Yuzen (友禅)

Yuzen is a technique to dye cloth with patterns on it.

A hand-drawn dyeing using a resisting agent made from starch (rice) was originally called yuzen, but now clothes dyed with models or printed with a pattern modeling yuzen are often sold under the name of yuzen. It is the most representative dyeing technique in Japan.

The name was allegedly taken after Yuzensai MIYAZAKI, a painter of folding fans in the Edo period who was the founder. He brought the technique of Kyo-Yuzen that he started into Kanazawa, the castle town of Kaga Domain (present Ishikawa Prefecture), and the technique was developed into a unique style, which is called Kaga-Yuzen.

In Meiji Period, Jisuke HIROSE invented 'Katagami Yuzen' (Yuzen-style printed silk using cutting paper patterns) employing a printing technique, which broadened the popularity of yuzen.

Yuzen is characterized by drawing patterns of rounded and simplified animals, plants, utensils, and landscapes, which are called 'yuzen pattern,' using as many colors on a single plane of a cloth as never seen in any dyeing techniques in the world. Because the inventor was a painter, seitai (a blue pigment used for Japanese painting) and hikari-beni, also referred to as tsuya-beni (a red pigment made from safflowers), used for Japanese painting were used to color the patterns. Due to the development of a chemical dye found in 1856, the coloring of the patterns were developed into numerous variations. It generally decorates costumes sufficiently on its own, but sometimes it is combined with a tie-dyeing technique using a pattern of tiny rings, embroidery, and kinsai (gold dyeing) for especially gorgeous costumes such as furisode (a long sleeved type of kimono).

Techniques of yuzen

The authentic hand-drawn yuzen, which is also referred to as 'Hon-Yuzen,' is produced through many steps, and there are cases where an artist creates an original yuzen, and where it is produced by artisans based on the division of labor.

In the case of the division of labor, first a dyeing artisan draws a preliminary sketch with reference to a huge amount of design samples stored in the workshop. At this time, pigments extracted from petals of oboshi-bana flower, or big cap flower, which is highly soluble in water, is used as ink for the preliminary sketch so as not to effect the finish.

Next, contours are precisely drawn with the resisting agent such as rice glue or rubber glue over the drawn preliminary sketch. Drawing a line with a constant thickness with a brass tip attached to a paper cylinder treated with astringent persimmon juice requires great skill. The line is referred to as 'itome,' and it leaves a white line along the itome in the contours of the pattern when the cloth is dyed, which is the most typical feature of yuzen.

Applying a dye to the pattern finished with the contours using a brush is a step called 'irosashi' (literally 'applying color'). Although chemical dyes are used these days, natural dyes including plant-derived dyes such as indigo, safflower, suo (dark red), akane (madder), shikon (lithospermum root used for purple color), and kariyasu (Miscanthus tinctorius), and animal dyes such as enji mushi (cochineal) were used in the past. Most colors are applied in this step. Once a color is applied, the next color cannot be applied until the previously used dye dries to prevent the colors from running.

After the 'irosashi,' there is another step called 'mushi' (literally 'steaming'). The dyes are fixed to the cloth by applying steam of 80 ℃ or higher for 20 to 40 minutes.

The process moves to 'jizome' (literally 'base dyeing') to dye the whole cloth with the base color. After carefully covering the entire pattern with the same resisting agent as used on the contours ('fusenori'), the cloth is dyed with the base color. To dye the cloth so that the base color is precisely the same shade between connecting pieces when sewn into a kimono, jizome is performed by a skilled dyeing artisan.

To use a dye produced by fermenting a raw material such as indigo, the dyeing process must be performed in a hot and humid environment so as to activate the enzyme, so the work is generally done in the summer.

The famous 'Yuzen Nagashi' is the process of removing glues and extra dyes in a clean river. Unlike the steps of dyeing, it is generally performed in cold winter, and the cloth is often washed in melted snow water in Kanazawa located in a snowy area. The scene of colorful clothes swimming in the river is so beautiful as to become a key element of sightseeing. However, due to the water pollution and the like, it is now performed in artificial rivers (facilities) of professional corporations in most cases.

It was said in the past that grading colors from the contours of a flower or a leaf to the center was Kaga style and that the opposite type was Kyoto style, but now there is no clear rule except characterization is made with respect to each production area or each production company for differentiation of the patterns.

The pattern dyeing and the base dyeing may be repeated several times depending on the design, and sometimes minute sections such as the center of a flower, the eye of an animal, a pattern of wings of a bird or an antenna of an insect may be finished with black ink or pigments and additionally decorated with kindei (gold paint), foil, or embroidery at the end.

Yuzen is finished with so many steps as described above, though simply summarized.

Even the yuzen dyeing with patterns capable of producing a certain amount requires time and effort to use many pattern papers for each color to be used. A complicated pattern of yuzen dyeing with models may require tens of the pattern papers.

In Japan, a finished kimono was regarded as a kind of property taken over from a mother to a daughter. Even in the present day, in part of Kyoto there remains a custom that a bride exhibits her kimonos brought as bride's household articles to her neighbors at the time of marriage.

Difference between Kyo-Yuzen and Kaga-Yuzen

Each of the yuzen-zome nurtured by two of the representative cultural cities in Japan acquired a unique expression adapted to the climate over a long time.

Now there is communication between them, and the difference is becoming smaller.

Yuzen in Kyoto is fond of soft colors, and it is elegant and gorgeous paying attention to coloration while using so many colors as to make it difficult to determine what color is the basic tone. Kaga-Yuzen also uses many colors, but it is graceful and glamorous based on Kaga-gosai (five colors of Kaga: crimson, yellow ocher, ancient purple, grass green, and indigo), especially deep and luxurious tones such as crimson, purple, and green.

Highly formalized patterns such as yusoku-moyo (patterns used by scholars in Heian Period) and rinpa-moyo (patterns created by a group of Korin OGATA) are popular. Decorations effectively utilizing embroidery and gold foil are actively employed. A true-to-life expression represented by the famous 'bug-eaten' is also popular. A combination with other techniques is hardly seen.

Yuzen and dyeing in Japan

Yuzensai MIYAZAKI, the folding fan painter from Kyoto, invented the coloring method of the colorful yuzen-zome, but the resisting technique using resist paste was already completed at the time.

Chaya-zome and tsutsugaki use techniques similar to yuzen.

Chaya-zome was dyed for summer costumes for high-ranked women living in O-oku (the inner halls of Edo Castle where the wife of the Shogun and her servants reside). Paste was applied to both sides of a luxurious choma cloth (a grass cloth) to dye it with indigo leaving white patterns, and, though it was beautiful and delicate, the number of available colors was limited.

Tsutsugaki was widely used for dyed goods for ordinary people, which is still seen in noren (a short, split curtain hung at the entrance of a room), happi coats (a workman's livery coat), and furoshiki (wrapping cloth). It is a technique of applying paste in a cylinder only on the top surface of a cotton cloth to leave a pattern in white, which presents a bold and earthy taste.

In addition to the above, as a resist dyeing using a model like 'kata-yuzen,' bingata-zome emerged in the Ryukyu Kingdom is well known. It is a dyeing technique of drawing a colorful pattern with multiple colors such as yellow, red, and green using a single pattern paper by an advanced technique of dyeing with patterns, and it became so popular in the mainland that it was used to make pouches and the like. Originally, patterns of Ryukyuan native plants and Chinese patterns were mainly used, but bingata taking in the yuzen patterns increased as the export to the mainland increased, and yuzen also took in the vivid colors used in bingata. Today, there are many bingata works that are difficult to distinguish from yuzen dyeing with patterns.

A technique of Edo-komon (fine patterns used in Edo) applied with the technique of 'kata-yuzen' to project a unique taste is Kyo-komon (fine patterns used in Kyoto). Unlike Edo-komon with a simple and stylish impression using fine geometrical patterns preferred by samurai, the feature of Kyo-komon is a colorful and free impression based on the yuzen patterns.

There is 'kakiage-yuzen,' which is a dyeing technique of drawing a pattern directly on a white cloth with a brush without using the resisting technique. It is a highly-skilled technique requiring quick brush strokes because running of colors is inevitable as the resisting process is not performed.

The pattern must be simpler compared with common yuzen dyeing, but excellent works often use a free and bold composition.

As well as the individual skill of the artist, a strong and free spiritual nature for 'painting off' in a breath without regard to details based on an absolute total composition is required more.

It is said that only a few of dyers today can use this technique.


A traditional handcraft produced in Tokyo. It is also referred to as Tokyo hand-drawn yuzen and Edo-yuzen. Tokyo-yuzen is characterized by an urban chic style in subdued and soft shades against a background of the townsmen culture in Edo.