Japan’s oldest Aizome (indigo dyeing) technique, the Shoai Hiyashi Zome, dates back to the Heian period, and was carried on by the Chiba family residing in Kurihara, Miyagi. Fashion Headline visited Matsue Chiba, the successor of the Shoai Hiyashi Zome dyeing technique, and learnt about how she spends the four seasons as a producer of Aizome.

Chiba lives in the mountainous region of Kurihara city, with a stunning view of the Mount Kurikoma. The Nihasama River runs along her house, providing the water used to perform the dyeing process. Chiba plants seeds each year and waits for nearly a year for the leaves of the Japanese indigo plants to grow so that they can be used to create the dyes. By heating the vat for storing the leaves, the indigo dyes can be created throughout the year, but Chiba chooses to take the traditional approach of not using heat. Even when it comes to the fermentation of the indigo, Chiba relies on the temperatures the natural weather and seasons provide. So, the only times the dyes can be created are for one month each year, from the end of May to the end of June.

■ Spring and summer spent with Aizome

After the long winter in Tohoku ends, Chiba plants the seeds of the indigo plant in April. In June, she replants the indigo plants that have grown to the size of the palm of a hand. In August and September, with the help of family and friends, Chiba harvests the leaves of the plants over a span of time. The gathered leaves are dried under the sun and then kneaded over a straw mat named Mushiro. After the kneading process, the leaves are left to dry even more.

Chiba continues to cherish the words of her grandmother-in-law Ayano Chiba, who founded Shoai Hiyashi Zome. This summer, a part of Chiba’s field was ruined due to a landslide. Many of the indigo plant leaves were covered with soil because of this, but Chiba remembered her grandmother’s words saying “that leaves that have dirt on them should not be used in the dyeing process”. So Chiba only used the leaves that were not affected by the landslide, even if that meant less production of the indigo dye.

■ Fall and winter spent with Aizome

During the fall, the dried indigo leaves are stored in the attic, and the Chiba family focuses on harvesting the rice grown in their fields. In the winter, in January, the leaves stored in the attic are taken out and rinsed with cold water. Once the leaves are washed, they are placed between straw and the Mushiro mat and left to ferment.

The fermentation process carries into April, and by that time, the leaves turn into a clay-like texture called Sukumo. The Sukumo along with leftover stems is ground into paste using a mallet and then rolled into balls called Aidama.

Spending an entire year from the planting of the seeds to the creation of the Aidama, the main ingredient for Shoai Hiyashi Zome is finally ready for use.

Find out more in Part 2.