Tie-Dye, From Stylish to Traditional
When Jared Leto donned a multicolor tie-dye sweater tracksuit by the Los Angeles-based brand SPRWMN (pronounced “superwoman”) for a stroll in New York last month, even he didn’t expect the vibrant pattern to turn so many heads.
The “House of Gucci” star “was certainly no wallflower,” shrieked the British newspaper Daily Mail.
Then, in an off-duty moment during New York Fashion Week, there was Bella Hadid in a red and yellow tie-dye tank top by Paloma Wool of Barcelona (“It’s so groovy and glam!,” gushed Seventeen). And when Hunter Schafer of “Euphoria” wore a tie-dye denim Rick Owens gown to Vanity Fair’s Oscar after-party earlier this year, StyleCaster dubbed it “one of the coolest dresses” on the red carpet.
Despite its currency, tie-dyeing is a traditional craft, stretching across cultures and civilizations including first century A.D. Peru and fifth century A.D. China. And the basic process — tying, folding or clamping cloth that then is dipped into dye, creating patterns — has remained largely the same, Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, wrote in a message.
When the look resurfaced in the West’s mainstream fashion scene in the late 1960s, the unique results — the pattern changes on every piece — matched the sensibilities of the day and tie-dye “became part of the countercultural style both in clothing and also interiors,” rejecting the mass market for the individual, Mr. Nothdruft wrote.
Now some young designers — like Conner Ives, a New Yorker based in London — have made tie-dye fashionable again. He said he had been tie-dyeing pieces for an Americana look since his second collection in 2017, this season using rubber bands to create a bull's-eye and other circular patterns on a cream and brown dress and handbag made of deadstock synthetic suede. “I spent so many summers when I was a kid, kind of, doing T-shirts and things like that with my friends,” he said, so tie-dyeing felt “like a natural next step.”
“It’s a very, kind of, hand-influenced process. you know,” he said. “The way that you tie it, the way that you finish it, you know, whatever treatments you do on it, will give it almost like a unique fingerprint every time.” So although he plans to produce several dresses and bags, there is “this nuance that every one is technically unique,” he said.
Here, a look at a couple of variations of the technique: adire, in Nigeria, and shibori, in Japan.
The Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria call tie-dye adire — from “adi” meaning tie and “are” meaning dye. Traditionally, the process applied blue indigo dye to white cloth, and while that remains popular, colors from orange to pink are available now.
Oyenike Monica Davies-Okundaye, 71, chief executive of the Nike Art Gallery in Lagos, has been dyeing, stitching and painting adire textiles throughout her life, and traces her adire lineage back five generations.
Her designs, priced from 10,000 Nigerian naira (about $23) per yard for cotton adire to 50,000 naira per yard for silk adire, feature images of local life, such as a drummer with a dancer and farmers carrying water and wood to cook. Chief Davies-Okundaye, who holds the title of chief through her family history with the Yoruba town of Ogidi in Nigeria’s Koji State, said she always was careful to place the patterns so they would be visible when the fabric was turned into a garment.
The chief still makes her own indigo and other dyes. Cocoa pods are burned and then water is poured through the ashes, as a kind of filter, into a pot filled with indigo leaves. The mixture is left to heat in the sun for seven days. “When the indigo ferments inside the pot, every day you would be stirring it for half an hour” to speed the process, she said in a video interview, “and to know whether it is working as sometimes the alkaline in the water may not work well” with the indigo.
“After seven days the indigo will now come up in the pot” — the dye, which has turned blue, rises to top — “then you know it is ready to take the fabric,” she said.
Colors come from different natural products, like yellow from sunflowers, dark brown from tobacco leaves and orange from mushrooms, using the same process as indigo. The chief also boils parts of camwood bark in water for a neutral color, which she then applies to fabric with a foam rubber sponge.
In charcoal, “I sketch the people on the dress and I use foam rubber to outline all the figures out and then I wax where I want the white patch to be,” she said — the foam rubber refers to a kind of stencil she makes to help outline and duplicate designs. The chief was speaking from the craft shop inside her four-level gallery in the upscale neighborhood of Ikate where she sells her fabrics as well as adire pieces like boubous (caftans), dashikis (tops), shirts and jackets. She has three other art galleries around Nigeria, including one in the capital, Abuja, all of which sell work by local artists as well as her own.
Painting fabrics with wax or a paste of cassava root — to create the areas that will be protected from the dye — is the toughest part of the process. “When you are painting it takes longer to dry and for you to paint one symbol, it’s taking you more than one hour,” she said.
She has developed some techniques of her own, like the foam rubber stencils. And using dots of beeswax rather than cassava paste on fabrics. “I discovered that one with accident,” Chief Davies-Okundaye said, recalling a visit to Ogidi, in central Nigeria. “I was using the candle wax in my village when there was no electricity in my village, then a little bit of the wax dropped onto the fabric.”
Other adire makers are also updating the traditions. In Accra in Ghana, Esther Amate, 64, chief executive of Exmac Fabrics, and her employees experiment with tie dye every two to four months.
For example, Ms. Amate has devised a kind of tie-dye and batik mash-up on the same fabric. “First, I stamp the fabric with wax” using a sponge and then dye the fabric, she said. “Then I dry it and put it in the wax again. Then I tie it and dye it again.” The last step is removing the wax from the fabric, revealing the full pattern.
For Adebayo Oke-Lawal, creative director of the clothing brand Orange Culture in Lagos, who has been using adire fabrics since his first collection for the brand in 2011, it has been getting easier to obtain adire fabrics as there now are more collectives of women creating the fabrics at home. So adire is “becoming a lucrative technique in itself where people are seeing it as a viable business opportunity as well as a way to keep the culture and the richness of our traditional fabrics,” Mr. Oke-Lawal said.
Chief Davies-Okundaye noted that training to make adire used to be secret, “passed from one family generation to another.” Now, however, spaces like hers are offering courses; she intends to offer online workshops next year; and she has revived plans to build a textile museum on her land in Abuja in the next two years (something she first wanted to do in 2002 but plans did not come together.)
“I have enough fabric to start with,” she said. “All I need to do is just to build it and make sure that I have the staff for this textile museum.”
Hiroyuki Murase, chief executive and creative director of the fashion and interiors company Suzusan, also is a fifth generation artisan, taught shibori by his father.
The word comes from the verb “shiboru,” which in Japanese means to wring, press or squeeze. And, Mr. Murase said, there are three main steps to the process: tying, stitching and pressing.
According to the World Shibori Network Foundation, founded by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, a shibori textile artist based in California, shibori is characterized by its three-dimensional forms as the fabric can be stitched and gathered, pleated and bound, or folded and pressed between two wooden blocks or more, before being tied and then immersed in dye.
It is this variety that distinguishes shibori, Mr. Murase said, noting that Japanese practitioners have developed more than 200 techniques since the process was used there more than 400 years ago, while other tie-dye cultures have what he called “only one or two different techniques.” (Chief Davies-Okundaye said there were more than 10 adire techniques.)
A pullover in Suzusan’s spring 2023 collection, for example, includes five stitch and tie techniques to create the shapes of flowers, stems and leaves.
Shibori differs from adire as “the fabric is heated in a big pressure cooker with heat and steam. That’s why it keeps its shape,” Mr. Murase said.
“The fabric is usually plain and then you tie it all by hand” with cotton thread, he said of one technique called Tegumo Shibori. Then the fabric and dye, which he buys from suppliers, are heated to 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees Fahrenheit) because “for the color to be fixed, you need heat,” he said.
“After dyeing,” he continued, “you pull the thread off,” and can see the color contrasts.
Mr. Murase, 40, divides his time between Düsseldorf, Germany, where the business has design and marketing operations, and his home and studio in Arimatsu, near Nagoya, which handles production and local distribution.
Initially deciding he would not follow his father’s footsteps into shibori, Mr. Murase began studying art in Britain and then at the Kunstakademie, in Düsseldorf, from 2004 to 2011.
But early in his studies he went to an exhibition of his father’s work in the northern English town of Harrogate and realized that other visitors “didn’t know about shibori at all,” he said. So in 2008, while still a student, Mr. Murase and Christian Dietsch co-founded Suzusan; Mr. Dietsch left the business in 2020.
“It’s a beautiful, new textile for European people,” Mr. Murase said on a video call from a showroom in Paris, where he was presenting his spring 2023 collection to retailers.
Mr. Murase uses shibori techniques on Western styles from cardigans to cushions, using unusual fabrics like cashmere and, this fall season, wool houndstooth check for a jacket and pants. But the fabrics and modern designs he uses can sometimes complicate shibori. Take this fall season’s navy cashmere sweater with “Love” written in light gray shibori-designed words ($980). “The stitching on soft fabric is so difficult because it can be damaged,” he said. And the gathered fabric needed to be tied tightly, “otherwise the dyed color will come in to where it’s folded” and you won’t see the pattern, he said.
Yet there is little wonder that shibori is still attracting people like Ana Lisa Hedstom, a Los Angeles-based textile artist who is known to use pomegranate and tea to over dye the indigo on her woolen wall hangings, and Masayuki Ino of Doublet, the 2018 LVMH Prize winner, whose shibori tying techniques are producing spiky denim jackets, hoodies and more this season.
For Mr. Murase, shibori’s appeal lies in the technique’s unpredictability. “You always have to wait until you see the result,” he said. “So every single process takes time and after dyeing and you pull then thread off, then you see the result.”
“It’s always trial and error.”