Japanese Textiles: Art & Design

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wondered how colorful textiles are designed? In Japan, making and decorating fabric is a very old art form. In this lesson, we'll explore some beautiful, fascinating methods related to the art and design of Japanese textiles.

Introduction to Japanese Textiles

Have you ever worn a colorful shirt or a scarf with intricate patterns and wondered how it was designed? In Japan, making and decorating fabric is a very old art art form. Let's explore some methods related to the art and design of Japanese textiles.

Japan has a highly developed tradition of creating beautiful textiles, often made of natural materials like cotton and silk. In this old country, textiles have been used for clothing, as a surface for fine art and for political and religious purposes. Examples include banners for temples and military processions. Historically, cottons and hemps were worn by common people, and fine silks were reserved for higher classes. Japanese fabrics can be decorated with many images, including landscape scenes, abstract patterns or images of traditional symbols like cranes, which convey good luck and good health, and chrysanthemums, the symbol of Japanese royalty.

Remember, too, that Japan is composed of many islands. In these places, indigenous peoples through history created their own textiles. The Ainu people of Hokkaido are known for spectacular appliqué and embroidery in bold designs, often involving light and bright colors on a darker background.

Example of an Ainu garment
ainu garment

Japanese textile art is a rich tradition that's evolved over thousands of years. Among the methods of decoration are embroidery and other decorative stitches as well as painting and dyeing. Japanese textiles are the subject of research and appreciation in museums and among artists around the world. It's a wonderfully broad subject, but we can't cover everything. So let's explore some highlights.

The Dyeing Process Explained

Let's start with a basic explanation of the dyeing process. Many Japanese textile designs involve resist dyeing. A resist is a substance that repels dye. Their highly developed dyeing techniques often use a process called paste-resist. The artist makes a thick paste of rice flour and applies it to a fabric. When it dries, the fabric is dyed. In the areas where the paste has been applied, the color won't stick. After the fabric is removed from the dye and rinsed, those areas show through with the pattern.

Fabric Dyeing: Katazome Technique

Katazome is a method of dyeing historically done on cottons using a paste-resist. You can recognize these fabrics by their deep blues and intricate (often white) designs. For this process, the artist starts by making a paper stencil called a katagami (the word means 'paper template'). Making the stencils is an art unto itself. Using a special sharp knife, the artist cuts intricate designs into a stencil made of several layers of mulberry bark paper strengthened with glue, and sometimes natural fibers like silk or even human hair.

Example of a katagami, or paper stencil

Then the artist places the stencil on the fabric and pushes the paste-resist through it, leaving the pattern on the fabric. The artist repeats the process to cover the fabric, then lets it dry and dyes the fabric. For katazome, traditional dyes include a deep blue made from natural indigo and a reddish-brown dye made from fermenting the juice of unripe persimmons. When finished, the artist rinses the fabric to remove the paste-resist and reveal the final finished product. The katazome method can produce stunningly beautiful and highly sophisticated designs.

Example of katazome fabric in traditional indigo blue
katazome fabric

Other Fabric Dying Techniques

In tsutsugaki, the artist creates designs in free-hand paste-resist, applying the paste using a large paper cone with an applicator tip (think of the tool used to apply decorative icing on cakes!). This method can create bold designs that are visible from a distance, and it has been used for centuries, often for military and religious banners.

The yuzen method, invented around 1700, involves a combination of freehand and stenciled paste-resist application. It's often been used to decorate very fine kimonos. The cloth is stretched on a frame, and then a pattern is drawn on it using a nonpermanent dye. In this case, the pattern is a guide for the artist to follow when applying the resist. When the drawing dries, the artist carefully traces the lines with a resist paste. It's a time-consuming process sometimes done with fine brushes. Then the fabric is dyed. This process is repeated for each layer of color and detail until the final design is complete. This method can also include hand-painting of the dye.

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