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The staying power of shiboriThe ancient Japanese dyeing technique whose popularity transcends fashion eras has made yet another comeback in tops, jeans, dresses, handbags and more.

November 11, 2012|By Janet Kinosian | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Shibori scarf from Kate Beck.
Shibori scarf from Kate Beck. (Kate Beck Textiles )

If you think of shibori as 1960s' tie-dye for adults, you'd be partly right.

Many of the chaotic-looking, one-of-a-kind patterns splashed over fashion fabrics today are made by an ancient Japanese "shape resist" dying technique called shibori, which is basically a more sophisticated form of tie-dye as we know it from its hippie heyday in the 1960s and early '70s. More elaborate kinds of shibori are distinguished by complex techniques -- such as with stitching, gathering, binding, clamping, folding, plaiting, knotting, pinching and twisting -- to create a unique pattern.

While it's known primarily in the West as the tie-dye that was popular in hippie counterculture, shibori has been used since about the 8th century in Asia by both the rich, who loved it for their couture styles, and the poor, who used it to rework old clothes.

It's been seen this year in tops, jeans, dresses, handbags and more.

What keeps shibori popping up in so many varied fashion eras?

"Accessibility," says Brook Lane, co-founder of Job & Boss, an Oakland-based shibori handbag and accessory line. "It's so compelling in that a novice can create interesting and dynamic patterns and a master can continue to find new challenges forever." She says shibori's beautiful, unique patterns can be achieved at any level — beginner to expert — and its value in the fashion world "comes from a richness of process and unlimited possibilities."

"I think in this age of technology we're looking to get more real and physical with what we create," says Sara Gates of Cook & Gates, a textile design company in Brooklyn. "I love the hands-on nature of the process. I use a lot of huge pieces of heavy canvas and literally build up a sweat binding and tying some of the pieces. You're creating all these amazing patterns without even seeing them until the end: You really have very little control and leave so much up to chance."

New York shibori artist and designer Shabd Simon-Alexander, who owns shibori-oriented fashion line Shabd, agrees. "I think it's so incredible that you can see the hand of the designer or producer in shibori and, as a customer, have that direct connection. The best part is after working on a piece, no matter how much you plan or test, revealing it at the end is always a wonderful surprise." Simon-Alexander taught Martha Stewart how to create shibori fabrics on Stewart's television show.

Shibori designers say it's not just the intimacy of human touch on fabric but also its ability to showcase a sense of personal expression and freedom in a mass marketing age that's key to shibori's reinvigorated place in today's fashion textiles.

"In the '60s, the tie-dye that we all remember was such an expression of the times and the changing culture, the moving towards freedom and free expression," notes Kate Beck, a shibori clothes artist in New Orleans. "Tie-dye became a cultural tribal symbol, but then the times moved on and so did the symbols. But I think the expression will still always remind us of freedom and happiness."

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