The water in the pail is a heavy, moody blue. It is deep and opaque. Effervescent like oil, its multitude of shades shimmer and pool outward like rings within a dynamic cobalt tree. Donna Miyashiro peers into it with a practiced eye, occasionally poking at the mixture with a wooden stick stained halfway up with overlapping layers of ever-deepening blues. Hovering over the scene is the unapologetically earthy scent of fermentation, the virile stench of plants becoming something entirely new.
“Toku and I are so funny smelling it, like, ‘Ooooh,’” Miyashiro says. “Because sometimes when it’s smelly, it means you got a good batch. At Lana Lane, we would drive people crazy. They’d be like, ‘What is that smell?’”
Miyashiro and Tokunari Fujibayashi are the two halves of Hawaiian Blue, a Honolulu-based brand that produces organic Hawaiian indigo-dyed creations out of Lana Lane, an artists’ collective in Kaka‘ako. “I actually met Tokunari at a weaving workshop,” Miyashiro says. “He’s from like 13 generations of a textile family in Japan. He had come here and wanted to do an indigo dye that was just from here.”
When Fujibayashi found indigo growing wild and unnoticed in the Hawai‘i mountains, he collected it and started propagating it. “This is really different from the Japanese indigo,” Miyashiro explains. “Japanese you get a really deep blue, and he wanted an indigo that reflected the sky and the ocean in Hawai‘i.” In contrast to the deeply pigmented drama of the rich indigo dye in the pail, the colors of Hawaiian Blue bags and pouches are the soft, dreamy hues of a light beryl or lilting baby blue.
Today, Miyashiro is working from her home in ‘Aiea. Buckets of mesmerizing fresh-leaf dye are set against the sliding door to her lānai, the watery excess separating from the concentrated, thick pigment in the sun of her courtyard. Miyashiro is an artist, and she takes her work home. Before indigo creations, she was making wedding dresses and clothing, and the loom from her foray into Japanese weaving sits in her back room. Textiles hang on her walls, a Haruki Murakami novel peeks out from one of the piles of tomes scattered about, and a multi-colored, painted chair reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s artwork rests by the front wall.
Miyashiro demonstrates how to plunge the scarves into the dye just so to create a bokashi, or fade effect. She bounces from spot to spot in her home: the dining room table, with its bundles of cloths and buckets of dye ready for dipping; the patio, with its precious heater that keeps persnickety fermenting indigo at just the right temperature; the side yard, where she points out unassuming indigo bushes that in two months grow from seed to harvest. Her nails have a pleasant, denim-like wash to them from dipping linen and silk in and out of the dye, over and over and over.
Indigo is all about fermentation, which is a time-consuming process. Miyashiro makes the dyes slowly and deliberately, plumbing the depths of the scrubby little plant to create something brilliant, vivid, and bursting with potential. There are two processes that can be used to create indigo dye, she explains. One, the fresh leaf technique, which is quick but fleeting, requires fully submerging the leaves in water and leaving them to soak for 24 hours, and is appropriate for lighter effects and more absorbent fabrics. The other is a long fermentation in a warm water bath that takes 10 days to two weeks, depending on conditions, to form a foamy blossom-like puff Miyashiro says is called an aibana, the Japanese word for flower. When the foam and bubbles come together to form this dense, deeply colored bloom, which sometimes has a coppery sheen, the indigo is ready. This fermented dye can be used on any fabric, but it needs constant nurturing. “They’re like children,” says Miyashiro of the indigo vats. She “feeds” them sake and honey to encourage the fermentation process. Her current vat is named Aita, inspired (as their vat names always are) by the Japanese word for blue, ai.
She dips and dips cloth in Aita, then rinses and rinses, then dips and dips again, over and over, until she gets the depth of color she wants. The shade, however, is always changing, sometimes an airy sky blue, sometimes a steely slate. “You can never reproduce the color. It’s always a surprise,” Miyashiro says. “There are no constants.”
Hawaiian Blue bags, pouches, and scarves are sold at Fishcake. The company’s output is small due to the time and labor it takes to sew and do the numerous rounds of rinsing and dyeing for each piece. But that hasn’t stopped people from hunting the duo down every now and then to place a large order, propose a collaboration, or even invite them to work on a new product. Sometimes they have taken these offers on—they partnered with Kaka‘ako café Arvo to create two-tone netted bags and shoe company OluKai to make dyed-canvas slip-ons—but generally, for Miyashiro, the risk of sacrificing quality for quantity makes her content to keep things as small as possible.
“I like the slow process, because, when you look at life, everything is so fast,” she says. “Look at the Japanese and their sense of how everything takes time: The person who makes bentos, they’ll make 15 bentos, and make them perfect. And when they’re sold out, they’re gone. There’s something about that slow, focusing-on-the-details mentality.”
Indigo is all about fermentation, which is a time-consuming process. Miyashiro makes the dyes slowly and deliberately, plumbing the depths of the scrubby little plant to create something brilliant, vivid, and bursting with potential.
“You can never reproduce the color. It’s always a surprise,” Miyashiro says of the indigo-dying process. “There are no constants.”
Hawaiian Blue fashions an exclusive line of bags, pouches, and scarves centered on indigo.
The dyes produced from Hawaiʻi-grown indigo are a dreamy, light blue intended to reflect the sky and ocean of the island landscape.