Bingata dates from the Ryūkyū Kingdom period (c. 14th century), when the island of Okinawa experienced an influx of foreign goods and manufacturing techniques. It is believed to have developed as a synthesis of Indian, Chinese, and Javanese dying processes.
Bingata is a type of stencil dyed fabric originating from the island of Okinawa. The techniques used are thought to have originated in southeast asia, possibly Java, China and India and arrived on Okinawa through trade during the 14th century (Nakai). The Ryukyu Kingdom "dominated trade between Korea, Japan, China, and the countries of Southeast Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries" (Nakai). The Okinawans borrowed the technique and created their own nature-inspired designs found throughout the island (Nakai). The beautiful and abundant flora and fauna have provided Okinawans with an endless supply of images to reproduce into the beautiful artwork called bingata.
In 1609, Japan invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom and trade was not permitted with the foreign countries again. Japan demanded tribute from Okinawa in the form of handicrafts and the people were forced to produce various fabrics including banana fiber cloth called jofu and kafu (Kawakita). In order to improve their techniques they invited foreign craftsmen to the island and had Okinawans travel abroad to "master various craft techniques" (Nakai). The craftsmen were also "forced to pass the exacting standards set by the royal authorities" (Nakai) and therefore their goods reached a high level of craftsmanship which was highly sought after. In a report from a Chinese envoy dated 1802 the writer speaks about the beautiful bingata from Okinawa and how the painted flowers are so vibrant that they must use a "production secret that they do not reveal to others" (Kamakura).
Pigment used in paintings were imported from Fukien and used in textile dyeing (Kamakura). To achieve the color white, ground chalk or powdered shells were used (Kamakura). Other colors were achieved using cochineal, vermilion, arsenic, sulphur. Some patterns can use up to 18 different color applications (Shuefftan). After the kingdom was under Japanese rule they could no longer trade for these pigments and sought new ways to continue with their painting (Kamakura). Production of the finer and brighter bingata had come to a halt and the workers turned to working with the materials which were readily available (Kamakura). Indigo was all that was left so production for the general public had become popular (Kamakura).
Special permission was given to only three families to produce bingata. Each family had their own designs which they passed onto future generations (Bingata Dying). There were a total of 45 dyers, the best residing in the capital of Shuri (Bingata Dying). To make the stencils, thin sheets of mulberry paper were glued together with persimmon tannin, making them thick and durable (Shuefftan). Then they were smoked and aged and finally the designs were drawn onto the paper and cut (Shuefftan). Making bingata kimonos was laborous and only Royalty or the wealthy could afford them. The designs were held under strict control and distinction between classes was easily recognized by the kimono of the people. Patterns for the royal household were very bold and colorful (Lerner, M., Valenstein, S., Murch, A., Hearn, M., Ford, B., Mailey, J.) while the general public wore simple and dark patterns of indigo or black (Kamakura). Only the royal family wore the color yellow and nobility would wear a pale blue. On special occasions, such as reaching longevity, the commoners were given permission to wear the special colors. (Bingata). The women in the royal family were very particular about their kimonos and forbade anyone to copy the same kimono pattern style (Charles). The patterns painted on the kimono were usually birds, flowers, rivers and clouds on silk, linen and bashofu (Gross).
During the Battle of Okinawa much was lost and production had stopped due to the devastation and destruction of the shops (Bingata Dying). After the war, a former bingata artist, Eiki Shiroma went to mainland Japan in search of original bingata stencils which were taken by collectors and Japanese soldiers (Bingata Dying). He successfully found some and brought the art back to life (Bingata Dying). With the U.S. occupation, a new type of customer was now waiting for the bingata business to flourish and the troops bought up bingata postcards as souvenirs (Charles). Eiki Shiroma's son, Eijun Shiroma is continuing the family tradition and is the "fifteenth generation of his family to be practicing the techniques handed down since the time bingata was produced under the patronage of the Ryukyuan kingdom" (Exhibitions 2002 - Okinawa Now). Eijun's works can still be seen today at his Shimroma Studio.
The oldest bingata piece known was found on the island of Kume Jima and is from the late 1400's (Charles). The dyes for the bingata are made from plants and include "Ryukyu Ai(indigo), Fukugi(a high tree of Hypericum erectum family), Suo(Caesalpinia sappan) and Yamamomo(Myrica rubra), and as pigment, Shoenji(cochneal), Shu(cinnabar), Sekio(orpiment), Sumi(Indian ink) and Gofun(aleurone)" (Ryukyu Bingata). In recent years, variations of the pigments have been created and hibiscus, deigo flowers (Wada) and sugar cane leaves (Bingata, Ryukyu Indigo and Uji Dyes) have been used in the designs (Wada).
"It takes three people three days to paint material for a kimono. It then takes almost a month to finish just one kimono -- after the painting and dyeing, it is sewn together, then delivered to customers" (Hitchcock). Although bingata kimonos are hard to come by, you can find hand-made bingata t-shirts for around $40 and noren curtains for around $200. If you are willing to pay the price a cotton bingata kimono can cost you about $500 and a silk kimono for $1,000 (Hitchcock).
There are ten labor intensive steps to producing Okinawan Bingata (Shuefftan).
Step 1: Stencil Cutting Mulberry papers are coated with persimmon tannin and sealed together to form a firm sheet. A design is drawn onto the paper directly or traced from another source. The details are cut with a small blade and afterwards it is coated again to keep it from bending.
Step 2: Stencil Resist Painting A special rice-paste made from boiled rice, rice bran and water is scraped across the top of the stencil on the cloth. Step 3: Freehand Resist Painting If a large area is needed to be painted, a freehand technique is used to apply the rice-paste resist onto the fabric. The paste is put into a bag and squeezed onto the fabric.
Step 4: Painting Prepared paints are painted onto the fabric starting from lighter to darker colors. One design can use from 9 to 18 different colors.
Step 5: Re-Painting To achieve a more vibrant color the paints are added once more and this time rubbed into the cloth with a stiff brush made out of human hair!
Step 6: Details Details around the edges of each object are added to emphasise the image. Next the fabric is steamed so the colors will set into the fabric and then it is washed.
Step 7: Background Resis To paint the background a separate color, the rice-paste resist is now placed on all the previously painted areas.
Step 8: Background Painting The entire background of the fabric is painted with a wide brush or dipped in a dye bath.
Step 9: Color Setting The fabric is set in a steamer for an hour to let the colors set.
Step 10: Washing The fabric is washed and dried.
An example of bingata can be found in the The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts (Mimura).