Sunday, 11 March 2018

Katazome...Japanese Stencils: Recreating Antique Japanese Textiles

I've seen thousands and thousands of pieces of Japanese katazome indigo stenciled cloth. I don't get too excited.

Only a well-drawn stencil, a cleverly designed stencil, a rare motif, exceptional indigo color and often a nostalgic stencil a friend or old student has cut can make me pause, examine and think.

I picked up this Japanese butterfly patterned cloth at Morita Antiques in Tokyo a few years back. Butterflies would not make it on a list of favorite motifs but the clever use of other natural motifs set in the wings was so elegant yet humble. The use of soot to get the gradations of grey to black and the delightful shades of faded blue made it irresistible.

Pre-industrialised poetry. Before electricity.

It is from the late Edo period  1800 to 1850.
It is made of handspun  Japanese cotton and handwoven at a 36-centimeter width.
It was part of a cotton kimono or an afterbath kimono worn by a man. Samurai class or perhaps merchant class. 

The background is naturally dyed indigo. The black and grey parts are dyed with soot and bound to the cloth with soy milk. 

The pattern is finely drawn. Natural motifs of peonies and bamboo leaves are inside the wings of some of the butterflies. Typical of Japanese design.

I took the cloth to my old friend 7th generation Noguchi san's studio and told him I wanted to reproduce the cloth and needed his help with the eventual pasting.

He looked at it with disbelief.

 The main obstacle to reproduce this antique cloth was finding someone who can cut the stencils for it. I thought of trying myself but simply do not have the time or the skill level. I found the master of masters, Isao Uchida from Ise in Mie prefecture. (This town supplied all the stencils for all of Japan historically. ) He is the head of the Japanese persimmon paper stencil preservation association. He is a tsukibori stencil cutter. He uses the board with the holes underneath the paper so to cut graceful lines. 

I visited his home and studio 5 years ago and took the above pictures.

I took a  sample of the cloth and headed down south to meet him and ask for his help last month. 

He agreed.

It took him a few weeks to complete the cutting.  I can see how he cleverly reproduced the stencil with the use of carbon paper and his God-given drawing skills and infinite patience with a razor sharp knife. 

People are bigger than they were hundreds of years ago and I asked him to add a few butterflies on the 36cm width to get a full 40cm width.

The stencil arrived today and they are beautiful. It takes seven different stencils to recreate this pattern. Three for the white lines alone and four to help cover with paste the grey and black areas once they are painted in with soot and soy milk.

The stencil would be too fragile to be cut on a single piece of paper. So the fine lines were spaced apart from each other and spread over three papers.

You can see the pattern with two of the three overlaid on each other.

Whiteboots photobombed the stencil to be used to resist the grey sections. 

I started writing a book on Making Japanese Hanten Jackets. Starting with indigo seeds. 

The reproduced butterfly stencil will be used to dye a gorgeous lining for the jacket.

I'll take the stencils to Noguchi's place with my first wave of workshop students this spring and see what we can do.

Very very exciting days...


  1. Wow. I'm in awe, these are stunnng, my stencil cutting is limited to basic silk screen

  2. Such beauty. How lucky you are to live in a community off likeminded artisans and craftsmen and women, the result if many years of respecting and honouring their traditions and skills. The added bonus of being able to share these traditions and skills with all of us is very special . Thank you with all my heart.

    1. I wish I had been a little more proactive from the start. It took me many years to see how fragile the system is.

  3. Now, wouldn't your book be wonderful covered with that pattern? In any case that cloth is just gorgeous, glad you are reproducing it.

    1. Might just put a wee slip of the reproduced material in each one...anyway...along time to think about it....

    2. yes, it would be a lovely addition. long thinks are good things.

    3. oh oh....regretting the book announcement....I'll keep moving foraward on it.

  4. so many moments to celebrate - that you recognized the value of the original fabric, that there are craftspeople with the knowledge and skill to faithfully recreate each step in the process. Doubt this could happen in any other country. Are you planning to use handspun, handwoven fabric? - you wouldn't need too much yardage for just the lining. Waiting impatiently for the book.

    1. There is a Japanese company that hand weaves hand spun cotton. I'll use that. But think that Noguchi and Uchida are no spring chickens. They have left a few people with the skills though.

    2. Thinking of some time on a truffle farm in June writing a few chapters.....if that cattle grate doesn't eat a Canadian this time..

  5. Great, you're back! Now, I will leisurely admire all of your postings. First thing, my condolences, at the passing of your friend Kiyotaka Sugimoto. He sounds like a well contented man. Reminds me of my ji-chan and great uncle who were gently forced to retire.
    They were farmers who did it all, hasu, watercress, rice, pigs, chickens, geese & a little bit of hooch.

    1. I like the Japanese word for farmers: "Ohyakusho". (Someone who can do a hundred things.)

  6. By reproducing the pattern you are making sure it doesn't disappear forever. Such an important contribution to the preservation of such a unique display of skills.
    Put me down for a copy of the book !
    Claudia Fisk

    1. Signed copy for you Claudia. The whole project has the gears working overtime. Instead of, "What will I write?" I am already at "What will I edit out?"

  7. dear Bryan
    Glad that you have come out of hibernation, but I totally get the feeling. London was under snow a couple of weeks ago!

    Sad that you lost your old friend. My old printing master died last year and your post made me think of him.

    Your butterfly project does appeal, as you can guess. That gives me inspiration for the katazome project. But you are pushing this to a whole other level.

    A bientot.

  8. How exciting! I can’t wait to see the dyed fabric, and I guess I will just have to wait for the book!

    I still owe you a photo of a stencil I cut after your Vancouver visit. Of course, it’s nothing compared to Uchida san’s work, but I’ll be happy if the repeats line up.


  9. I hope I can visit you someday soon!!
    I am a graphic designer currently based in Kyoto, and am planning to pursue a masters degree with my research related to Indian and Japanese textiles!
    I am gradually moving into the world of nature, print and dye!
    Your work and stories are so inspiring!
    Thank you for sharing!!

  10. The antique butterfly fabric is exquisite. It's amazing that Noguchi was able to replicate the design in stencil. Razor sharp implements and steady hands. I hope others are apprenticing with him so that this traditional art will live on.