Wednesday, 15 September 2010


In a few posts over the next month I will try to give some insights into Japanese Katazome from my experiences. No Specific order...

Katazome is the word used for a paste resist type of dying in Japan. The subject quickly gets broad and deep at the same time. I'll keep it somewhat simple and focused to indigo dyed material here.

It was a skill I picked up unintentionally over several years. I often visited a katazome/indigo craftsman in a nearby town to dye with his indigo in the winter months when I didn't have a vat going at my house myself. I was first introduced to Noguchi san 17 years ago when I took my elderly friend there so she could dye some silk thread blue for a kimono she wanted to weave for her husband. I had been to several natural fermentation indigo studios before (and studied) but this was the first one that seemed 'pure' in the sense that it was a 7th generation craftsman making a single product, a double-sided paste resist summer cotton kimono.

The place was/is ramshackle and even had a wooden bathtub heated by a fire. Unfortunately it was replaced by a plastic model a few years back. (Let me aged wooden cedar bathtub feels like heaven on yer bare bottom after a hard day at the indigo vat.) In other words, the place was real. No pretensions, no gift shop selling indigo dyed tissue box covers and dorky hiking hats with a tag explaining that indigo has been 'used since ancient times to ward off mosquitoes'. Here was just a straightforward craftsman and his wife and family struggling to make ends meet.

At that time I was dying thread and shape resist material and not interested in Katazome.

I was doing my best to get a handle on those skills and was cognitively dissonant to the process going on next to me that Noguchi san had been going through since he was a child helping his father and grandfather. I watched him from a distance in his studio and asked polite questions about the seemingly impossible to understand process. There were ancient hand crank machines and brick ovens, wooden tubs of ash and powders and soot and soybeans and an array of blue stained hooked and pointed tools. I felt I had seen these things in some torture dungeon in a castle/museum somewhere in Europe. I knew these tools were all in-use to make a simple innocent looking roll of flower printed indigo cloth. The whole place is still somewhat spooky and time slipped like a surreal indigo blue splashed slaughterhouse. A casual glance around the place with the almost overwhelming smell of ammonia from the fermenting indigo vats might make you into some kind of denim phobic version of a vegetarian.

I honestly thought it would take a life time of someone far more skilled than myself to penetrate into. So I didn't even try at first.

Taking in his complex work was like learning a language. Watching the big one's mouths move and unconsciously forming the sounds with your own mouth. I must have looked pretty fetal speaking broken Japanese and gawking all around me at the incomprehensible chaotic studio.

I helped him prepare a 6 meter board with heavy rice paste one day. I couldn't fathom why. I watched him make the paste from some really foul-looking goops in ceramic containers pulled out of a burrow in the ground. I couldn't fathom all the fuss and effort until years later when I started to make my own paste that always seemed to be lacking something. Body or elasticity or some other quality that made it impossible to get a clear line when dying.

He would grind some red powder from taken from an amber apothocaric type chipped glass cylinder kept on a rafter beam, with a mortar and pestle. Later I figured out some of the chaos in the system and that there was a system in the chaos. The goop was kept under the ground to keep it cool and not quite fermenting, the pigment was kept on a rafter to keep it dry and was used to make the paste visible on a neutral background fabric. The heavier paste was to hold the linen in perfect place so the pattern could be seamlessly stenciled in place. The hundreds of steps are not carried out in an order that makes sense to the casual observer. Dropping in once a month for a few hours was like randomly reading pages in a Dostoevsky novel. It couldn't possibly make sense until read from the start to the finish.

After several years of visiting Noguchi san I realized I had almost unintentionally figured out what he was doing. When I started the questions in earnest I ran into the famous Japanese proverb and it painfully stubbed my too big Caucasian nose. 'A master doesn't teach you must steal his technique.'

Stealing technique. Young me and ageless Noguchi san.

Technique stolen and starting on my own.

He was suddenly very mute and I even got an single arched eyebrow and grumpf when I queried a bit to obviously into his secret recipe for keeping his indigo healthy in the winter. I've caught my own eyebrow arch and a snark in my own voice when I am asked these same questions now. Not that I am being cheap with the tricks of the trade. No... it's that the tricks have taken years and years to pick up and it is like asking a fisherman about the cloud formations and the chance of rain. These things are not put into words and to try invites an instant migraine.

Noguchi san.


  1. Brilliant post Bryan. I revere your experience learning a trade hands-on. Considering using modern equipment this could be done faster, but the traditional way makes it infinitely more beautiful.

  2. Thank you for the fantastic post, and fabulous blog. I am always so excited to see a new post in my feed reader. I love the pictures of the pasting process!

  3. Bryan - wonderful post! Fascinating...

  4. i am enjoying your posts very much. such food for the thought.thank you

  5. Thank you for amazing post, i wish if i could learn this technique, almost similar technique used for making Ajrak in Pakistan & India.

  6. Dear Alfred:
    I never figured out how to reply to comments on this blog. I appreciate the comments left but up until now I have simply responded with a one way reply posted in my own head. I'll try to do better.

    Thank you for following the blog.

  7. Bryan,
    Just discovered your blog. I am not sure what I enjoy most..... the excitment in learning new techniques.... or your incredible journey. I do hope you will consider publishing this wonderful experience one day. I will be following with great interest.

  8. very intersting. the intimacy with which you allow us to see your learning and teaching portrays so much respect and love, not only fo rthe textiles, but for the people. thank you, i so enjoy your blog.

  9. Wonderful, insightful description. Great 'word painting - I can see the scenario. Thank you for sharing such a rare experience. Kudos to you for absorbing the silence and applying it to your work, it certainly shows. Ahh... the ever-dreaded 'arched look' - familiar with that. Can we see more of your work - dozo?! -CG