Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Origins of Katazome Dyeing

Blandina san's first try with katazome.

I was not deeply interested in katazome dyeing although I had been working with the techniques for many years.  The techniques and history (especially local) of raising silkworms and making silk thread and weaving caught my imagination much more than stencil dyeing. There is an indigo vat at the house and in exploring the possibilities of dying with that, it didn't take long to bump into the long history and affinity of indigo and stencil dyeing.  I had spent years visiting Noguchi san's katazome studio learning more about fermenting indigo and simply dyeing with indigo, than picking up any katazome techniques from him. After years of watching him at work I felt familiar with the stencils and his techniques when looking at katazome samples in antique textile shops and in books.  I knew basically how they were made and that was enough. I can't remember exactly when I started cutting and using stencils myself.  It was definitely a side activity. After 15 years and even a few exhibitions of selling katazome work I began to realize that I was quite knowledgeable about the subject. But like the stencils themselves, there are a lot of holes that need filled in!

I recently realized, after researching sarasa techniques that I was in fact quite passionate about the whole katazome world. There are a few dozen books in Japanese on the shelf about the subject and up until recently the pictures had been satisfying enough. The specialized language and complicated kanji were too much of a challenge. The first few pages of these articles and research papers often included pictures of fabric from the ancient imperial treasure repository, Shosoin. Being more interested in the clothing of farmers than aristocrats I didn't bother to read further. Besides, most textile historians in Japan endlessly refer to the  textile treasures in the shosoin and I suspect it was more for the textile historian equivalent of street creds it provided than actual meaningful reference. Now that I am working through these articles I see the significance of the references to these ancient textiles produced in Japan and not Korea and China from the 7th century forward. The techniques that pre-dated katazome use are now fascinating in their ingenuity and the groundwork they laid for the wide spread use of katazome in the following 1000 years.

Carved woodblocks were used before paper stencils (katazome) in Japan to make a pattern on cloth. Three techniques were used.

First type:
The wood blocks were carved and the dye/ink was painted on the raised part of the wood block. The woodblock was then pressed onto the cloth transferring the color onto the cloth.

Second type:
The same design was carved onto two boards and the fabric stretched and sandwiched between the two boards and then clamped in place. There were holes in one of the boards where the dye was poured into the carved out chamber.
Third type:
 Like the first type but the raised part of the wood block pattern is coated in melted wax instead of color pigment. The wax is pressed into the cloth. The the cloth is submerged in a dye bath and you get a white motif against colored background.

The problem is that the lines are not that refined or defined and the craftsmen of the time wanted more precise control of the pattern making.

There had been a type of paper cut out that was placed on the fabric or other paper and had a mist of paint/ink applied from above. The paper cut out is then removed and there is a light shadow of the cut out left. I did this as a kid with small stencils of bunnies on Easter eggs. The food color was sprayed on using an old tooth brush.

I've read that paper stencils developed out of another technique of metal sheets that had pattern holes cut in them. Leather was placed below and pounded through the pattern holes to imprint a shape and color. The leather stenciled material was used for armor  in the 9th century.

To recap...there were three surface design techniques using carved wood blocks. There was a metal sheet pounding technique for leather and there was the sprinkle pigment on a cut-out technique.

It was about the year 1100 when stencil dyes started to appear in Japan. They developed along with good quality paper and rice paste that was needed to resist the patterns.

Around 1500 stencil dying took root firmly in Japan and was used primarily for the clothing of military men. The samurai had been imitating the woven patterned cloth of the aristocracy but during the warring stated period they had enough confidence to return to their commoner roots and wear stencil dyed fabric as apposed to woven brocades.

What followed was 600 years of stencil dyed surface designed textiles.  The rise of Samurai aesthetics (influenced by Zen Buddhism) and then the merchant class wealth and their tastes and other historical and economical factors played out through these centuries effecting design and color and fashionable popularity of katazome techniques. I will  leave these for future posts.

There are no wood block prints and sketches of textile designers working with those primitive woodblock print techniques in the 8th century. We don't know what their studios looked like or answers to the questions of their production. We can just fill in the blanks from their choice of motifs and the sophistication (or lack of) of their technical skills. There are some museums that hold some of these ancient textiles.....I wish I had a few months free to go and explore these.


  1. always admired katazome, but find it too time consuming.that's one of the reasons i believe in reincarnation :)

    1. Neki san,
      Compared to your work katazome is such a breeze! Don't wait for your next life!

  2. How interesting it is to learn how one thing led to another and how a technique developped through the centuries. It amazes me to see through wchich complex phases a process went before achieving a satisfactory technique.

    1. Blandina san,
      Isn't it? I get excited when I see how processes developed. The gaps makes one very hungry to know who, what, where, why, and how. Filling in the gaps with katazome history is going to be great.

  3. The katazome technique has always intrigued me. The adventure we had in noguchisan's studio was a real plus.