Exploring Kyoto’s ancient traditions of pattern-making – 1: Katagama

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Takeshi Nishimura is a second-generation master of the art of cutting katagama – the paper stencils used in the pattern-dyeing of kimono cloth. His workshop occupies the ground floor of the house where he was born in Kyoto’s Nakagyo-ku ward, and where he learned the craft from his father, who established the business in 1938. The house is compact and traditional in style, with tatami floors and a house-altar in one corner. Takeshi works at a low table, using the tools he inherited, the only modern equipment being a highly-efficient LED light mat.

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Resist-dyeing of textiles in Japan dates back to the Nara period (710-784 A.D.), while the earliest use of paper stencils is recorded in the twelfth century. The art of paper stencil-cutting flowered in the Momoyama and Edo periods (1568 – 1868), when garments for men and women patterned using this technique became increasingly fashionable among all classes of society.

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During my visit, which lasted two hours, Takeshi very generously explained in detail the techniques of his craft, showed me the tools used in the very intricate cutting of the stencils, and allowed me to try my hand at cutting a katagama. The stencil paper itself is brown and opaque, and consists of three layers of washi (Japanese paper) bonded together. The cutting tools fall into two categories – those for cutting dots and those for cutting lines. The dot cutters are tubular blades which produce holes varying from a fraction of a millimetre up to around 2-3 mm. The cutter is pressed gently into the paper and rotated – the waste paper is collected within the tube and can be ejected through a larger hole in the shaft. In skilled hands a line of dots can be made quite rapidly. Dots of varying diameter are combined to produce variety of line and effects of shading.

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Line cutters consist of single-bladed tools (resembling small scalpels) and twin-blade tools. The twin-blade tools are generally used for cutting lines of even thickness, but some are also designed to produced swelling lines (rather like an italic pen), useful for creating small leaf shapes. Takeshi demonstrated both types of tool by cutting a simple flower motif in a small sheet of stencil paper.
Although katagama can be used to produce multi-coloured patterns, all of the stencils Takeshi makes are for single-colour designs. A great many are small motifs fitting onto stencils which are roughly A4 in size, but towards the end of my visit Takeshi produced some of his larger stencils – mostly abstract or geometric patterns, but also some figurative work – including a magnificient portrait of his cat, created almost entirely with dots.

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Takeshi’s skill lies purely in stencil-cutting – the stencils he produces are passed on to other workshops where silk is dyed and patterned. The processes involved in the various styles of dyeing known collectively as yuzen are too complex and various to even attempt to explore here – as I realised after seeing the exhibits and videos on display at the Kyoto Museum of Handicrafts. Suffice to say that the kimonos on display cover the full gamut of styles from austerely minimalist black and white to full-colour exercises in floral art.

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The catalogue of the 2014 exhibition ‘Katagama Style: Paper Stencils and Japonisme’ (Tokyo, Kyoto, Mei 2014) illustrates the influence of katagama on western designers at the end of nineteenth-century. Wallpapers designed by Walter Crane, Lewis Foreman Day and Christopher Dresser are shown alongside the Japanese stencilled patterns which they drew on. Takeshi continues this tradition of east-west inspiration and collaboration in working with Paris designers to create products decorated in the katagama style – such as leather wallets, phone cases, i-pad covers and lamp shades hand-patterned with his designs.

see: http://nishimura-yuzen-chokoku.com/en/

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