The Colorful World of Bingata

Kimonos, pocketbooks, lamp shades, umbrellas -- just about anything can be made using the brilliant-colored Bingata cloth.

What is Bingata?
Bingata, thought to be at least 500 years old, is a dyed fabric that uses stencil paper patterns. Although the word bingata doesn't appear in old documents, it used to be called katachichi, which meant "to apply patterns," or hana-nunu, a flower cloth, because of the beautiful patterns of flowers that were dyed into the cloth.

The first person to actually use the word bingata was a man called Iha Fuyu (1876-1947). Another historian, Kanjun Higashionna (1882-1963) thought the name came from Bengal, India, where the fabric was assumed to have originated. Finally, Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984), a dyework artisan, said that bingata meant "colored designs," as he believed that "bin" meant colors and "kata" (or gata) meant designs.

Whatever bingata means, it has a colorful history: It's said that during the Ryukyuan Dynasty, dyeing supplies were issued only by the King's office. The patterns and designs were made by the Drawing and Design Planning Office. Only royal family members and the upper class people in Naha were allowed to wear a bingata kimono. Women of the higher classes were said to have kept the stencil paper patterns used to make their kimono so that no other woman could wear the same bingata pattern.

The oldest piece of bingata cloth, found on Kume Island, was a silk undergarment said to have been worn by the daughter of a chieftain named Ishikawa, dating back to the reign of King Sho En (1470-76).

Thanks to the continuing popularity of traditional Okinawan dances and dramas called "Kumi-Odori," bingata production has gradually increased so that there are now many bingata studios on Okinawa.

Bingata prices may seem steep, but you have to remember that you're buying a handmade piece of Okinawan culture, unlike any other in the world. For example, a cotton bingata kimono usually starts at 50,000 (around $500), silk kimonos begin at 100,000, umbrellas are 10,000 and up and room dividers can be had for 70,000.

"It takes three people three days to paint material for a kimono," one artisan explains. "The bingata pattern is painted first on the kimono material, then that is covered with a protective gel and the material is dyed to the customer's preference."

(Dyes used are made from extracts of Okinawan plants: red comes from hibiscus; yellow from garcinias.)

It then takes almost a month to finish just one kimono -- after the painting and dyeing, it is sewn together, then delivered to customers.