Sophie Vent visits the Arimatsu Shibori Festival in Japan.

The town of Arimatsu is preserved in time. The central street was once the ancient Tokaido trade route and is lined with traditional teahouses, pine trees and Edo merchant architecture. Behind the dark wooden walls are workshops where many hands move intuitively in motions that were first practised centuries ago. Hooking, wrapping, hooking, wrapping and tying in perfect tension to create resist dyed textiles that have brought the town fame and prosperity.

For four hundred years the town of Arimatsu has produced some of the finest Shibori in the world, using the same techniques, materials and workshops as when it first began. Master craftsmen have come and gone from these rooms, passing on their wisdom to generations of apprentices who spend decades mastering the craft and ensuring the trade secrets are protected.

The town and the craft have blossomed together. At first the settlement was comprised of just a few teahouses, providing refreshments to travelling Samurai, merchants and pilgrims on the long journey from Kyoto to Edo, now Tokyo. The creative villagers began to sell white spotted indigo cloth, known as Shibori Tenugi that became famous along the route.

The streams of visitors prompted a demand for new styles and Arimatsu is now known for over a hundred tie-dye patterns. The popularity of Shibori from this region created a source of income and allowed the town to flourish. In return, the towns people have become devoted to the craft.

Every June the Arimatsu Shibori Festival is held to celebrate this unique heritage. Hundreds of people descend on the quiet street, awakening the sleeping spirit of the historic trade route. Visitors in traditional shibori yukata weave through the procession and shibori parasols bob over the crowd. Artisans line the road demonstrating age-old processes and baskets overflow with textiles for sale, including traditional Shibori Tenugi. Giant indigo flags mark the entrance, each hand dyed in different patterns.

The abundance of shibori on display is an incredible sight, especially when you realise each tiny white speck has been created by hand. In patterns containing thousands of white circles, each spot has been individually hooked, wrapped and tied by a Shibori master from Arimatsu.

Time, precision and dedication are essential to shibori and can be thought to differentiate the craft from other forms of tie dye. A length of cotton for yukata will take four to six months to create, by an artisan who has taken a minimum of three years to complete fundamental training. Many of the masters of the regions have been practising for over sixty years.

Despite the meticulous approach, the true beauty of shibori is in the imperfections. Once the cloth has been carefully tied and clamped something uncontrollable takes place in the dye vat. The unpredictable reactions between dye and cloth create variations that can't be anticipated. In recent years traditional designs are often printed, but true Shibori will always hold the irregularities of the dye process and the human hand.

The festival continues over the first weekend in June, then again in October. Shibori master classes, open studios and events at The Arimatsu Narumi Shibori Museum take place across the weekend, drawing crowds of tourists and craft enthusiasts. Along the main street a procession of Dashi, colourful festival floats preserved since the Edo period, are carried by local people to show pride and represent the town's development.

After dark, the parade begins again, this time covered in glowing paper lanterns to guide the path. The festival culminates on Sunday morning when the floats gather around the Tokugawaen courtyard for the anticipated performance of karakuri. These handmade mechanised puppets act out performances, playing traditional music operated by unseen hands. By the evening the crowds have dispersed and the town returns to a peaceful stillness.

Today shibori is practised throughout the world by artisans adding their spin on a historic craft.The Arimatsu Shibori Festival remains the biggest celebration of Shibori and plays an important role in raising awareness and showing appreciation for a labour intensive art form that could easily have been overlooked.

The people of Arimatsu have safeguarded the craft for centuries, allowing the town to thrive on the same source of income as when it was founded in 1608. By protecting the craft and celebrating the people who make it, the festival preserves an ancient way of life in the modern world.

Words by Sophie Vent.

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