Stencil dyeing

From all the new designs that we worked on with C JEAN for our collaboration there is one pattern in particular from the collection that we are especially proud of. The overlapping wavering lines of blue, white and grey seen on the shirts (and C JEAN’s spectacular pants) are made using an adaptation of the Japanese “katazome” stencil dyeing technique. Although having dyed it made us feel pretty darn happy about ourselves it still remains a technique that we use sparingly in our work, the main reason being that at first glance it can be very difficult to distinguish this kind of fabric from one that is digitally printed. This makes it a particularly difficult kind of textile to hook people’s fascination with since it requires considerable time investment to understand what the textile is and how it was made. To help fellow textile enthusiasts understand what is going on with this design and to spread awareness of the method we are going to share a brief step-by-step process of how we achieved this pattern.

To start with a stencil is made by cutting a design from a waterproof material. Japanese dyers of olden times traditionally would use paper treated with fermented tannin-rich persimmon juice. Unfortunately these tend to come in a standard size and while this can work for smaller pieces or kimono-width fabric the large size of our project (a 2.5 meter long and 50 inch wide silk) meant we had to use something bigger. We ended up going for the largest thinnest sheet of flexible acrylic and laser cutting our design into it. It worked pretty well.

We steamed some rice flour and bran for several hours which we then blended to create a resist paste. This was applied through the stencil onto the tightly-stretched silk. The hardest part was connecting the lines by lifting the stencil, repositioning it further up the fabric and continuing to apply paste so that the pattern could repeat. This did not work so well. We ended up adding (more than) a few hints that it really was a handmade textile. Ah, c'est la vie.


The powder you see being brushed over the rice paste lines is sawdust and this helped to keep the paste from smearing the other sections of the textile once we put it in the indigo. After several dips in our indigo vat the paste is easily washed away and we can see the uniform blue and white lines running down nicely parallel to each other.

But this is only half of the puzzle because to achieve the illusory mirage-like effect that we wanted another set of lines had to go slightly across the first. We had seen a design like this already somewhere done with blue and white only, so for fun we thought of trying to add a third colour – grey/black. To do this we stretched the silk back out again, steamed new rice resist paste and started pasting on top of the previously dyed pattern – but this time at a slight angle. This angle is what created the intriguing intersections of lines that give us the desired pattern.

Once the paste dried we carefully applied a concentrated extract of myrobalan (Terminalia chebula) and light iron mordant with a brush. The tannins in the myrobalan reacted with the iron to give us a grey/black colour.


As I mentioned before without investing the time to understand the steps in this process it can be difficult for almost everyone today to distinguish a “katazome” stencil-dyed fabric from a digitally printed one. As we worked late into the night trying our best to shift the stencil a little this or that way to make the design repeat perfectly down the fabric we were forced to ask ourselves some hard questions: what was the point of getting covered in sticky rice goop at 2 in the morning and having to vacuum sawdust from the couch? Wouldn’t it just be easier, cheaper and quicker to print this design using modern technology?

There was a time when this technique represented the forefront of textile printing technology when extremely delicate graphic designs could only be made with these sorts of stencils. Staggeringly complex images with multiple layers of colour were created with sets of stencils that added layers upon layers of detail until a full picture emerged. Now we have the power at the tips of our fingers to have infinitely more beautiful designs with the push of a button almost instantaneously. Times have changed and sometimes I feel like there is no choice but to adapt and leverage the tools at hand. But then there was something about the “imperfections” of those lines that could be leveraged too. If we as craftsmen compete in the realm of visually precise repetitions and impeccably executed designs against machines then we will lose every time. But if we leverage those “imperfections” to accentuate the handcrafted nature of our arts and crafts we can start to turn the game to our favour. Overall this was a fun and challenging project from which many new ideas are emerging and already finding their way into our work.


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