Bingata originated in Okinawa well over five hundred years ago. As an independent kingdom, Okinawa had its own culture and language. Her art forms are a very intimate expression of this heritage. Bingata literally means “red (vermillion) pattern”, which actually means “colorful designs”. While most of the bingata designs we are likely to come across are very bold and colorful, showing a strong Chinese pattern influence along with very tropical colors, many of the older styles (ko-bingata) are small and subdued.
Smaller patterned bingata. Ichiroya is usually pretty good about including shots of the labels on bolts. This one says “Tokyozome - gansai bingata” which tells us it is a Tokyo dyehouse that has used pigments to dye the main colors.
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“Kumadori” is the term for the shading seen here. Typically in bingata it consists of bold slashes, as seen on the goose to the left, in combination with delicate gradations as seen on the leaves below.
Two aspects of what make bingata so very distinctive are color usage and scale. Most images are what they appear to be - a house is shaped like a house, a flower like a flower. Having acknowledged that, reality steps aside to allow for vastly un-correlated relationships in size, scale, and proportion. To this is added a surrealistic potpourri of color and pattern, unlike anything else seen in traditional Japanese patterning.
Patterns in bingata are applied using two distinct methods, both paste resist: stencil (katazome) and cone (tsutsugaki). The stencils have traditionally been used for clothing fabrics, and the cone drawn designs for large furoshiki and fabric stage backdrop used by theater troupes. While the stencils allow for very crisp, repetitive designs, the cone method allows for grand sweeping gestures in line.
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Ryukyu bingata, cone method on bashou-fu (banana fiber cloth) with natural dyes.
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In most cases the foreground images are dyed first, while the background is covered in a protective layer of rice paste. After the colors are set, the paste is washed away to reveal the white background. A second application is now placed with a cone over the dyed areas to protect them while the background is being dyed. Often areas of color are left exposed to be influenced by the background layer, and many times the artist will “get out of lines” by deliberately allowing this cover layer of paste (fusenori) to extend beyond the areas of color. The combination of the two approaches, in skillful hands, adds a great deal of lively syncopation to what might otherwise feel too much of a repetitive rhythm.
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How wonderful to have two truly beautiful, virtually identical, bolts of fabric to compare! Look carefully at the position of the kumadori in each. They are indistinguishable. Notice, too, the fusenori; how very similar the shape and placement on each. This tells us that the colors and paste have all been applied with stencils rather than handpainted or coned. Imagine all the prep-work required to create such extraordinary works as these, far more than would be required for an entirely hand painted piece.
However, once the prep-work is complete, the artist is now able to dye many clones of the same design, making the artwork available to a larger, beauty-nourished population.
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Next take a look at the selvage edge of the bolt. See the white border? This is normally a sure sign of a beautifully printed, but not hand-colored, length of fabric. This is one of the many reasons I have a sense of confidence when I buy from Ichiroya. The photos are excellent and it is very easy to see exactly what I am purchasing.
Natural dyes allowed for a rainbow of color. A fuscia pink from suo (sappan) has always been one of the hallmark colors along with vibrant lemon yellow. A distinctive feature of true bingata is the extensive use of natural pigments. Many cultures use pigments to color cloth (the beautiful African mud-cloths come to mind) however, nowhere but Okinawa and Japan is soymilk used as a binding agent, fixing the topical pigments securely to the fibers. This method allows for brilliant and vibrant imagery, as much as any painting in any era has been able to claim.
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In the image to the right a tiny hole is being pointed out as a flaw in the bolt. Actually, this is a very good sign. It is the tiny hole left by a part of the stretching equipment called shinshi. Printed pieces are normally placed on print tables to work. Only when dyes or soy milk is brushed on is the fabric stretched in this manner. (It looks much like a hammock suspended at waist level to work.) Also notice how the dye goes all the way to the selvage edge.
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This label offers us a great deal of information. First, you can see the color goes all the way to the edge, often an indication of a brush dyed piece. The text itself tells us that it is really, really, bingata from Shuri in Okinawa. “Real” bingata (so the Okinawans will have it) comes only from Okinawa, dyed by Okinawans. If you are working in this style elsewhere (as I am) it is called “kata-e-zome”. The label above covers all bases. It reads “Shuri kata-e-zome bingata”.
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