Yùzen, the art of painting on kimono

Marie Ebersolt

17th March, 2023

Yùzen, known for kimonos, consists of painting on textiles. From the dyeing of the fabric, through the numerous finishing techniques, this craft requires a dexterity and artistic sensitivity that blossoms through the drawings made with a brush and the finishes worked by depositing materials such as gold leaf or embroidery. Since 1976, yūzen has been recognised and protected by the Japanese government as a traditional craft.

Founded by the fan painter Yùzen Miyazaki, its origins date back to the Edo era, in the 17th century. His accessories being very popular, he decided to answer a particular demand: to paint on a kimono. The success was immediate and the Yùzen style, with its variety of colours and curves representing plants, animals and landscapes, quickly spread. When he moved to the feudal domain of Kaga for a commission, a local aesthetic developed in turn. Today, there are three currents; those of Kyoto, Kaga and Edo, which are distinguished by their characteristic elegance. 
The techniques used to prepare and perfect the drawing stages are attributed to the artist, but there is no documentation of this. Miyazaki was the forerunner of this craft, but he is said to have only initiated an aesthetic corpus in kimono designs. Later, in order to improve detail, craftsmen introduced wax to delineate areas of paint to avoid ink smudges and to make the designs sharper. In the Meiji era, Jisuke Hiroshi introduced block printing, which streamlined the manufacturing process. By using primers and chemical dyes, several steps are eliminated and the colour palette is multiplied. Thus, many kimono dyeing factories appeared and the Yùzen style was democratised. Today, stencils belong to the techniques of this craft as well as brush drawing.

The traditional process of Yùzen includes many stages. It begins with a sketch on paper, which is copied onto the fabric using a natural ink composition that fades on contact with water. The outlines of the designs are then outlined by applying a rice or rubber paste using a very small piping bag to prevent the colours from mixing. This stage of the Itome-nori is emblematic of the Yùzen. It makes the background colour appear through the edges of the final design. As for the general dyeing of the fabric, it is applied by brushing, before or after the drawing, depending on the ingredient used in the itome-nori paste. In order to fix the preparation and avoid colour smears, a mixture of soybean broth and seaweed starch is spread on the back of the fabric. This step also precedes the application of the background colour. This is followed by the selection and preparation of the colours. The painting is then carried out inside the contours, using brushes of varying fineness, as numerous as the variety of colours, some of which are bevelled to add nuances. The textile is then steamed in order to fix the colours of the patterns. If the background dyeing is still to be done, the designs are first covered with a mixture of salt, glutinous rice and rice bran and then with cypress sawdust to protect them. Finally, the fabric is steamed before the primers and excess dye are washed off in artificial rivers. It is then ironed and possibly decorated with gold leaves or embroidery. The kimono has not yet been sewn and several skilled craftsmen have had to intervene.

What about Yùzen today? As in many traditional crafts, the next generation is struggling to be assured. The instability of income and the precarious situation of the status hardly attract the young generation. How can one imagine that painting on a kimono textile, a garment worn only on rare festive occasions or by a small section of the Japanese population on a daily basis, ensures economic stability? The young craftsmen try to perpetuate the know-how of their ancestors by redoubling their imagination.

Kana Mizuno, a young Yùzen craftswoman in her early twenties, accompanies her work with initiatives to promote her art. On social networks, she publishes her activities and makes the general public aware of the challenges of transmitting traditional cultures. To do this, she shows her workshop, reveals the stages of production and expands the range of products. She "wants a bit of Japanese tradition to accompany the daily lives of [her] compatriots". She paints on card holders or fans and organises initiation workshops. Freed from any membership in a craftsmen's union, she takes the freedom to create and tries to break the shackles of tradition. While respecting the three hundred year old techniques, she incorporates her artistic sensitivity into her works and wishes to develop her own "Mizuno" trend. She is inspired by works of art from all over the world and does not hesitate to integrate a certain modernity into her works to dust off her craft. On her online site, she goes so far as to present the artisans of her discipline who, however, are competitors. "I'm not the only one in this business, many young people are doing it. According to her, the Japanese government should be concerned about the situation of craftsmen and take measures to protect her fellow students.

It is difficult to know how many Yùzen craftsmen are working today. The only existing statistics are those of the unions, three in the Kyoto region alone, and these only take into account the members. Kana Mizuno makes us realise that being a craftsman in the 21st century is also a militant act to defend a material ecology and the perpetuation of ancestral techniques.

Discover her work and get her creations on her Instagram account:

Marie Ebersolt