Thursday, 20 December 2012

30 Layers of Persimmon Paper Stencils

Instead of regular class at the house on Tuesdays my students and I visited an antique dealer's house in Tokyo who had come to have several thousand old katagami stencils for luxury kimono. The master  craftsman who had owned and used them had passed away over 20 years ago and his children were cleaning up his old studio/ house to tear it down and sell the land.

Antique markets in Japan always have a few stalls selling rolls of these stencils for someone to purchase and use as an interior design object. Lampshades or perhaps to be framed. Very few people know how the stencils were actually used. We were there to purchase stencils we could use as well as glean ideas for stencils we could design and cut ourselves. Some were just so breathtaking in their complexity we bought them just to have and marvel at on a rainy day.  This was an untouched intact, previously unpicked over jackpot of katagami stencils. Oh la la. 

Uncomfortably rummaging, not only through someone's life but also through a nearly extinct and breathtaking  kimono dyeing technique was both debilitating as well as invigorating. We were seriously burnt-out after a few hours of evaluating stencils as our eyes and criteria sharpened with each hundred leafed-through, while filling out our personal collections.

Many of the stencils came in bundles of 30. Wrap your head around this.... It would take 30 (or many more) individually hand-carved stencils, for each colour and to resist areas with rice-paste to dye the background colours. These were for Edo Sarasa stencil technique kimono from the 1960's through to the late 80's when the craftsman had passed away.

A book could be written about the pile of stencils and sketches and cloth samples on the table beside me. It hasn't been written and I don't have the time to do it. Just a blog entry.

With some bundles of stencils were the hand drawn original sketches for the patterns that also acted as colour keys for the dyer to use. Here are a few I picked up. You can see the Indian and Arabic influences along with the pure Japanese stuff. These are the patterns that would be repeatedly dyed on 14 meters of silk with seamless accuracy. A thousand hours of work? More?

An individual stencil would be cut for each colour and a series of stencils cut to resist the pattern so that the background colour could be applied.

This leaf pattern stencil is easy to understand. Only three stencils instead of thirty. The paper is the smoked persimmon tannin layered paper that has been developed over hundreds of years to perfectly fit with these dyeing techniques.

Here is a small swatch of Edo Sarasa cloth. 

I will write more about that day in the next few blogs. The ingenuity of the stencil designs and the how we will use some of our given-up-for-dead stencils. I would prefer for my students to design and carve our own original stencils but since we bought these we should respect them and use them a few times.


  1. geeezzzz! what luck although it felt weird.
    you'll write the book in its due time and make all of us happy with it.

  2. Hi Bryan! It is an interesting topic, thanks for sharing all these information.


  3. Unbelievable!!! Those stencils are incredibly valuable - too bad the family members didn't treasure their maker's artistry and keep them.
    I took a course with Karen Miller, a couple of years ago, and she would likely appreciate them like no one else. Maybe give her an email and let her know.
    How very lucky that they may see an afterlife with you, your students or ???
    Jennifer Cooper

  4. Wow Bryan, what a treasure trove and I understand your emotion of rummaging through the stencil master's life. Having had that little (but very special) experience with stencils in the Spring I both appreciate and envy your collection.

  5. wow so amazing. hard to see so much thought and care and time spent on a thing just (possibly) melting away. nice to hear about and peek at.

  6. I simply can't imagine how overwhelming such a collection would be. it is wonderful that your students - and you, who will respect and appreciate them had the opportunity to see and choose some. would they be using chemical or natural dyes? the sarasa I bought in Tokyo has an indigo background with 2 colours and white, that seems complicated enough

  7. i think of riches of this sort all bundled up and antiqued...well, i think about the ephemerality of materiality and i have no answer. as a textile maker i just have to do it. i wonder if that artist could have not made these cloths? in any case you found these beautiful papers, stencils and will honor them. i wonder if they can then be re-used.

  8. We found out today that some are very fragile. Hmmm.

  9. Hi Brian,
    Beeing a printer myself I appreciate the fact, that such treasures are kept alive by someone who knows their value. I feel always a lot of pain when things like this are lost, because people don't know about or just don't care. So many hours of work for just putting proper samples together, not to talk of the rest.
    Later the loss will be mourned.

    Greetings from Germany, where the snow coming down yesterday starts melting

  10. So much beauty and so much skill. Absolutely breathtaking.