Focus on… shibori

17 April 2020
Shibori wood grain effect Image credit: Roger Sleigh. Shibori wood grain effect
Journey to Japan and explore the ancient art of shibori then discover how to create your own unique blue and white patterned fabric in the comfort of your own home.

Our guide, Mary Sleigh, is best summed up in three words: textiles, teaching and travel. 

On a visit to Japan she took the opportunity to see shibori first hand. Whilst she understood the techniques involved, witnessing them in action in their cultural setting changed her view on shibori forever. 

What’s the difference between shibori and tie-dye?

Although there is simplicity in the principles of shibori, to liken them to tie-dyeing would be short-sighted. Admittedly both techniques involve fabric, a resist medium and dye, but there the similarities end. 

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‘Shibori’ definition

Originating from Japan, shibori translates as “to squeeze or wring” and employs traditional practices that have evolved over centuries. It uses intricate forms of twisting, binding, wrapping, clamping, folding and stitching to create exquisite designs using its trademark indigo dye. Each method of manipulating the fabric causes different variations in the dye. It takes years of practice to produce the precision in pattern and evenness of dye that are prized. 

Perfecting ‘shibori’ techniques

Watching artisans at work, Mary found her “academic appreciation” of shibori replaced with a “much deeper respect for the huge commitment to detail, to doing things supremely well. It is everywhere. It pervades the culture. They are prepared to spend hours and hours perfecting techniques. They become totally involved, completely focussed, immersed. What they produce is immaculate. The level of effort put in to the pursuit of perfection is astounding.” 

Nowhere are the fruits of these labours better showcased than at the National Shibori Museum in Kyoto. Mary was thrilled by “the exquisite examples of all the techniques; incredibly fine and meticulous hand work”. Sadly, the museum is fiercely protective of its exhibits and allows no photography.

But the impression left on Mary is indelible: 

“There is an inflexibility that has helped preserve traditional methods. They stick to their ways of working. Ultimately the process has been allowed to influence the sculpture of the fabric.” 

So much so the marks left by the resist process – the stitch holes, the folds and binding peaks – are now celebrated. Accuracy is achieved in professional studios by using stencils to transfer the design to the fabric. These intricate patterns are then stitched, tied, bound or clamped – often involving hours of complex, exacting work. 

Finished dyed fabric

Inspiration and tips for the shibori home enthusiast

In her book ‘Shibori for Textile Artists’ (published by Batsford), Janice Gunner expands on these individual approaches and she includes plenty of inspiration and practical pointers for the home enthusiast. 

Once prepared the fabric enters the dyeing phase. At the Higeta Indigo Dyeing Studio in Mashiko, Mary discovered a family “eager to tell me about their grandfather and father who brought the traditional method of extracting indigo from the plants back into favour. It had almost disappeared as it is an expensive and complicated process, replaced by modern dyes. They work by hand and simply without technology to help them. They feel it is their duty to hand down original indigo dyeing techniques to the next generation.” 

In a world dominated by the incessant drive and thrust of technological advancement, it's warming to discover a place where traditional skills are being valued and preserved. 

Even more pleasing is the discovery that shibori techniques are not exclusive to professionally trained Japanese artisans. It's well worth having a go yourself at home – even beginners can achieve impressive results! 

Nui shibori – a traditional shibori technique

In our guide, try nui shibori for yourself. It uses stitched thread to isolate many small repeated points in the fabric. Although harder to master and more time consuming, ultimately it is far more rewarding as it offers greater control over the pattern and so much more variety. 

The design is created by working a simple running stitch in multiple parallel lines, circles or other geometric shapes with areas left plain for balance. You can stitch single or double layers of fabric, or along a fold. Using short or long stitches creates different effects, as does varying stitch length. Once stitching is complete the threads are pulled up very tightly and knotted close to the gathered fabric. The more tightly the thread is pulled the less dye will penetrate the folds. 

Different results are achieved with different fabrics. Plus, the dyeing process allows you to choose the depth of colour. The possibilities are endless and can be as simple or elaborate as you please.

How to create your own unique blue and white patterned fabric

Project by Mary Sleigh, images by Roger Sleigh.

Before you start

  • Read the dyeing instructions thoroughly – all kits differ slightly
  • Work in a well-ventilated area – ideally outside
  • All utensils and containers should be kept solely for dyeing and never used for food
  • Protect yourself with an apron/overall, rubber gloves, dust mask and safety spectacles
  • Wear old shoes – it’s a wet process with lots of drips and splashes!
  • Cover working surfaces

What materials do I need for nui shibori?

For stitching:

  • Fabric – fat quarters or smaller pieces of natural fibres such as cotton, silk or linen
  • Strong thread – buttonhole, linen or double
  • Soluble marker pen

For dyeing:

  • Indigo dyeing kit which includes indigo grains and Hydros (Mary used a kit supplied by Art Van Go – it contains pre-reduced indigo so needs fewer chemicals. These kits are readily available from other craft suppliers)
  • Plastic bucket and lid for dyeing
  • Second bucket for rinsing
  • Measuring jug
  • Weighing scales
  • Plastic container
  • Household washing soda
  • 5 litres of cold water
  • Stick for stirring
  • Clingfilm
  • Rubber gloves
  • Protective sheets

Get stitching!

1. Take some time to work out your design using straight, curved or geometric lines. Lines can be marked accurately or run randomly.

2. Using a running stitch in lots of parallel lines creates a wood grain effect.

Running stitch in parallel lines

Shibori wood grain effect created by running stitch in parallel lines

3. Working a row of running stitches along a folded edge increases the area where dye cannot penetrate.

Working a row of running stitches along a folded edge

Shibori effect achieved by working a row of running stitches along folded edge.

4. Semi-circles worked over a folded edge results in a stylised floral pattern.

Semi-circles worked over a folded edge

Shibori stylised floral pattern
5. Mark the lines or contours of the pattern carefully on the fabric. Use a soluble marker that will wash out in the dyeing process.

6. Use a strong thread – buttonhole, linen or double thread are ideal as they are less likely to break under tension. Start your stitching with a big knot that will not pull out when gathering.

7. Once all stitching is complete, gather your threads slowly and very tightly, making sure the pleats and gathers are well distributed. Keep the tension whilst knotting the end as close as possible to the gathers.

Gathered threads with pleats and gathers well distributed

Tightly gathered threads

Top tip! Once the pieces are dyed, they look remarkably similar so mark your items with a recognisable stitch near the edge. Very useful if sharing a dye vat with others.

Get dyeing!

1. Fill a household plastic bucket with five litres of cold water. Sprinkle 10g Hydros from the dye kit onto the surface and stir slowly. Add 60g washing soda and stir well to dissolve.

Top Tip! Remove two cups of cold water and replace with two cups of boiling water. This will make the temperature around 25°C - ideal for indigo.

2. Add 15g of indigo grains slowly and stir gently to avoid making bubbles. Cover the bucket with clingfilm and/or a lid to exclude air and leave for about an hour. The secret is to avoid introducing air – so no vigorous stirring and keep a lid on at all times!

3. The indigo should now be fully dissolved and the liquid a greenish-yellow colour. The dye is ready for your fabric.

4. Thoroughly wet the prepared fabrics in cold water to ensure they absorb the dye. Submerge and move around gently. Leave for up to two minutes.

5. Take your bundles out and as they emerge into the air oxidation takes place turning them from green to blue. This can take 15-20 minutes. If the colour is too pale put the bundle back in the dye bath. This can be repeated several times to build up the depth of colour.

Dyed fabric in deep blue colour

Top Tip! In Japan to achieve a deep blue colour, cloth may be dipped in the vat up to 25 times! If you keep your bucket covered with an airtight lid, the dye will remain effective for a day or two.

6. Rinse the bundles in cold water until it runs clear – this helps keep the blue and white contrast crisp. Remove the stitching, open out the fabric and allow to dry.

Top Tip! Carefully remove stitches with an unpicker. It’s safer than scissors!

7. Wash in warm water with added liquid detergent. The colour will be paler when dry. And remember – indigo is not as fast as chemical dyes but that is part of its charm.

Shibori wood grain effect created by running stitch in parallel lines

Shibori effect achieved by working a row of running stitches along folded edge

Shibori stylised floral pattern


Your finished dyed pieces could feature as a motif on a bag, cushion or book cover. Add stitching to enhance the surface of the dyed design - such as straight, long-armed chain and fly stitches worked in white stranded and perle cotton. Or you could embellish with beads or buttons. Sections of dyed fabric could be combined to create a composition of pieced and patched panels - all harmonious because of the indigo colour palette. Whatever you do, have fun experimenting and creating your own unique piece of blue heaven! 

Finished dyed fabric

About Mary Sleigh

Mary’s love of fabric and thread started as a child and developed during her career in primary education then for many years as Tutor and External Verifier for City & Guilds textile courses. She is passionate that our textile heritage should be celebrated and enjoy the role of Textile Advisor at Lincoln Cathedral. Mary writes, teaches and exhibits her own creative work throughout the UK and abroad. 

Find out more:

Twitter: @MarySleighArt
Facebook: mary.sleigh.1

Enjoyed learning about this technique? Why not take a look at more in our ‘Focus on’ series, including:

Focus on… free machining
Focus on… needle felting

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