Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Katazome Technique Number One: Kiribori.

I can't sleep with too much excitement over my trip last week to Kyoto and Ise to visit textile related studios and museums.

The trip mostly focused on Katazome.

There are five basic categories of stencils. Your eyes may glaze over reading that but stick with me through  these next few blogs.

Kiribori is the oldest technique. It is carved with a semicircle awe like this one.  The carvers make their own tools.  The size of the semicircle determines the size of the hole. The tools increase in minute fractions of diameter.

The tool is held carefully at a 90 degree angle to the stack of six persimmon tannin papers (You can see them bound together with  the white paper threads.) and a slight twisting action against a deerskin thimble of sorts drills/cuts the hole.

 It is supposedly the most difficult of the five techniques. There were once hundreds of Kiribori stencil cutters. There are only a few left who work at this level. We were particularly interested shark skin patterns this time and the master carver was kind enough to give us a private demonstration.

Rice paste is scraped over the wet stencil and later dyed, then the paste removed. The shark skin pattern was usually dyed with indigo. The stencil carver explained that there were no indigo craftsmen capable of dyeing this pattern left.
 Chemical dyes like this purple are used.
Here is a copy of the stencil that made this pattern in the process of being carved. The whet stones for the carving tools are sitting on the paper.

 There were dozens of variations of this shark skin pattern in the Edo period.  Samurai would order a stencil that he had exclusive rights to use for his formal wear. Later as the merchant class evolved they copied the class they sought to emulate with similar patterns and stencil dyed kimonos became common and the production increased exponentially for several hundred years. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of different patterns. The artistic quality varied however, the ingenuity and skill levels of the artists/craftsmen is still mind-boggling. With so few artisans working on these and the almost disappearance of kimono in the last 70 years the originality and artistic quality has plummeted. It seems a certain critical number of artisans is needed to sustain the art.

 Many of these stencils are copies of old stencils from the 19th century. The old stencils are placed on the paper and the pattern is stencilled on to new paper using a powder-puff type brush with thickened ink. The black portion of the stencil is then carved out. That is rather depressing to witness, however there are simply no people with sufficient design, carving and drawing skills left on the planet to come up with designs that are near the level of those from pre-industrial times.

Different sizes of the carving awles can be used to create these kind of patterns:

The artisans are desperately trying to keep these breathtaking skills alive by thinking of new applications for the stencils. Interior design goods are one area they are focusing on. This also gets a little depressing. The history and skill and artistry of these stencils is not respected with the design level of the products they are coming up with. Are there any rocking genius designers out there that could do these stencils and their history justice?

The idea of creating a stained glass effect by sandwiching the stencils between glass on doors was not bad. The doors they had designed for the project were horrible shellacked nightmares. There is a huge multi-gazillion yen building dedicated to showing off these beautiful stencils and their history. There are a dozen government workers forlornly walking around. Can't they find a designer and carpenter to make a decent solid Zelkova wood door? Something elegant or stately or even run-down and shabby chic perhaps? Something that has just a smidgen of poetry and humanity in it's design? It just makes you want to tear your hair out and scream in desperation.  

The peace and quiet and breathtaking beauty of this Zen temple in the countryside quieted my angst. Tanaka san and I had the entire complex to ourselves on a Saturday afternoon. Heaven.


  1. Amazing shark skin images. Wow.
    The snowflakes add peace.

  2. Hi Bryan - thanks for sharing your discoveries and angst as you embark on your new learnings. You are brave - and fortunate to live where you can at least experience and explore Katazome techniques. Go forth and enjoy!!

  3. the history of textiles in Japan is so amazing but lifestyle changes are so severe and rapid that techniques are being lost forever - it breaks my heart. soon it will only be seen in museums. Kyoto in the snow - how wonderful.

    1. Hi Jean,
      Snow in Kyoto....my feet weren't cold because I was levitating. So beautiful! Aghhh...what will be left in 20 years? Just heartbreaking to think what is being thrown away.

  4. thank you for sharing.the tools are beautiful and what to say about the stencils! so many different technical skills needed to make one.
    your head must still be reeling.and heavens bestowed snow on you!
    shoji doors showing one or two stencils?i share your sadness,we keep losing textile heritage.

    ise always makes me think of kawabata.

    1. Ohh Neki...my head is still reeling. What can I do to keep it going just a little longer? Life suddenly seems so short.

  5. I have recently discovered your fascinating blog. I have a question about the paper used for the stencil. You mentioned that there are six layers bound together. Are these layers fused together for strength? If not, why are there six layers? Hope you don't answering my silly question because I'll probably be bothering you with more in the future! Thanks in advance.


    1. Hi Mary,
      An individual stencil paper is composed of three to six layers. Five to Seven of these individual stencils are lashed together and carved at the same time. It takes so long to carve a single stencil that they carve several at the same time. The bottom stencil is discarded as the cuts are slightly off kilter.

  6. How extraordinary and how privileged and humbled you must feel. My head is spinning for you and ooohhhh the Zen Temple, a total sensory overload!
    So glad I started Japanese language classes 2 weeks ago, all ready for 2014's workshops!

  7. Brian - wonderful post...no glazed eyes here. Thank you.

  8. Not only *not* glazed over, but waiting for the next installment. I know your interest and sharing will inspire others to help keep it going!


  9. Hi Bryan,
    So interesting.... its very sad to think of these incredible artisans becoming a thing of history...I have just got back from a weekend in Mino and was lucky to watch a lantern maker at work there - but also a trade that is difficult to make a living from now. My mind is racing with the possibilties of how to bring these crafts into the new.
    Im hoping to see some Katazome in Kyoto if you have any tips.