Hamilton textile artist carrying on centuries-old tradition of growing indigo for dye

In her backyard in downtown Hamilton, Hitoko Okada is growing her own indigo plants, which she uses to create dyes in a way that originated in sixth-century Japan.

Hitoko Okada grows indigo in her Strathcona backyard and is sharing her craft with others

A woman sitting while picking leaves off a stem.
Hitoko Okada harvests, crushes and bathes indigo leaves in her backyard. (Submitted by Hitoko Okada)

In her backyard in downtown Hamilton, Hitoko Okada is growing her own indigo plants, which she uses to create dyes in a way that originated in sixth-century Japan.

The results are beautiful textiles in different shades of blue, but Okada's true intention for the work goes well beyond the making of colourful garments.

It's all part of the local textile artist and curator's artistic practice — and approach to nature, even in her urban setting. 

"Embedded in this practice is ancestral knowledge in how to be interconnected to nature and the spirit world," says Okada, who believes all humans are born with the ability to have a relationship with plants and simply have to "remember" how.

Hitoko Okada stands with a bundle of indigo leaves. She uses the leaves to create dyes in a tradition that dates back to sixth-century Japan. (Submitted by Hitoko Okada)

"In this practice of making the dye, it's not an extractive relationship, it's learning from the plants. They are teaching me how to be in relationship with them, teaching me that the soil is important, teaching me to steward and care for the land," she says. 

A delicate process

It's a process that takes precision, and can move slowly or quickly, depending on the method.

Sukumo, the traditional Japanese indigo dye process, takes about a year for fermented leaves to make the dye. Tade-ai uses fresh leaves and the results are almost immediate. 

Okada does both using a plant which grows natively in north East Asia called Persicaria tinctoria.

On this particular day in July, outside Okada's Strathcona-area home, she harvests the fresh leaf on the morning she is going to use it, and then pulverizes the leaves. She then creates a cold bath using the leaf bits, and from there, dyes her cloth.

There's a chemical reaction that occurs when the mixture becomes oxidized, she says, which will stop the dye from staining the cloth, so for that reason, the dying must happen quickly and with purpose.

Yarn floats in a bowl full of light green water.
Hitoko Okada dyes yarn in a bowl with indigo leaves. (Submitted by Hitoko Okada)

It can be delicate, but "this is part of what it is to work with things that are living," she says. 

The leaves she has harvested for sukumo, which she is drying out in the sun, will be ready next year, she says, if successful. It will be her first batch. 

 The colour she gets from the process is a reflection of how well she has cared for the plant, something she learned from studying the craft, she says. 

A hand holds a wet, green cloth.
Hitoko Okada holds a cloth freshly dyed with indigo leaves. (Submitted by Hitoko Okada)

"The plant is asking for its needs to be met," says Okada. "The colour of blue that you receive from the vat is an indication, the expression of our relationship with that plant. If I get a deep colour or rich colour, then I have stewarded well. If I get a blotchy colour or it's dull or doesn't have vital expression, than I need to be a better steward."

Community workshop being held in September

Okada says her hyper local work is part commentary on the fashion industry and supply chain, and part of a greater narrative about the ways capitalism and colonization are destroying cultural heritage practices and traditional forms of art.

"My deepest hope for this work is that we can remember how to be in relationship with the land, each other [and] ourselves," she says. "It is my commitment and my intention in my work to pass these transmissions forward to future generations."

To that effect, part of Okada's work involves leading workshops aimed at sharing her practice with others.

This past Saturday, she led a fresh leaf workshop for a group at the Neighbour to Neighbour Centre in the city and on Sept. 25, she's offering one for families through Planting Seeds of Hope's Children's Lands site in Middleport, Ont., near Six Nations.

Participants – which can be parents with their children – will dye a silk scarf they can take home at the end of the workshop.

"As we get older, we kind of go back to what we knew as children – things we liked to do, foods we ate, what was comforting to us as kids," she says. "To instill these things to people, at a young age… If that's what I can offer, that is really meaningful.

"It's so innate in our DNA to harvest and cultivate and grow. I really want to water those seeds in children. I know they will grow later on."

A connection between art and gardening

Okada's work is supported by the South Asian Visual Arts Centre, an artist-run centre based in Toronto but with membership around the globe.

Executive director Indu Vashist started a network of artist-gardeners at the beginning of the pandemic, where there was little for many to do but get their hands dirty and work with plants.

"It was the thing that gave me joy," Vashist told CBC Hamilton. "It felt like there was so much death around. This was the one thing that was life-giving. I wanted to share that with other people."

A bowl of leaves.
Hitoko Okada puts the leaves in a bowl before pulverizing them and soaking them. (Submitted by Hitoko Okada)

The group is currently highlighting Okada's work to its wider network, which also includes Meera Sethi, an Toronto-based artist growing cotton plants for textiles; and Ponni Arasu, an artist in Sri Lanka who grew a garden and taught other artists to grow food as a way of subsistence during a time of war in her country.

Vashist says there are many ways to interpret the connection between gardening and art, but at its most basic, there's the aesthetic quality that plants can bring to a space.

"Gardens are land-based art that requires a lot of skill and esthetic sensibility," she said.


Saira Peesker is a reporter with CBC Hamilton, with particular interests in climate, labour and local politics. She has previously worked with the Hamilton Spectator and CTV News, and is a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail, covering small business and personal finance. Saira can be reached at saira.peesker(at)cbc.ca or on Twitter @Peesker.