“Normally, it’s three separate jobs – farmers make sukumo and sell it to dyers, dyers dye the fabric, and fashion designers make the final garment. But our philosophy is to do this farm-to-closet. We get involved in the entire process.”
Ken Yuki’s hands are deep, indigo blue. It’s one of the first things you’ll notice about the farmer-dyers at BUAISOU if you visit their small sunlit studio in Bushwick, a local neighborhood in the bustling arts community in Brooklyn, New York. A result of working directly with the indigo dye with their bare hands, the BUAISOU farmer-dyers’ blue hands are a testament to their intense commitment to the entire process of crafting the beautiful pigment from scratch – growing and fermenting indigo leaves on their 2.5-acre farm in Tokushima, Japan and dyeing their materials in their studio in Brooklyn, New York. The artisans at BUAISOU have their hands in every single part of the process.
We met with one of BUAISOU’s farmer-dyers, Ken Yuki, along with Sayaka Toyama, the director of BUAISOU Brooklyn, and chatted about their creative process, Brooklyn, and all things indigo in their Bushwick studio. Explore BUAISOU’s craft below:
What’s the story behind BUAISOU?
Sayaka Toyama: BUAISOU was founded in 2012. Our main base is in Tokushima, located in the southern part of Japan. Tokushima has been the center of indigo farming in Japan, but its heyday was about 200 years ago. There used to be 1,800 sukumo farmers – sukumo being fermented indigo leaves – but now it’s down to give farmers, because in the early twentieth century synthetic indigo became widely available. It’s pretty much killed this tradition.
The founders of BUAISOU, Kenta Watanabe and Kakuo Kaji, learned how to make sukumo as apprentices under one of the sukumo masters, Osamu Nii. We’re now at four farmers and dyers in total. They grow their own indigo in their farm of about 2.5 acres, ferment the leaves in the winter to create sukumo, and use the sukumo to make the dye. After that, we dye everything ourselves.
Normally, it’s three separate jobs – sukumo farmers make sukumo and sell it to dyers, dyers dye the fabric, and fashion designers make the final garment. But our philosophy is to do this farm-to-closet. We get involved in the entire process.
what was the inspiration behind founding BUAISOU?
Sayaka: The founders Kenta and Kakuo really fell in love with this hardcore way of doing indigo dyeing. When they were looking for opportunities to learn the craft, a town in Tokushima was hiring two people who could help with indigo farming, and they both applied – and they actually happened to be the only two people to do so. Our founders met there, saw that they had the same vision, and decided: Why don’t we do this together?
When did buaisou make the move to Brooklyn?
Sayaka: We got this studio space in Bushwick in April 2015, and before that I hosted our indigo workshop in my apartment for one year. Kenta first visited New York City in April of 2014, and came here with a group of young people from the same region who wanted to promote the local crafts and traditions, and I happened to be Airbnb-ing my room at the time. We actually had a mutual friend, Kyoko, the manager who is based in Tokushima, who introduced Kenta to me and asked if he could stay in my place. He arrived with a huge vat of indigo.
He wanted to host an indigo workshop. We didn’t have enough time to find another place, so we just did it in my living room and 70 people showed up over the course of two days. Half of my apartment was filled with people that I didn’t know, so I thought, okay, maybe this could be something. So I kept the vat and did workshops with my friends. But people kept coming – along with press and people from brands – we saw that there’s a demand here. So we got this space in Bushwick last April, and we’re growing slowly.
Yuki – how did you get started with indigo dyeing?
Yuki Ken: I was a college student while Kenta and Kakuo were working as indigo farmers in Tokushima. During my summer break, I had a chance to work on the fields and do some dyeing for about a week. Although I got a traditional entry-level job after I graduated, I couldn’t forget that incredible feeling of working on the indigo farm. So I quit and decided to go work as an indigo farmer, studying the process of dyeing under my master Osamu Nii for two years.
Sayaka: Ken was initially based in the northern part of Japan, and then he moved to Tokushima and studied under the same master as the founders. There are 6 generations of sukumo makers. Mr. Osamu Nii is the six generation of the Nii, an indigo farming family. Kenta studied under him for 9 months, but Yuki did it for two years – he was Osamu Nii’s longest apprentice.
What do you love about this job?
Yuki: Creating this dye, this color from its original source – cultivating the fields of the sukumo – and being an integral part of this process is what I really, truly love about this. I’m proud that I’m so fully involved, that I know and can explain every single part of this process. How to do this, or why it works, these are things that I can fully explain. That’s what’s beautiful to me about the sukumo-making process.
Can you walk us through your creative process?
Yuki: From start to finish, making sukumo is a one year process. Tilling and fertilizing the soil comes first. During the summertime, we grow and harvest the indigo. We use a machine to separate the leaves from the stem, because the indigo color comes from the leaves, not the stem. Here’s what the indigo looks like first after it’s dried – it smells like tea.
In October, we start the fermentation process. We move these dry leaves to nedoko, a sort of “bedroom” where we keep the leaves supplied with water and oxidation. Natural heating comes from the bacteria inside of the fermenting leaves. From October to February almost four months (120 days). Then the leaves change into sukumo, or fermented indigo leaves. Last year we harvested 2,000 kg of dry leaves to make 1,700 kg of sukumo.
Sayaka: It’s probably the best place to be for us – there are many of these high-quality small brands concentrated here. Since we can’t dye too many pieces we normally do very limited collaborations with brands – and this works in this city.
Favorite spots near your studio in bushwick, brooklyn?
Ken: Artie’s Pizza and Roberta’s. I also like some of the new street art on the walk to the studio from my place in DeKalb. Noticing the small changes in the art on the walls – that makes me happy.
In addition to mastering this centuries-old craft of creating indigo dye, BUAISOU also aims to pass on some of these old-world traditions to the community in New York City, hosting educational workshops and a kouya service, where anyone can send in a piece of cotton/linen clothing to have treated with their handcrafted dye. Learn more about how you can get involved on BUAISOU’s website.