Rooted in nature and with more than two centuries of experience, our Kindred Spirit brand Yoshioka is authentic and heritage-led. We connected with the Japanese textile dyer, discovering the many similarities in our values and ethos as Johnstons of Elgin celebrated 150 years of trade with Japan.
Textile dyer Yoshioka (Somenotsukasa Yoshioka in Japanese) has been operating in Kyoto, an ancient capital city of Japan, for five generations. The team colour silk, hemp, cotton and other natural textiles with dyes harvested from flower petals, stalks, leaves, roots, tree bark and nuts. Yoshioka works closely with nature, following seasonal changes and tending to the health of plants and soil. The whole process is done by hand with pure water drawn from 100 meters below the ground.
Natural dyer and textile historian Sachio Yoshioka transitioned the family business from synthetics to natural dyes when he took the helm in 1988. When Sachio passed away in 2019, his daughter Sarasa stepped into his role and continued championing her father’s ideas. As part of our Kindred Spirits series, we chatted to Sarasa about business, style and her vision for the 200-year-old brand.
Johnstons of Elgin and Yoshioka are multi-generational family businesses with a history spanning more than two centuries. Are there any other similarities you can see between the brands?
Firstly, we are honoured to feature in your Kindred Spirits series. Somenotsukasa Yoshioka has been in business for over 200 years, and we only use natural plant dyes. We previously used European chemical dyes, but my grandfather and father wanted to return to the natural ones. This has happened bit by bit, and now we only use entirely natural dyes. Regarding other similarities, I believe we both value the materials we work with. We need to have mature knowledge to make the best of natural materials, and we need to have a strong passion for providing high-quality products worldwide.
Can you describe your role within Somenotsukasa Yoshioka?
I am an all-rounder, doing all kinds of work within the company (except sewing). I am involved in ordering dye materials, preparing yarns and fabrics, dyeing, occasionally weaving, selling the products, speaking at seminars, writing, accounting and managing schedules.
Our chairman Jenny Urquhart represents the fourth generation of her family at Johnstons of Elgin. What does running a sixth-generation family business mean to you?
I am the first woman to hold this position in the company. In Japan, it is traditional for a family business to be taken over by the eldest son. However, in our history, the third generation was taken over by the younger son because the eldest decided to be a painter. Then my grandfather was adopted to represent the fourth generation because there was no boy in the family. After my grandfather passed away, my father took the position. I think family business and its history are very interesting, and I feel like it was my destiny to take it on.
Johnstons of Elgin has strong links with our local community. What is the relationship between Somenotsukasa Yoshioka and the local community?
There are only 12 of us working in a small factory, but a lot of people partner with us in all the processes, from raw materials to products. Our dyes and materials come from different countries, and some of our fabrics are dyed in their country of origin - China and India. It’s essential to have good relationships with our partners. Those relationships allow us to keep making high-quality products. Building skills and relationships is like growing a plant; they are difficult to bring back to life if you lose them.
Can you describe your personal style?
Nowadays, it’s difficult to wear 100% naturally dyed products from head to toe because a lot of clothes are chemically dyed, but I always wear our clothing and accessories because they have been naturally dyed.
In your opinion, what makes a piece of clothing a classic?
The most important thing is the quality of the material and the skills used to create clothing. To help people understand the value of our products, it's very important to tell them the history behind our dyeing and weaving. Our brand tries not to be old-fashioned but familiar.
Which accessory could you not live without?
I couldn’t live without a stole.
What do you love most about Kyoto?
Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Japan, but there is a lot of modern culture too. I like that it has a mixture of traditional and contemporary culture. For example, the city has temples and European buildings, but many people here prefer to eat bread rather than rice.
Your father wanted to reintroduce the bright colours of the Nara and Heian periods to the Yoshioka offering. What is your vision for this?
I would like to carry on my father’s plans and pass on his skills. The colour of plants is clear and beautiful. We have lost the sense of natural colour because there are so many chemical dyes these days, but I hope to reintroduce the bright colours of the Nara and Heian periods. I am involved in projects with universities, museums and the Sohoin Office (an organisation under the Imperial Household Agency that manages the treasures of temples) to reproduce historical colours.
At Johnstons of Elgin, we are concerned with responsible business standards and reducing our environmental footprint. In what ways does Somenotsukasa Yoshioka support these values?
We use only natural materials and produce dyes we can drain without polluting water and the earth - it is a very eco-friendly way to dye. Moreover, we can use by-products such as wood ash to feed new fields or give it to potters to glaze their work. We try to be mindful of the natural ecological cycle of things as much as possible.
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