Author: Hillary Waters Fayle

In celebration of the second annual New York Textile Month, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month of September. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

Imagine the poetic collaboration between humans and flora embodied in this katagami stencil. The stencil cutter layering sheets of paper made from the pulp of one tree and laminating it with the fruit of another. Carefully interweaving strands, perhaps of his or her own, hair as the material is cut away into flowing boughs. The dyer then takes the stencil and pushes plant-based paste through onto fabric made from spun and woven plant fibers, finally coloring it with plant-based dye. The stencil, although only a component of a complex process, is a skillfully made object of beauty which reflects a close relationship between man and nature.

This katagami stencil, made sometime between 1780 and 1830, is hand cut from layers of kozo, or mulberry paper, which have been laminated together with fermented persimmon juice. [1] Treating the paper in this way would make it sturdy, yet flexible. The floating Juniper branches swirl gracefully across the composition, leaving large areas of negative space, with little material left to hold the delicate branches and leaves in place. A close inspection of the stencil reveals a fine net of human hair which has been interwoven into the layers of the paper to help stabilize these areas.

Katagami stencils were used during a resist dye process called katazome. In this process, rice paste was pressed through a stencil onto a piece of fabric, most likely cotton. When the paste had dried, the cotton would be dyed with indigo. The paste was washed out afterward to reveal crisp, high contrast designs. Elaborate indigo dye techniques gained popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868) due to the imposition of sumptuary laws forbidding commoners to wear silk or bright colors. This technique has been used in Japan since the late 1600’s, although the arts of katagami and katazome have been largely set aside as modern print and dye techniques have advanced.

[1] “Queen of the Insects: The Art of the Butterfly.” RISD Museum, Rhode Island School of Design, 11 Dec. 2009, risdmuseum.org/art_design/objects/5253_katagami_hand_cut_paper_stencil.

Hillary Waters Fayle is an artist and an instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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