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Denim 101: Decoding Shibori Dyeing as Demand for the Technique Ramps Up

Designer jeans, casual chic, short pants—fashion is full of oxymorons.

And the conundrums even extend to what goes into design, too. Ralph Lauren, Levi’s and Gap are among the contemporary brands using the ancient dye technique, shibori, to give their clothing a modern, innovative aesthetic.

Though the artisan practice is being used to create fresh designs, it’s certainly not novel.

Shibori is an ancient Japanese handwork resist-dyeing technique that dates back to the 8th century. The technique harkens back to a time when fast fashion was unheard of, and slow, intricate handwork was the prevailing method of adding color to fabric. Shibori’s appeal has seemingly ramped up in recent years.

“Shibori has been recirculating as a trend for the past few years as people get much more into natural dyeing,” said Katie Tague, creative director of New Jersey-based BPD Washhouse.

“Everyone’s having a much bigger appreciation for artisanship. Right now, most of the brands that we work with do some kind of shibori and tie-dying in their lines regularly. Companies like Phillip Lim, Helmut Lang, Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren are all interested in working on these kinds of developments.”

Shibori delivers an instant artisanal look and feel to fabrics. It’s a fabric manipulation technique traditionally done with indigo, during which fabric is either plucked, stitched, folded, twisted, crumpled or plaited by hand before the dyeing process begins.

Once dye is applied to the cloth, the parts that are secured by gathers or compressed, resist the dye, transforming the fabric from two-dimensional into three-dimensional form, creating soft- or blurred-edge patterns.

The shibori dyeing method works in tandem with the fabric, giving it liberty to shape into its natural form as it reacts to the dye. This creates unique, one-of-a-kind patterns, because no matter how exact the method, no two will ever create the same design.

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There are six major shibori techniques, Tague reported, each with its own set of steps to create its own patterns and texture once the dye is added.

For arashi shibori, cloth is wounded diagonally around a wooden pole and scrunched together with thread. As arashi is the Japanese word for “storm,” the patterns formed from this technique resemble heavy rain.

Nui shibori is a stitch-resist method, where the cloth is hand stitched and thread is pulled tight to gather the fabric. Wooden dowels are then used to pull the thread tightly to secure it in place during dyeing. For kanoko shibori, which is very similar to the more modern tie-dye techniques, fabric is bound and secured with thread, creating circular shapes. Itajime shibori involves folding the cloth in a series of folds, with different tensions, and sandwiching it between two pieces of wood. Miura shibori uses a hook needle to pluck sections of fabric, then thread is looped around each section twice, creating a water-ripple effect.

Lastly, kumo shibori involves pleating the cloth and then binding it in even sections, resulting in a spider web-inspired design.

BPD Washhouse is helping to ensure that the technique lives on. The washhouse offers shibori classes, during which participants get hands-on training on all the major shibori techniques.

“Shibori will always have a place in the history of fashion,” Tague continued. “It is one of those artisan techniques that has a unique and valuable history.”