Katagami – the Craft of the Japanese Stencil

Ise-Katagami is the Japanese craft of making paper stencils for dyeing textiles. The prefix Ise is used so not confuse the name with a city in the Akita prefecture in Northern Japan. I found out the difference whilst attending the opening yesterday of a unique exhibition curated by Dr Alice Humphries for ULITA (University of Leeds International Textile Archive).

This gem for textile enthusiasts and researchers alike, ULITA is found in a converted chapel just outside the main Leeds University campus but attached (usefully) to the University Business School. I say usefully because the Archive was able to use the adjacent facilities for a brief lecture given by Dr Humphries as part of the opening event.

katagami ex 3

My only experience of this approach to pattern design is through reading about ikat resist dyeing in Jack Lenor Larsen’s The Dyer’s Art where stencilling sadly only gets the briefest of mentions. Next stop, and prior to visiting ULITA, was Google Arts & Culture, who provide a stunning on-line introduction, a collaboration between Ritsumeikan University and Kyoto Women’s University. This introduction, focusing on a permanent collection at Textilemuseum St Gallen, puts the ULITA show in some perspective. It shows what’s missing – for example some video footage about the actual craft itself (readily available I discover on YouTube), and a proper display of the tools. But as a small-scale introduction, using the very limited exhibition space available, it will be, I think, most valuable for the inquisitive textile enthusiast and enquiring student alike. Take away the application of stencilling for resist patterns and we have a technique and pattern culture that has much relevance for today’s burgeoning interest in ‘paper-based art’.

The textile archive that is ULITA has, as a building, a curious structure. Imagine a small chapel that has had a mezzanine floor added, and in the aisle and where some of the seating had been, there is the physical archive, an enclosed space, going up through two floors, which, I think, can only be reached, from the first floor. To the sides of this multi-storey structure there are two corridors, which comprise the main exhibition space. It is only with some inventive curating that an exhibition of this size can work – and mostly it does. It’s a historical survey beginning in the origins of leather-work for military purposes in the 8th Century. We are talking here about stencils produced to be applied to armour, banners and clothes that signified a particular fiefdom or court. But the use of stencils really came into its own during the Edo period (1615–1868) when not only were stenciled cloth used on uniforms of the samurai but also as simple designs on day to day clothing of commoners.

Katagami ex 1

Like many of the crafts we associate with Japan, ceramics, wood block printing, and the calligraphic script, the apprenticeship was long and the techniques and processing closely guarded. The curator told me that students of Katagami spent the first year of their apprenticeship learning to sharpen their tools! Sadly the ULITA exhibition was a little short on giving a clear idea of the craft practice, choosing to use what display space that was available to show examples from the University archive, though many of exhibits coming on loan from The Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, part of Middlesex University where a major exhibition was held in 2010 on the work of the Silver Studio founded by Arthur Silver in the 1880s, the period when Japanese inspired designs first became popular in Europe.

Katagami - ex 2

In small display cases arranged at chest height around the archive walls were a mix of textile samples and the stencils themselves. It was good to see these both together and gain an idea of the richness, variety and design types. In the larger cases in-set into the internal structure that dominates this former chapel were collections of stencil types and more extensive pieces of stenciled and dyed cloth including some fine garments. For me the really intriguing part of the exhibition was that devoted to the use of stenciling craft in shibori weaving, making stencils for patterning on both warp and weft. Within in this approach there is what is known as double kasuri patterning when both warp and weft thread are bound together to create resist sections and dyed before weaving.

Kasugi ex

The exhibition interpretation was on the whole very straightforward and in a larger print size than most museums now display. In addition to this interpretation there was an impressive and very affordable catalogue and guide written by the curator Dr Alice Humphries. Sadly, although a specimen copy could be seen, this was not available to buy at the opening event, and no information on its purchase seems to be available from the ULITA website.

Katagami ex 4

In the short but very well-illustrated lecture Alice Humphries was particularly interesting on her analysis and interpretation of some of the common designs. The very common shell and leaf patterns were included, but the hemp leaf forms were new to me, and very striking. Dr. Humphries doctoral research focused on geometric shapes and for this project has used mathematical modeling to determine how the effects of light and shade were created in the stencils using only a varying thickness of line.

pattern book

The size of the audience for this lecture and opening demonstrated to me (and the surprised staff of ULITA!) that there is a vigorous interest in paper-based textile art and craft practice. I spoke to several members of regional guilds, embroiders and weavers who were clearly fascinated by the exhibition. I felt a little better able to communicate with many of these ladies (aren’t men interested in embroidery and weave?) because I’d recently attended a weekend workshop by the textile artist Alice Fox. Her course focused on walking, exploring, mark-making and hand-made books, and using many natural processes (though we didn’t make our own paper or ink!). It was a very special weekend course because of its unique location – Northey Island a 60-acre site in the Blackwater Estuary (location of the best-selling Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry). I was a very disappointing student and did not take advantage of trying out all the numerous techniques on offer during the 2-day course. I did make two small books, but got seriously involved in writing about the affect and circumstance of spring in a gloriously coastal location! See my collection of poems On Northey Island on Hello Poetry.


My other recent paper-based experience was seeing the latest work by the artist Andy Singleton. I was privileged for several years to have a studio next door to Andy and was able to witness his progressively impressive and beautiful work, much of which uses very similar techniques (I reckon) to Katagami – in the need for a very steady hand and eye in cutting and shaping paper – No CAD here!. I remember being in Great Marlborough St. WC1 one afternoon on my way to the music publishers Schott & Co, and there in the window of Liberty’s were these exquisite paper birds I’d last seen on Andy’s work table.


The ULITA exhibition Katagami – the craft of the Japanese Stencil is certainly worth a good couple of hours with a sketchbook and camera (no restrictions here). The show is open until December and there are several additional and linked events including a workshop and a curator’s tour.







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