Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Katazome Stencil Volume

The tidy chaos of a Japanese stencil dyer's studio sort of snagged my foot and tripped me into that world twenty years ago. It wasn't the skill to make make surface design patterns with indigo dyeing or their beauty. The initial reaction was a yawn.

Hand spun silk, dyed with natural dyes and hand woven stripes and checks still moves me the most when it comes to textiles. Secondly, oddly enough, are white linen, needle worked in some fashion  European stuff. 

I first went to Noguchi san's katazome studio/house with Minako all these years ago when she wanted to dye some silk for a weft. I had never heard of katazome before and was simply overwhelmed by all the old equipment that was still in use. I've taken many of my guests here to be as overwhelmed as I was initially. (Judi I haven't forgotten your breakdown at the beauty of the place.)

Katazome has been a major part of indigo life here in Japan. It has been eyed rather suspiciously from a distance to tell the truth. Like some object or person in your life you never really noticed, paid much attention to or even loved until one day you can't imagine life without it/him/her. It is here to stay and be acknowledged, celebrated a little and have any suspicions discarded .

Except for an exhibition in Europe a few years back where I cut out stencils of elaborate Buddhist images and used them on antique linen cloth and dyed them with indigo and persimmon tannin to a degree where the images were barely recognisable, I haven't really used the katazome with any true focus.

(On the wall behind Tohei and Annette.)

 I travelled to Ise and researched how the paper is made and the traditional stencil carving categories and techniques. The bookcase has a few dozen books on Japanese stencil dyeing.  I've visited studios and exhibitions.  Given talks about stencils in Japan. Designed and cut hundreds of stencils.

I've taught countless people how to cut stencils, lacquer on silk reinforcement net, make rice paste, paste and indigo dye the cloth. I haven't worked on any long term projects myself. Realising how much time I've spent on life with katazome and not accomplished much I figure it is time to up the volume a bit.

Now with the knitting machines working and a cotton/ linen paper thread balance has been worked out, there is a growing stack of white knit fabric upstairs that needs some katazome surface design. I  designed  a few good scarves and wraps that are selling. There is plenty of room for improvement and more product design. I have a teacher come in and teach me pattern making and sewing classes a few hours each Wednesday at the Atsugi studio. The middle term goal is to indigo and persimmon stencil dye some knit fabric I make on those old machines and develop (design and make) some men's shirts and cardigans and scarves and find a market for them.

Last year, due to time restrictions,  I  used a combination of stencils drawn and cut myself with old stencils I bought at antique markets. A few of the bought ones are well over 150 years old. I re-lacquered them and have used them so much that they are disintegrating.  It was cool to give them one more shot at life.  Sad to see that they won't last much longer.

You can use the old stencils in a way they were not intended and you can admire the genius of the design. The time trip to the culture and time that the stencils design and technique came from is invigorating.

It is cool to sing other peoples songs. But the satisfaction of writing and composing your own is different. (Even if they are not up Neil Young standards.) The same with the stencils. (Not up to the Edo masters standards.)

It is only natural to want to cut all original stencils for the knit project now.

One of the very old, worn out stencils is this wave pattern. It seemed a little banal at first. But if you scrape the paste across and then slightly shift the stencil and re-apply it makes an interference pattern that is interesting and easy on the eye. Since the goal is not to have perfectly lined up repeat patterns and a cold perfectionism it is fine to do this. The stencil has been in tatters time and time again and it has been painstakingly patched.

 It was time to carve a new one. I ended up netting both sides of the stencil and as a result the paste started clogging up. Grfrrrrrrrr. It was no longer fun to use. It was a late Maria Callas concert. Plenty of adoration and respect but there comes a time to retire.

These are the effects possible with this particular stencil. You can see why it was sad to see it fall apart. 

Stitch three pieces of katagami paper together so you can cut three stencils at once. It is harder to cut three at a time but obviously it is time efficient. The original wave stencil seemed too fine to reproduce with mortal motor skills so the waves were enlarged. To compensate for the boldness of line,  the lines were cut as if they were painted with a brush.  Connecting islands between waves to keep the stencil stronger were carefully added. The overall the pattern is OK. But it was missing delicacy and had no poetry. (Some of the horizontal lines are actually from the paper lighting fixture it is being held in front of.)

Trying it out a few times with indigo (had to break the ice on the surface) it isn't bad but too much of it would be a mistake. (Combined here with some shape resist with the stencil dyeing to get that separate tonal wave effect. )

So it was back to the drawing board last night. Using the old stencils basic measurements of 8mm spacing I redrew it.  It is now at  the tweaking the touch stage. Not in any attempt to make it mine but to hide a few deficits in cutting skills.  The waves need to be a little sexier before the cutting starts.  You may pick up a few griding-out-for-waves tips here. ( Open to advice on this side too.) It took about six hours of concentration to get it this far. It will need 25 to 30 hours of cutting now. Instead of stitching together three separate sheets of katagami paper, the paper was simply folded in thirds and then stitched to stop slipping around. 

This stencil will be used in tandem with another yet to be cut stencil of some seaweed-like stuff.  The goal is ten good stencils this year. Five wave motifs and five something in/under/amongst the waves motifs. (As my turning 50 next week crisis continues I am setting these sort of goals.)

So katazome is being moved from peripheral vision to centre stage for a the next few months. There is a   clear place to use them now. Everything is good.


  1. are you seeing waves in your dreams? i wonder about the knitted paper yarn, and how it feels and looks. i do wish sometimes that i could pop over for a cup of tea and a good look at the doings. your stencil, well, it is quite beautiful in process. does neil young make textiles, too?!

  2. on the weekend…he is trying to make it pay...

  3. Good post, and by the way turning 50 is not a trigger for a crisis, embrace it, it's just a number :-) Happy Birthday!

    1. As far as numbers go 50 isn't bad. I sort of like the number 35 better. It has a nice ring to it.

  4. it might not, but it'll be powerful!

  5. i like imperefections, off registers and such. they give so much soul.
    if you're interested in drafting patterns let me know i can send you pdfs of old (40's 50's) pattern drafting books.
    and please don't buy a red sports car :)

    1. Neki san,'Yes, I will take the pdfs. And please if I could get my hands on one of these would you forgive me relapse into adolescence?

    2. forgiveness granted, just because it's vintage :)

  6. the wave stencil is marvelous, it must take forever to cut. I didn't know you could dye in the frozen indigo vat. I will never forget our visit to Noguchi-san's, how is the new grandson?

  7. Hi Jean,
    The indigo was in good condition so under the frozen surface was fine. Dyed like an angel. The little grandson is cute. I have my fingers crossed that he will eventually take over. (What a rare sentiment that is, in this day and age.)

  8. Hi Brian,
    your new project sounds great.
    I wish you Happy Birthday and drink a toast to you Prost :))

  9. oh bryan! this is too wonderful! living here in the states, we don't get to see work like this very often, though i was fortunate enough to visit kasuri dyeworks while they were still around. the gentleman and his wife who owned it brought back (amongst other treasures) hundreds of vintage and antique katazome stencils. most were amazingly intricate, fragile, and expensive. my mother acquired one of these that she now has framed. i picked up a book (in english, as my japanese is atrocious) about the history of katazome and a very large, simple wave and dragonfly katazome (not so old or intricate, but entrancing all the same). i never would have thought too much about katazome...relegating the idea of them to the same drawer as i would mexican tissue paper banners...until i read that book. it is a magical art! you are a wonder (which we already knew) for applying your skills to discovering your very own journey with them! watching that journey will be a joy for us all!

    meanwhile, a very happy birthday to you! i'll be turning 49 in a few months myself (not quite 50, but close enough), and while i may not be contemplating a red sportscar, i think i've done much the same in a different direction when i bought a 1960 international harvester b110 pickup this past year and have begun the long process of tearing it apart and putting it back together as a hotrod! ha! maybe it will be complete next year when i hit that 50 mark!

  10. Nice blog! and it has very nice pictures..
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