the try.