From the Archive: Kanthas
A studio visit at Kanai Mudding Works.
For a few years now we’ve been carrying these beautiful Japanese hand dyed kantha blankets in our Commune Shop. Some are indigo, some are dyed in a traditional red wood dye called sharimbai and some are a beautiful shade of black that’s achieved by dipping the fabric repeatedly in indigo, sharimbai and finally in mud.
The blankets are made by Yuki Kanai at his dye house in Amami Oshima. Kanai Mudding Works was started by Yuki’s dad about 50 years ago mainly as a dying facility for traditional kimono silk specializing in deep blacks. Shin Nakahara, who owns Landscape Products and introduced us to Yuki’s work, had been wanting to take me to Amami forever, so this past August we finally made it there and I got a chance to meet Yuki.
Amami is like being in a Hawaiian island but Japanese. It’s tropical and luscious, and the beaches are seriously beautiful. Before heading over to Yuki’s, Shin said I should bring a white shirt. I’ve learned to always do what Shin says, without question, so I did.
Kanai Mudding Works is in a small tropical valley. There is a beautiful little showroom where Yuki shows their product and the dye house in a simple open-air structure. There were about 10 dyers working, all young, all attractive and all with blue hands and huge smiles on their faces. He showed me around and as we were leaving I told him I had brought a shirt for them to dye for me. He smiled and said, “You dye it.” The visit turned into a 7-hour lesson in the art of traditional Japanese dorozone mud dying.
He had me put on rubber boots and long gloves and a pretty fetching yakata and we started with the indigo portion of the process, Kazuko, one of his workers who spoke a bit more English helped to walk me through it. You wash the shirt in cold water and you take it to a vat of indigo dye where you dip, swirl, pull it out, wring it and shake it to air it out, nine or ten times. Then you wash it again in cold water and take a look at the color…he had me go back and go through the process a couple of more times to get a super deep indigo blue.
Then we went into the sharimbai section of the dye house. To get the red dye, they chop the wood and put it in a giant cage that gets placed in a vat of water where it cooks for days until it ferments and they get a reddish soup that becomes the base for the mud dying. We then took the tannic water and placed it in big stainless bowls where we dipped, swirled and wrung the shirt a bunch of times, I don’t remember but it was many, like 30. The shirt started to turn a deep brownish grey color. When it looked right to him he had me add lime to it which neutralizes the acidity and balances the ph to then proceed and do the mud dying.
I added rubber waders, a rubber apron and a big straw hat to my costume and we headed out to the mud pit. It was about 90 degrees and humid as I stepped into the mud. The dorozone mud dying process is the same as the indigo and sharimbai: dip, swirl, wring, shake, repeat…but this time you are squatting in a mud hole, it’s grueling. The ferric oxide in the mud reacts with the sharimbai, and that’s how you get the blacks. I was told that in order to get the deep black I wanted I would need to repeat the cycle for about 20 minutes. I wimped out after about 7 minutes. It was too hot, too uncomfortable in the costume and my back was killing me. I don't know how they do it and seem so happy all the time.
My shirt is a beautiful warm bluish/charcoal color, nowhere close to black, and it literally took all day to die. I always loved the craft from afar, but now that love has turned into amazement and total bow-down respect. Our blankets are more than beautiful, they are treasures…from another time and another place.
Text by Roman Alonso