Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium (2004)


Presented at “Appropriation • Acculturation • Transformation,” Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium, Oakland, California, October 7-9, 2004. Copyright 2004 Textile Society of America.


Almost as soon as they were invented in 1858, chemical dyes were introduced to Japanese artists and craftsmen. Chemically dyed red, purple, orange and blue silk yarns were woven into elaborate textiles used to furnish the Meiji palaces, costume Noh actors, and wrap Buddhist priests, while dyers adapted resist techniques such as yuzen and stencil resist. Japanese wood-block print artists also responded to the new colors and incorporated them into their work creating vibrant scenes of life during the Meiji period. The bright, bold colors produced with the early synthetic dyes became emblematic of the technological advances of the Meiji period and were know as “the colors of progress.”

This paper is based on a study begun at the Museum of Fine Arts to identify the chemical dyes used in Japan in both textiles and wood-block printing. Standards for the identification of chemical dyes have been created by the Museum’s Conservation Science Department and will serve as a basis for determining which chemical dyes were used by the Japanese and, because many woodblock prints are dated, maybe even begin to identify when the dyes were introduced.

The Museum’s collection provides a remarkable resource for such a study. Its woodblock print collection and its collection of Japanese textiles and costume are unrivaled in the United States. The collection contains a remarkable number of Meiji-era textiles collected by one of the museum’s most significant donors of Japanese art, William Sturgis Bigelow. Bigelow lived and traveled throughout Japan during the Meiji period and collected all types of Japanese art, both traditional and contemporary. The Meiji-period textiles and costume that entered the collection include a selection of Noh theater costume, kimono, textile lengths, yuzen samples, furnishing textiles and Buddhist textiles, including kesa, ohi, and uchishiki. The Museum’s collection also contains a book of Meiji-period textile samples purchased by the MFA’s first curator Charles Loring during a visit to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The samples in this book will be analyzed and will provide evidence of the first wholesale use of aniline dyes in Japan.

While one aspect of this study is to better understand which dyes were used in Japan, an important theme of this paper will be the reasons why chemical dyes were so readily accepted in Meiji Japan and their propagandistic role within the Meiji government as symbols of progress.