When I was a kid, winter used to be a special time. It was when my siblings and I could wear personalized sweaters and accessories that were knitted by our mother and grandmother. Partly because of this, I developed an appreciation for handwoven fabrics, organic cotton, and natural dyes that not only contribute towards sustainable fashion but also have a deep personal connection to tradition and community.
Handcrafted textiles, strong cultural heritage, and a love for traditional clothing — I have realized that these are a few of the many similarities that my home country of India shares with Japan.
That’s why I was more than thrilled when Tokyo Survival Channel invited me to participate in a natural dyeing workshop with Maito Design Works and challenged me to try the traditional dyeing technique at home.
About Maito Design Works
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Before I begin sharing my experience with natural dyeing, let’s get to know a little bit about Maito Design Works, named after the company’s founder Maito Komuro.
Natural dyeing, nature, and ‘itohen’ (textile industry) are very close to Maito’s heart, which is why he started his brand “MAITO” — to bring to life his passion for traditional techniques and organic fabrics, and share these creations with fashion enthusiasts who appreciate living a sustainable lifestyle.
Maito’s first experiences were at his family’s natural dyeing studio (Koubou Yumezaiku), and today he still implements the same values in his creations that are made with the support of skilled craftsmen from all across Japan.
Apart from designing one-of-a-kind fashion accessories and apparel, Maito also conducts natural dyeing workshops for those who wish to learn the art of dyeing fabrics using elements from nature.
Learning Japanese Dyeing Techniques with Maito Komuro
Maito’s namesake atelier shop, located to the east of Ueno Station in Kuramae, is where all the magic happened. The store entrance radiated an earthy, appeasing vibe that made me feel more confident about all that I was about to experience in the next couple of hours.
While I had heard and read a lot about natural dyeing in India, this was my first time experiencing the whole process in person.
After the initial introduction about his brand and line of work, it was quite evident that Maito is very passionate about natural fabrics and dyes. Honestly, in today’s fast-fashion world, it’s refreshing to see a designer who is zealous about keeping old traditions alive and collaborating with local craftsmen to promote ethical consumerism.
Before we began with the natural dyeing process, we got a chance to go through the store and learn about his creations. I was more curious about the sourcing of the fabrics as I was in awe of their soft texture and wondered if they were ethically produced as well. That’s when Maito explained that he tries his best to source all the organic raw material and textiles from local craftsmen who follow sustainable manufacturing practices.
Then, we learned about the natural dyes that are derived from various elements of nature. It’s fascinating to know that there are so many colors that you can get from nature in such variations that look and feel far better than industrial-dyed fabrics. Also, using natural dyes is one of the simplest ways to contribute to nature as doing so helps save the environment from hazardous synthetic dyes.
And, as I absolutely love cherry blossom season in Japan, I was so delighted to find that Maito preserves sakura flowers by using them to dye his creations, letting you enjoy the beauty of the season throughout the year (like the scarf above).
Maito also sources dyes from plants like betel nuts, pomegranates, onios, chestnuts, and the famous Japanese indigo plant.
So, now it was time to see how these naturally derived dyes interact with fabric. And Maito very kindly agreed to give us a peek at his studio where all the action happens.
It seemed like I was back in school watching my teacher perform a science experiment as I took notes for my homework challenge.
What we saw first were two large drums filled with a dark-colored liquid that smelled interesting (we learned later that it was the bacteria doing its job). Maito explained that it was an alkaline mixture that’s usually kept for two weeks to make the bacteria stronger, by serving it sake and sugar (lucky bacteria, no?).
- Starting with the dyeing process, Maito first mixed about 15 grams of aluminum mordant (a dye fixative) with roughly 3 liters of hot water in a dye tub. The dye tub was then placed over heat (at a temperature of about 70–80°C).
- Once the aluminum solution achieved the desired temperature, he dipped a white piece of fabric in the solution for about 10 minutes. After that, the fabric was washed in clean water 2 or 3 times.
- Then, Maito mixed beautiful dried flowers with water and simmered them for around 20–30 minutes.
- After that, he strained the colored solution in a separate dye tub.
- Now, it was time to see how the dye worked on the prepared fabric. Maito decided to do a gradation for this scarf by dipping the fabric from one end in the colored solution and gradually pulling out a little fabric every few minutes to achieve an ombré effect.This is how the fabric looked after the first dip dye process. But Maito wasn’t done yet. He decided to add another color to the other half of the fabric to give it a vibrant look.
- In the next step, he took a little dried sunflower powder in a dye tub and mixed it with already boiled water until a lovely color was achieved. He didn’t follow the simmering process as the color was already extracted from the flowers in powder form, so it could be directly mixed with water.
- Again, he followed the dip dye method to achieve the gradation on the other half of the fabric.
And here are the results of the entire dyeing process.
Doesn’t it look stunning? I couldn’t believe it came out so beautifully, and it reminded me of the dupattas we have back in India that use a similar dyeing process.
I truly thought this scarf looked and felt much better than the scarves I had seen (and even purchased at times) from high street fashion brands that use synthetic dyes.
The whole dyeing process and learning about the brand’s essence made me think about sustainable fashion in a whole new light. It’s not that I have never had the chance to buy naturally dyed fabrics, but it has always been easier to shop without reading the label or considering the manufacturing process.
Now, I know I’ll think twice before buying any fashion product and make a conscious choice of picking brands that contribute towards the environment in one way or another.
With all the information I gathered in the few hours I spent at Maito Design Works, I came back home thinking about how to come up with my own naturally dyed creation.
Trying Natural Dyeing at Home
Looking at my wardrobe, I came across a few white t-shirts that I had stopped wearing because they were either worn out or I was bored with their style. So, I decided to pick a tee, which was a gift from my husband that I couldn’t bear to throw away, and was gathering dust in my closet.
I envisioned doing a vibrant two-color ombré effect, similar to Maito’s scarf. The first step was to gather all the raw materials I needed for the dyeing process.
I decided to use turmeric from my kitchen for its lovely yellow color and buy some dried flowers online for a pinkish hue.
Here are the final materials that I used for my experiment.
- 2–3 tsp Turmeric
- 100–150 g Rose petals
- 500 ml Vinegar
Since I couldn’t find an aluminum mordant like what Maito used, I decided to use vinegar as I read online that it can also work as a dye fixative for fabrics like cotton.
- First, I mixed 2 cups of vinegar with 8 cups of water in a pot and simmered it for about 20 minutes. (I used normal grain vinegar for this experiment, but it is recommended to use white vinegar.)
- Next, I immersed my t-shirt in the pot and let it simmer with the mixture for about 10 minutes.
- Then, I washed the t-shirt in warm water a few times and put it aside after rinsing.
- For the first dye color, I mixed 2.5 tsp of turmeric with about 10–12 cups of water in a pot and simmered it over heat for about 30 minutes. (Suggestion: Use a pot that you don’t use for cooking as the dyeing process might leave some stains on the pot).
- After the dye was ready, I took the pot off the heat and immersed only the top half of the t-shirt in the pot for about 5–10 minutes. Once the t-shirt took on a nice yellow, I washed it a few times in clean water.
- Next, I added about 75 grams of rose petals to the cleaned pot and mixed it with 10–12 cups of water. I let the petals simmer for about 30 minutes.
- I repeated the dip dye method for the lower half of my t-shirt, but I was surprised to find that the color of the solution didn’t come out nearly as bright on my t-shirt, even after leaving the fabric in the solution for about 20 minutes. This was how it looked after the first dyeing process and a wash with warm water.
While the turmeric turned the top half of my t-shirt into a vibrant yellow, the rose petals resulted in a faded look. So, I repeated the dyeing process with the rose petal solution once again, but I still wasn’t happy with the second attempt. This reminded me of how Maito had told us that sometimes it’s really difficult to achieve the desired color, so they have to repeat the process 20–30 times. Well, I certainly didn’t have the patience to do the same, so I decided to add a little turmeric (about 1/2 tsp) to the rose dye which added a subtle yellow shade to the bottom half of my t-shirt and a more overall ombré effect.
- For the final step, I hand-washed the t-shirt in warm water using a mild detergent and let it air dry.
This is how my t-shirt turned out.
I was quite happy with the final results. Just look at the Before and After, and you can see how my sad-looking t-shirt took on a vibrant new look.
Was My Dyeing Experiment a Success?
Now it was time for the last part of my challenge: styling my newly dyed t-shirt with my existing wardrobe to see if it was wearable or just an experiment.
I was meeting my friend for afternoon tea, so I decided to wear the t-shirt and add my style quotient. I styled the tee with a tulle dress and an overcoat to beat the chilly Tokyo weather.
I was initially cautious about wearing a t-shirt I had experimented upon and thought people around me might notice something weird. But honestly, this was all in my mind as I even got compliments from my friend, who also enquired if it was a brand new purchase. Of course, I told her about my experiment with natural dyes, and she said I did a great job.
Make Dyeing Even Easier with Maito’s DIY Natural Dyeing Kit
This challenge has been one of my favorites on TSC so far, after all, it let my creative juices flow and made me realize that we can do so many fun things with our outfits and give them a new look rather than throwing them away once we get bored of wearing them.
And now I know that organic clothing and natural dyes aren’t boring if you look for the right sustainable fashion brands. Also, every time you pick a product that’s ethically produced, you do your bit towards creating a clean and green environment.
Hopefully, my experience inspires you to try natural dyeing. If you want to try your hands at this amazing process, I recommend picking up one of Maito Design Works’ dyeing kits, which are designed to make your Japanese dyeing experience much easier.
But if you’re feeling experimental like me, all you need are some natural materials from your kitchen or a nearby park, and you will be able to create your own personalized, naturally dyed fashion apparel.
Maito Design Works Kuramae Shop
4-14-12 Kuramae, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Kuramae st. / Asakusa Line ：2 minutes from exit A0
Kuramae st. / Oedo Line ：9 minutes from exit A6
Asakusabashi st. / JR Sobu Line ：11 minutes from East exit