Katagami (stencil) dyeing or "katazome" has a long history in Japan. There are examples of stencil-printed papers dating from the 7th century in the Shosoin Treasure House in Tokyo. Japanese katagami stencils are works of art in themselves. Many have been preserved in museums and private collections in Japan and around the world, including an extensive collection held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
For the feudal Japanese craftsman, the process of fabricating katagami stencils was intricate and labour-intensive. Layers of hand-made mulberry paper were laminated together and immersed in the fermented juice (kakishibu) of the unripened persimmon fruit which made the paper stencil water resistant and rigid. Subsequently, intricate designs inspired from nature were cut into the paper
with fine-edged cutting tools. A lattice of silk threads held the delicate and detailed motifs in place when the stencil was used in the katazome dyeing process. The katazome stencil craftsmen preferred creating katazome designs that symbolized special significance and beauty in Japanese daily life. Popular patterns included: a large variety of stylized chrysanthemums, arabesque filigree, cranes and turtles.
By the early Edo period (1615 - 1867), every village had an indigo dyer craftsman who provided the inhabitants of rural Japan a visual melody of blue textiles.
To produce the katazome textile, the textile craftsman tautly stretched the raw, homespun and hand loomed fabric. The katagami stencil was applied to an set area for dyeing. A paste made from rice flour and bran was applied to the fabric through the stencil, creating an area where the dye was unable to penetrate. The paste was allowed to dry thoroughly and then the background dye was painted onto the fabric, or in some cases the fabric is immersed in a dye-vat. The dye was applied multiple times in order to reach the desired depth of color.
Once the craftsman was pleased with the color the fabric, he washed away the resistant paste by immersing it in water. Traditionally, fabrics were floated in a stream with the current acting as a gentle agitator to remove the paste. Not surprising, one of the favorite motifs was of maple leaves floating in the eddies of a stream, a motif seen repeatedly in Japanese textiles and kimono garments.
During the 17th century, a time of relative peace and prosperity in Japan, the wealthiest of merchants had the financial capability to purchase expensive intricate silk garments. However, the Japanese nobility believed that merchants who wore silks, that they could easily afford, were demonstrating an unwarranted extravagance of their lower class status. The nobility was determined not to allow these nouveau riche merchants to be dressed in the same garments as worn by members of the court. As a result, sumptuary laws were enacted in 1680 that restricted the ever expanding and wealthier merchant class to wearing garments only from cotton or hemp, no silks whatsoever.
The unintended consequence of the restrictive sumptuary laws was that cotton textiles became more elaborate in design and complexity. Eventually, cotton fabrics replaced harsh hemp and those new textiles possessed colors, designs, and suppleness hitherto unknown to non-political segment of Japanese society.
The fortunes of a wealthy merchant class permitted the development of high quality and a wide variety cotton textiles for their use. Many in this growing trading class had the financial means to fund the tailoring of elaborate cotton garments and the making of celebratory textiles, even though they were less costly, less complex than the silks of the nobility but beautiful nonetheless. Thanks to the katagami stencil craftsmen, the imaginative katazome cotton textiles possessed colors, designs, and suppleness hitherto unavailable to the merchant class.
It was the development and mass fabrication of the katazome stencil which permitted the rapid spread of such textiles throughout Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 ~ 1868) encouraged and supported artisans in their production of katazome stencils. The stencils were initially crafted in specifically designated towns along the much traveled trade and pilgrimage routes surrounding Kyoto. Traveling traders purchased quantities of the stencils and then re-sold them to textile craftsmen throughout Japan, including remote rural regions. Japan's textile craftsmen were able to acquire elaborately stylized katazome stencils for dyeing striking fabric patterns, not seen before in the relatively isolated locations of the Empire.
The trickle down economic effect was such that
the peasant class also gained access to these same "mass produced" katazome cotton fabrics even though their textiles were less refined and of lesser quality as compared to those of the merchant class. The lower classes wanted these beautifully designed cotton textiles for use during special occasions like marriages, religious ceremonies, and festivals.
Cutting katagami stencils and dyeing katazome textiles is a lost art in contemporary Japan. Only a few diehard artist are found in Japan who produce these lovely textiles in the traditional manner.