Nupur Kanoi talks about the intensive craft of shibori

Tie-dye may have made a strong comeback this year, but it has been a perennial go-to for anyone looking to give their repertoire a retro twist. It was, after all, the uniform of the psychedelia subculture of the ’60s. Tie-dye, in fact, has been around for centuries. Take Japan’s shibori technique for instance; derived from the Japanese word ‘shiboru’ which means to wring, squeeze or press. One of the oldest techniques of resist-dyeing; fabrics are bound, tied, sewn, compressed, twisted, knotted and folded to create sections that resist the dye and then form contrasting patterns. It came to Japan 1,300 years ago from China, and found another unique interpretation here.

shibori

A few decades ago, Indian artisans adopted the elegance of shibori patterns and combined them with traditional colours. Ever since, it is often spotted on contemporary reimaginations of Indian wear. It is a mainstay of designer Nupur Kanoi’s signature aesthetic too. Having studied it in detail at design school, it’s a technique Kanoi gravitates towards regularly. “I can never get bored of shibori because of its organic creation process and cross-cultural influences. Shibori is a tedious technique to work with—the more intricate the design, the longer it takes to make. It can take master craftsmen six to eight months, or even a year, to complete one highly-detailed outfit,” she explains. The designer gives Vogue a masterclass on this intricate technique.

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What are the different kinds of shibori and what makes them each so unique?

While there are innumerable indigenous varieties of tie-dyes that have flourished all over the world, there are six main techniques of shibori that are most popular. Each technique is so unique that one cannot master all in a lifetime.

Kanoko shibori (or the bound-resist technique) is perhaps the most widespread. This method simply uses rubber bands or strings to pinch, bind, and shape the fabric in various patterns, allowing for great flexibility and creativity. Nui shibori (or the stitch-resist technique) is similar to the kanoko method. The only difference between the two is in the tools used for binding the fabric and creating the pattern. Nui uses basting stitches instead of kanoko’s rubber bands.

Arashi shibori (or the pole-wrapping technique) involves wrapping the fabric around a PVC pipe and binding it with thick yarn or twine. The final pattern is diagonal or wavy lines. Arashi means ‘storm’ in Japanese. So, the name reflects the patterns that resemble stormy seas.

Itajime shibori (also known as the shape-resist technique or clamp-dyeing) uses folding and clamping methods to create a distinct, geometric pattern. Kumo shibori (the pleat-and-bind technique or the spider web technique) involves pleating and twisting with rubber bands to create a spider web-like appearance. The fabric is wrapped around objects, often stones and beads, and held in place with rubber bands. Miura shibori (the looped-binding technique) is unique because it uses a hooked needle to pull sections of the fabric which are then wrapped in string or twine to bind them. Often, but not always, this looped-binding technique is used in rows. This is quite similar to the homegrown Indian bandhini tie-and-dye technique.

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What makes shibori so special? What are the motifs normally used?

The uniqueness of shibori is in its soft, blurry-edged pattern. The effect is visibly different from the sharp-edged resist obtained with stencil or wax. The dyer works in harmony with the materials; not in an effort to overcome their limitations but to allow them full expression. Not only is the tying very important—deftly done by practiced hands to resist the dye and create a 3D effect on the fabric—the untying is equally critical. An element of the unexpected is always present. Chance and accident give true life to the shibori process. That is where the real magic happens. This is shibori’s strongest appeal because it ensures a bespoke piece every time.

Shibori motifs are usually nature-inspired, such as birds and flowers. One can also find graphic and linear designs since the technique involves intensive use of pleating, folding and clamping of the fabric.

Tell us about your work with shibori. How do you modernise the technique through your collections?

Supporting crafts and working with indigenous craftsmen has been the foundation of my label. Being a Marwari from Rajasthan, I was exposed to our rich textile and craft heritage early on because of my mother. I would always cut up her saris to make something modern for myself. This seeped into my brand identity. You can see this in our work with shibori (and bandhini too). Saris and dupattas are transformed into our signature wrap dresses, kaftans, kurtas, kimono dresses, skirt sets, pre-draped saris and jumpsuits (which are a favourite). The styling is athletic and grunge with a ’70s vibe. The modernity lies in the design and construction, but always with an element of India.