The Art of Katazome Printing

Katazome translates from Japanese into English as ‘stencil dyeing’. The technique - at first mainly used to print textiles for kimonos - originated in Okinawa, Japan and it was developed as a more economically friendly way to print over a large surface area, in comparison to weaving the pattern as a jacquard or embroidering a design. The use of katazome printing on paper was a secondary application of this technique and became prevalent in post-war Japan in the 1950s.

Katazome is synonymous with the work of highly respected Japanese textile designer Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984). Born to a wealthy family of cloth merchants in Shizuoka, a centre of the dyeing industry, Serizawa displayed a keen interest in painting at an early age and aspired to be a professional artist. In 1916 he graduated from the design division of the Tokyo Technical College. Inspired by the bingata (multicoloured, stencil-dyed) textiles of Okinawa, he began to research traditional materials of other regions. Being involved in the entire process - from design, stencil cutting and application of the dye - helped him to understand the technique which informed his design.

Serizawa’s designs were influenced by many cultures: he collected African masks and textiles and Southeast Asian fabrics and paintings for inspiration, and was influenced by the bold graphic design of the mid-nineteenth century. Serizawa contributed works to the mingei (‘folk art’) movement and was awarded the status of ‘living national treasure’ by the Japanese Government in 1956. You can see his direct influence in many of the katazome prints that we sell at Choosing Keeping.

1. Soy beans are soaked and used to make the soy milk glue that masks off sections of the paper. Many glues are produced in Japan using natural materials, such as rice or tapioca; this is vital to achieve the Katazome technique as the glue needs to be water based, strong enough to make the mask but gentle enough that it can be washed away.

2. Katagami stencils are used to apply the glue and dye to the paper. First, a design is transferred to a piece of hand-made mulberry bark paper that has been treated with persimmon tannin called shibugami. Then the design is cut into the thickened paper using traditional sharp knives and a variety of hole punches - all of which are used for a specific shape and type of carving, notably stripe carving. Silk netting is attached to the screen to strengthen it, making sure no corners flip up and ruin the pattern, and also to keep the design’s ‘floating’ sections in the correct place.

3. The glue is applied onto the paper using a squeegee, then the stencil masks off the areas of the sheet which will remain white ‘natural paper’ and is left to dry.

4. Each colour of dye for the design is mixed in the studio by hand and eye - around the studios you can see many swatch books for colour matching. The dyes are made using natural pigments in order to keep the overall look of the paper very matte. Once the colours are ready, they are individually added to the paper one at a time (one colour = one screen) eventually covering the entire piece of paper with the design. Each colour must be left to dry in between each application, which is why it takes days to produce every specimen.

5. Once the layer is fully printed, the glue is washed off to reveal the white mulberry paper underneath. The print is placed into a bath previously sprinkled with fresh water, then the mask and excess paint are washed off the paper ‘with a hand’. Finally the design is revealed and the paper is placed on a steam drum to dry - so it remains flat - and to fix the design. 

Over the past 70 years or so, designs have been added to the collections of katazome studios, but to conceive and make new screens is a costly and laborious exercise. 

It won’t come as a surprise that, whenever a screen is damaged, replacing it becomes a very expensive endeavour for the studio, which often decide to remove the designs from their assortment. When visiting the katazome workshop I realised that these small companies treasure the screens as the most valuable elements of their business.

Find our Katazome prints here