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Spring 2003

A textile artist takes his show on the road

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A textile artist takes his show on the road

Story and photographs by Colleen Anderson

Elkins textile artist Michael Davis usually spends his workdays in a garage studio, often up to his elbows in dye. In November 2002, however, his shibori-dyed wearable art took him to London and North Yorkshire. Better yet, most of it stayed in London — on the racks of a high-end boutique — when he came home.

Davis began dyeing garments in 1969, but was introduced to shibori dyeing in 1981 by Yoshiko I. Wada. Wada is a diminutive Japanese-American woman whose dye work, books, teaching and promotion of shibori have earned her a reputation as the world’s leading authority on the art.

Davis in studio
Davis in his studio, using a machine he invented to speed his work.

The Japanese word “shibori” covers a multitude of dye techniques. Wada’s preferred translation is “shaped resist dyeing,” which describes the process of creating pattern by manipulating a two-dimensional cloth surface into a three-dimensional shape before compressing it to dye. The fabric may undergo plucking, pinching, bunching, pleating, folding, wrapping, stitching, tying, clamping or a combination of these. The resulting pattern may be orderly or random. Some shibori techniques are centuries old; others are being invented by a new worldwide community of artists, many of them Wada’s students.

Davis, whom Wada classifies as one of a group of “master dyers” she has taught, was one of 20 artists she selected for a London trunk show that included work from Australia, Canada, Chile, India, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Much of the work Davis displayed at the show featured piecework and construction by Carol Freeman, with whom he collaborates on a line of kimonos, tunics, jackets and scarves.

Joss Graham Oriental Textiles, located near London’s Victoria Station, occupies several rooms and smells of incense and old fabric. A day before he show, it buzzed with activity as several assistants hauled out merchandise from a previous show and began arranging the works of shibori artists. Shibori shared the space with antique textiles, brass and stone sculptures, baskets and woodworks. Every wall, every nook, every surface — including ceilings and staircase railings — served as display space. Arriving artists waited for a turn at a rickety ironing board, admired each another’s work and surreptitiously compared prices.

Zaia Wharton models a Shibori West kimono. Textile dyeing by Michael Davis, piecework and garment construction by Carol Freeman

The five-day trunk show included an invitation-only preview, a “sushi and shopping” evening and a closing reception. Artists talked to customers and, with equal enthusiasm, to one another. Most planned to go on to the fourth international shibori symposium in North Yorkshire when the trunk show ended.

There was time to be a tourist, too — climbing to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral to get a great view of London, walking across the new Millennium Bridge, even a day trip to the village of Downe to visit Charles Darwin’s home and drink a pint of “Old Speckled Hen” at the George & Dragon Pub.

But, for Davis, the most exciting event was a meeting with the owner of an exclusive shop in Knightsbridge, which resulted in the sale of almost all the inventory he had brought with him — and a new international outlet for his textile business, Shibori West.

After a week in London, Davis made his way to Harrogate, North Yorkshire to attend the symposium, which was planned to coincide with a huge annual knitting and stitchery show. (Symposia have also been held in Japan, India and Chile in 1992, 1997 and 1999, respectively.)

Harrogate is an old spa town. Its century-old Turkish baths remain a popular attraction, but the town’s economic mainstay nowadays is a gigantic conference center and the hundreds of upscale shops and restaurants surrounding it.

In late November, three enormous exhibit halls were filled to capacity with stitchery supply vendors, stitchery artists and gallery-style exhibitions from as far away as South Africa. Thousands of people, mostly female, had come to Harrogate for this annual show. Frail, blue-haired ladies clutching needlepoint hoops rubbed shoulders with magenta-haired students from nearby Leeds College of Art and Design. Alongside traditional needlecrafts were contemporary works that stretched the boundaries of “stitchery,” including quilts that employed plaster, paint, leather, beads, safety pins, wood screws, nylon netting and cheesecloth.

Erin Webb models a Shibori West jacket in which the puckered shaping of the fabric remains an integral part of the finished product.

As part of the extravaganza, the World Shibori Network (WSN) occupied one corner of an exhibition hall, and shibori banners decorated the entrance foyer. The WSN also sponsored a gala evening fashion show.

While stitchery fans streamed through the exhibit halls, the shibori symposium proceeded in an adjacent building. The two-day conference featured a brisk schedule of lectures and demonstrations.

In one presentation, Yukiko Echigo led her audience through a paper-folding session to illustrate her “origami stitched shibori” process. She uses paper models and scissors to work out the elaborate patterns she creates. After folding a sheet of cloth like paper, she stitches a pattern into the folded layers, dips the folded and stitched fabric into dye, then uses a chopstick to open up the fabric to water. Water oxidizes the indigo dye, creating soft gradations from dark blue to white. To achieve her complex designs, she may open, fold, stitch and dip a single piece as many as 30 times.

A detail from "Waving," an indigo-dyed cotton banner by Kikuko Matsui.
Waving detail

Mie Iwatsubo demonstrated how she combines shibori with felting and knitting to create her nature-inspired bags, scarves and hats. She said she knew that shibori was her calling from the moment she discovered it: “I was instantly engaged. I saw that I should do this, and I should tell everybody that shibori is beautiful.”

Davis experienced a similar epiphany in 1981, on the night before his first workshop with Yoshiko Wada (in Gatlinburg, TN). “It was dark when I arrived. I walked through a building where they had a shibori exhibit, and saw a small, framed piece of arashi shibori by Ana Lisa Hedstrom. I was knocked off my feet by the beauty and intricacy of this small piece of fabric. It was like snakeskin or mushroom gills or butterfly wings that wanted to take flight.”

Wada’s workshop confirmed that arashi shibori, in which fabric is wrapped around a pole before being tied and dyed, was what he wanted to do. “I came home and changed everything. As soon as I started doing arashi shibori,” he said, “we began getting into the better craft shows, and the wholesale business started growing.”

Davis and Laurie Gundersen, his wife and business partner for many years, converted a former goat shed into a textile studio with heat, skylights, hot and cold water, cutting table, double sink, stove, sewing machine and storage space. Gundersen developed garment patterns, and Davis built a machine to speed the wrapping process.

In 1992, one of his textured jackets was accepted into a prestigious biennial textile competition in Kyoto. Later the same year, with help from a West Virginia Commission on the Arts Professional Development grant, Davis returned to Japan, this time with Gundersen, to attend the first international shibori symposium. In 1994 they received a $2,500 fellowship from the Commission on the Arts. Although Davis and Gundersen no longer work to gether, both continue to explore shibori techniques.

Flower and Bud detail
A detail from "Flower and Bud," an indigo-dyed cotton banner by Hiromi Sera.

Davis formed Shibori West in the mid-1990s. In addition to producing wearable art, he has developed several sculptural lamp designs.

According to Davis, the trip to England was valuable for several reasons. “Yoshiko Wada’s recognition and encouragement means so much,” he said. “It inspires me to keep growing as an artist. And the communication with other artists is important; when that sort of sharing takes place, everyone benefits.”

And there’s that shop in Knightsbridge. Davis hopes they will need a new shipment of wearable art before long. “Who knows?” he mused. “Maybe I could deliver it in person.”

More of Davis’s work is on view at his website: To contact writer Colleen Anderson, e-mail her at

More about shibori

For his wearable art, Michael Davis uses a relatively modern technique, arashi shibori, which was invented in the late 19th century in the Japanese town of Arimatsu. It involves wrapping cloth around a pole, tying, compressing and dyeing. The resulting patterns often suggest rain driven by a strong wind (“arashi” means “storm”). A piece of fabric may undergo this four-part process once or several times, depending upon the pattern the artist wants to achieve. In arashi shibori, the texture may become part of the finished surface and contribute to the sculptural qualities of the art.

There are many other shibori techniques, some very ancient. The earliest known examples of the art include silk found in 4th-century Chinese tombs and pre-Columbian shibori alpaca in Peru. Shibori traditions have existed for centuries in the Middle East and in the Indian subcontinent as well as in Asia. Active production continues in western Africa, in southern China and in the western regions of India. Northern Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and the Himalayan region are also active to a lesser degree. In the past 25 years, Western interest in shibori has mushroomed.

Materials and methods found in different traditions vary widely. Furthermore, an artist may dye a piece of cloth repeatedly, using a different shaping method each time. There really are no limits to the creative possibilities of shibori.

shibori book

An excellent introduction to the history of shibori dyeing is Yoshiko I. Wada’s first book, Shibori, originally published in 1983 and issued in paperback in 1999 by Kodansha International. Her second book, Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now (2002), is equally informative. Both books also illustrate techniques and showcase the work of leading contemporary shibori artists.

The World Shibori Network was organized to encourage the study and practice of shibori crafts in the world. For more information about shibori or the organization, visit the group’s website at