Yūzen (友禅, simplified in this article as yuzen) is a traditional Japanese dyeing technique widely used to make kimono fabric. Yuzen dyeing is obtained by applying rice starch paste to portions of the fabric, preventing them from absorbing pigment when color is applied. The process results in "blank zones" that will preserve the pre-existing color on such portions.
The three main schools of yuzen are the Kyō yuzen (from Kyoto), the Kaga yuzen, and the Tokyo yuzen. The differences are not as much in techniques as in colors and themes.
Each school includes specific styles and variations, such as Itome yūzen within the Kyō yuzen school.
Yuzen is one of the four main Japanese dyeing techniques, the other three being Rōketsuzome, Katazome, and Tsutsugaki.
Although the technique is traditionally applied to silk to make kimono, it may be used to color a wide range of fabrics, including leather.
An authentic hand-made yuzen fabric requires long times to be made, ranging from a few days to several months, depending on the techniques used and the complexity of the design. The time is equally dedicated to planning, color preparation, drawing and of course dyeing.
The manufacture process can be roughly divided in six main stages:
- drawing of the pattern on paper
- painting of the main outlines on white fabric, using an ink made from the blue petals of a specific type of flower (Ooboshibana)
- application of starch to the areas that won't be colored in the coloring stage.
- application of color to the desired, non-starched areas.
Depending on the design, starching and coloring stages (as well as the following water-washing and steaming) are repeated several times, usually resulting in a total of more than 10 steps for a single roll of kimono fabric.
In some cases, gold leaves or other special colors and materials are applied.
Smaller manufacturers and family businesses often rely on very few people for all stages, and it is not rare to find brands that are entirely curated by a single artisan, such as the Somea brand by Ikeuchi Yūzen that you find on KiGinKin. This ensures high levels of consistency and original styles, while also raising the value of the fabric due to its limited production and its uniqueness.
Larger manufacturers usually employ specialized artisans for each step of manufacture. This results in more elaborate designs made in relatively short times, while limiting the artisans' creativity and resulting in a more classic feel.
Each approach has its peculiarities, and does not affect the authenticity or cultural relevance of the yuzen traditions.
A separate mention should be made of Suminagashi yuzen (墨流し友禅), Itome yuzen (糸目友禅) and Bassen (抜染, bleaching.）
The creation of the yuzen technique is traditionally attributed to Yūzensai Miyazaki, from which its name derives. However, at a more accurate study of documents from Miyazaki's era (around 1700 a.D.), experts concluded that it is not sure whether he actively participated to the creation, development or improvement of the yuzen dyeing techniques we know today.
Despite the fact that yuzen is an officially recognized technique, regulations as to the use of the word are oddly loose. This allows manufacturers of cheaper, printed fabrics to adopt the name when marketing their products, even in those cases when they simply represent patterns and paintings inspired by fabrics made using such technique.
The lack of regulations gives access to a number of cheap, non-authentic kimonos into the market, including imitations from outside Japan.
Did you know?
Whenever you see a relatively cheap product for which the word ""yuzen"" is adopted, it is highly recommended that you ensure you are looking at an authentic yuzen piece of cloth or good, by asking the retailer or manufacturer. Basic questions relate to:
- place of origin (it should be designed AND made in Japan)
- whether the good was dyed or printed (an authentic piece is hand-dyed and usually hand-painted. In some cases, such as with Suminagashi yuzen and bassen, only dyeing is applied, but they are no less authentic than other yuzen fabrics.)
- material (natural fabrics, usually silk, cotton, hemp, or leather.)
In some cases, other factors may lower the price of an authentic yuzen piece of cloth, such as trends or themes that are unusual in Japan. If the product satisfies the 3 requirements mentioned, you may safely consider it authentic.