Shibori as Art

Excerpt from an essay by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada
President, World Shibori Network
Opening Address, 8ISS Hong Kong 2011

There is no equivalent in English for the Japanese word shibori.

It comes from the Japanese verb root shiboru, “to wring, squeeze, press.” The closest translation would be “shaped-resist dyeing.” The shaping process reserves areas that are recorded as patterns with characteristically soft edges and crinkled textures when cloth is dyed. Rather than treating cloth as a two-dimensional flat surface, shibori techniques give it a three-dimensional form by folding, crumpling, stitching, plaiting, or plucking and twisting. Cloth may be drawn up and bound, stitched and gathered, pleated and bound, folded and clamped between boards, or wrapped around a pole then pushed along it to compress the fabric into folds. Further, a cloth may be dyed repeatedly using a different shaping method each time.

When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form after dyeing, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure from the thread or clamp that secured the shape during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the form and the pressure; the “memory” of the shape remains imprinted in the cloth.


In the early 1990s, as we entered the last decade of the millenium, some of the younger generation producers and artisans of shibori were faced with the reality that this centuries-old technique — the source of their livelihood — may not survive into the next millenium. So they decided to preserve it by promoting shibori textiles inside and outside Japan. This led to the First International Shibori Symposium in Nagoya (1992) and the subsequent formation of the World Shibori Network, which initiated collaborative development with fashion designers.

Today, the term shibori is accepted vocabulary in the international language of textiles. Its popularization owes a lot to the book, Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing (first published in 1983), which I co-authored with two former students, Mary Kellogg Rice and Jane Barton. Teaching and exhibitions by artists internationally have propelled the term and its underlying concept into accepted textile usage.


With the knowledge of ancient skills and the respect for the innovations of their forebears, contemporary artists, designers, and artisans around the world are revitalizing their shared cultural heritage. In this time of amazing technological developments and an increasingly pervasive information network, the tactile quality of textile becomes that much more essential. Like other forms of textile expression, shibori will survive and even thrive as long as artists continue to search for the creative possibilities in combining high-tech with handwork. In the 21st century, we need technology to serve human needs—finding ways to conserve and replenish limited resources and using them more wisely and efficiently.


The spontaneity, mystery, and the serendipitous effects of shibori continue to inspire new generations of artists and designers all over the world. They manipulate cloth and record the process by exposing it to dye and chemicals. They explore shibori in fashion applications, artistic painterly expressions, conceptual and sculptural statements, and architectural and industrial designs.

The enduring popularity of shibori patterning indicates the high value consumers place on directly experiencing the artful interaction of human hand with fabric and dye. The creative processes recorded in shibori since ancient times will inspire the continued blossoming of textile art.