It’s been 8 years since I first tried to replicate katazome resist dyeing in Australia. After spending a year on exchange at Kyoto Seika University during my undergraduate studies, I’d come back with a burning enthusiasm to try and see if the same technique could be achievable with local supplies. It turns out, yes – but with much modification.

When you start to look at traditional crafts without applying the lens of “sacred and untouchable”, you find at the core of it all a basic process that utilises a series of specific tools and ingredients to achieve a beautiful end result. The gadgets and materials that have come to be synonymous with a particular traditional craft (think shibugami stencil paper with katazome) have only obtained that status because they’ve developed over time in line with that culture and with other industries developing simultaneously.

What I mean is,

Dye brushes at Kuriyama-kobo, a katazome company
on the western edge of Kyoto

why would katazome use deer-hair brushes? Probably because 1. there were deer around and 2. an industry already existed making deer-hair brushes for use in traditional painting. Why would one utilise thin rods of bamboo with sharp spikes at the end to stretch fabric taut? Presumably because bamboo was already being formed into products for other purposes at the time. Katagami stencil paper could not have developed without the existing Japanese skills in washi papermaking – from which the stencil paper is made.

Very traditional stencil paper – shibugami

The thing is, if we look at the technique of katazome as it stands now, there is a very polished, established and institutionalised way of practicing it. It is basically understood to involve a set of specific tools and materials (mochi rice flour, komon rice bran, stencil paper, soybean & seaweed derived fixative). These are presumed to be the ultimate, most refined and correct way to achieve the best results. Of course it is fair to think that. These are not tools and materials that are used by accident – they have gone through a few hundred years of use and modification.

Whilst there is now some deviation from these very traditional and quintessential ingredients and processes, like a modified plasticised stencil paper or a chemical pre-dye fixative, there is still a very set way of doing things.

Newer plasticised stencil paper

How about if you want to use katazome in a country where those quintessential tools and materials are not only unavailable, they’re simply not part of our culture. Bamboo, deer hair, rice flour and washi paper have only, if at all, recently been part of our vocabulary let alone available to purchase. They simply aren’t part of our natural environment or resources.

Applying shinshi stretchers to long narrow fabric

So okay, why not seek to uncover what function these ingredients and tools perform within the katazome process and utilise something locally available to perform the same task?

Instead of lamenting that shinshi (bamboo fabric stretchers) are unavailable in Australia (they have no reason to be; historically we’ve never needed to be able to stretch a narrow kimono-width fabric out to dry) why not consider what function they are performing (stretching the fabric taut whilst leaving the back side accessible) and seek to replicate that function? A wooden frame with pins to hold the fabric out taut performs the same function. Of course, this is not as flexible as the centuries-tried-and-true shinshi approach but it is a workable solution.

Funori – looks natural and traditional, I guess
Manutex – not pretty but same stuff on the inside

Alright, what about the funori  – a seaweed derived gloopy thickener used in the pre-dye fixative? Well, if you get down to the nitty-gritty of what’s actually in that stuff, you’d find that it’s the same seaweed gloop that we use as a food thickener in Australia and it also already exists as a substrate for use in screen printing. Powdered “Manutex F” does not have the same natural look or roll off the tongue as nicely as funori, sure, but it performs the same basic function. 

And so you can continue with all the necessary tools and ingredients in the hallowed katazome tomes and see what can be used to achieve the same result.

For some ingredients the swap is simple. Others are proving more difficult. Soft, dense dye brushes, fine de-fatted rice-bran, water erasable ao-bana ink…. But it is really just a matter of thinking outside the box. To be able to source tools and materials locally would be the ideal situation. Not to remove the technique from its Japanese roots entirely, but to make it viable.

There are many specialised businesses in Kyoto, for example, which have operated as family-run enteprises for some hundreds of years. They each have their own niche of the textile process to support; the nori (resist paste) manufacturer and shop, the shinshi (bamboo stretcher) specialist, the kimono-width silk salesroom, the specialised craftsmen making circular punches for intricate stencil carving…More and more these businesses are struggling to survive. With the demise of the kimono as daily and common wear, these businesses that thrived and supported the kimono industry now have little patronage to subsist on. If I were still in Kyoto, I would continue to support these businesses with my own hard-owned yen and utilise them in my artwork but I fear even that is simply not enough.

Just one example of the many kimono industry support businesses that are often now finding it hard to stay afloat

If, and it would seem likely, these businesses continue to shut-down, there is no-one left to make the traditional katagami, to bulk-produce batches of nori paste, to make specific lengths of shinshi, to craft tiny sharp circular punches. Like any loss of knowledge and skills, this is tragic, it really is. But this is the way it goes. Crafts are only in demand so much as they are an active and necessary part of our daily lives. Without that demand, they become obsolete. There are many example of innovative companies and individuals who are thinking outside the box to continue supporting Kyoto’s craft industries and make them relevant to today’s society (these are something I plan to touch on in future) but I think we also need to be realistic. Whilst continuing to support traditional industry where possible, I think we need to start accepting that there are alternatives, so that the techniques can actually survive – even if some of the tools cannot.

It seems to me that in the end, even if it means modifying many of the components of the technique, having the ability to actually practice the technique at all, and see it survive into the future is the best way to honour tradition.

A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it. – Henry James

On that note, I’m off to continue testing out new resist-paste recipes!