This week we tested out some new ways of applying rice resist paste (traditionally used in Japanese katazome stencil dyeing) with some unconventional methods.
The mechanics are very simple - where the paste hits the fabric it dries to a hard layer that protects anything underneath it from the dye (in our case - indigo). Our ingenious ancestors across the world worked this out with the use of whatever materials were on hand. From Africa to India many variations of the resist paste exist, some using clay and others flour. Places like Japan and China refined the process further by passing the paste through a finely cut stencil which allowed the creation of incredibly intricate designs.
The familiar motions of blending the steamed goop of rice flour, bran and slaked lime into a water-resistant mixture brought back fond memories of our study days in Japan. With our teacher as our guide we would look at close-ups of mastercrafted textiles in books and try our hand at something similar with our own creative twists.
The method of traditional Japanese stencil dyeing was extremely time consuming - especially in the preparatory stages, involving meticulous cutting of the delicate designs from smoked persimmon paper. With the sounds of Joni Mitchel in the air and tiny cups of warm sake in our hands for company we huddled around a low zelkova table in the evenings and patiently cut away at the paper late into the night like diligent students. Good times.
Back then my appreciation for the final visual result of stencil dyeing was secondary to my fascination with the process itself. It didn't really click for me until years later when we were showing a client our collection of indigo-dyed fabric samples. The buyers in front of us were fascinated by shibori and tie-dye with its characteristic nuanced soft edges - those fickle areas of shade gradations where the dye seeps through the compressed folds of fabric.
Suddenly as we arrived at the stack of stencil dyed designs a very apparent air of disinterest appeared in the room. I took them through the process, hinting at the innumerable possibilities to create precise detailed designs and the rich historical heritage that accompanied the method.
"That's nice... but anyone can do this now with digital printing. Faster, cheaper, same."
The craftsman inside me was a little taken aback - but they were right. Those 17th century stencil dyers who created the delicately perfect works we would study hundreds of years later - was preservation of heritage their primary motivation? Or were they simply using the most advanced tools available to them at the time?
Certainly the protection of traditional crafts has great importance but the landscape of crafts as a profession has become almost unrecognizable since those incredible artifacts of history were made. Mechanized industrial production has given us all the utilitarian objects we could ever want - "faster, cheaper, same".
Yet there was still something uniquely captivating about handcrafted objects - and more importantly, those objects which were obviously made by someone with careful attention.
That encounter started us on the path of earnestly thinking why it was that people were attracted to objects crafted by human hands. What was it about a carved piece of wood with its many loosely harmonic indentations, a small linen square purposefully dyed in an uneven manner or an earthenware cup with wildly organic crackles in its glaze? Clearly the physical manifestation of benign creative intent being brought into existence had some peculiar value.
In the meantime we still had one big acrylic stencil lying around from previous projects
- ones where we had tried our best to replicate perfectly precise parallel lines. Those projects were excruciatingly difficult work and in the end looked almost identical to digitally printed designs. Lesson learned.
The laser cut acrylic stood in the sun, disintegrating and becoming brittle. Eventually we got the idea to use it in a slightly different way - not to make precise designs but to accentuate the random imperfections that accompany handicrafts and make them stand apart from industrially manufactured goods.
It was a shift in thinking. Why compete with the dexterity and cost-effective production capabilities of a machine when the appreciation of handmade objects called for somewhere else entirely?
Recently we tried a few different experiments with that aim of accentuating imperfections. First we applied the paste in a random fashion through the parallel lines stencil - that was already much more interesting. Then we realized we could do one layer of indigo, reapply the paste in a similarly random way and then dye it again. This started to give the pieces dimension and multiple shades.
We then noticed that the dried paste had a habit of cracking when put under enough pressure - so we tried doing this intentionally by scrunching the entire piece before dyeing. The paste started falling off, leading to a mottled appearance after dyeing.
Another variation was using the stencil not for paste but for sand. The granules fell through the holes in the stencil and onto the fabric in such a way that a very rough outline of the design was created. We then applied the rice resist paste over the entire length of the fabric. This resulted in some very abstract splotches that only vaguely resembled the original design of parallel lines.
Lastly we tried using leaves from the plants growing in our garden as a sort of reverse resist - putting them down on the fabric and then applying resist paste over the entire length. This allowed us to capture the organic outlines of grasses and foliage.
Here are some of the results from our experiments below:
There's something exciting and spontaneous in using stencil paste this way, with each result being totally unique every time. It's an interesting way of using rigidly defined designs not for the purposes of reproducing the artificially perfect geometry but instead as guidelines, as a way of inspiration to make something that has an embedded degree of human touch.
We made the textile samples into Japanese "furoshiki"-style wrapping cloths and uploaded them to our Little Things Collection
, so if you'd like to see more photos of the results you can check them out there.
We're thinking of taking a few of these designs and using them to make some other goodies - scarves, bags, pillows, shirts and more. Do you have any suggestions? Let us know what you think of these in the comments below!