10 Nov 17: kata kata - the katazome and chusen design brand

Accompanied by Kyoko Bowskill


I travelled in the good company of Kyoko Bowskill (of Link Collective) to Seijo, out to the west of central Tokyo last Friday. By the No River was a series of Corbusier inspired 70s flat blocks gathered around a playground, and more importantly a few small commercial units. Here is where the brand Kata Kata have their shop and studio, among a friendly and unassuming community.


Kata Kata have been successfully creating katazome and chusen textiles since graduating from Tokyo Zokei university in 2004. I’ve followed the duo online for some time and was very keen to meet Matsuyama Takeshi and Takai Chie, as they are talented designers of playful bright textiles and are also skilled katazome practitioners. Katazome translates as ‘stencil dyeing’ and involves the careful cutting of washi paper, which is then lacquered with a fine mesh to create a usable design. Rice paste is then pushed through the stencil with a wooden tool – the closest comparison I could think of was a wallpaper scraper crossed with a spatula. This thick paste once dry acts as a resist, meaning subsequent dye painting is not absorbed into these areas.


Chusen is a completely new dye process to me, but is commonly used to produce Japanese tenugui – a thin cotton towel, which in recent years have become popular souvenirs. Essentially it is the same process as katazome, but designed to produce up to 20 prints rather than 1 at a time. Dye is poured onto the layers of fabric and thanks to temporary resist dams and vacuum compression means it can be controlled to an impressive consistency.


Resist methods are particularly of interest as the often used discharge print (a process of screen printing a bleaching agent to remove a dark base colour) is being phased out of UK university print rooms and is restricted from Chinese and American imports. There are suppliers who are developing lower chemical and fume content options, but the harsh bleaching chemicals for dye work are corrosive and harmful in large quantities to the maker. I’ve seen many university technicians look at resist print alternatives and wondered how viable it is as a process for designers and makers, as there is so little of the technique being practiced professionally in Europe. So, here is a country that still practices the process, and a successful designer maker brand using it.


There is also the great element of inclusivity to katazome. Yes, the process takes skill and experience to execute as proficiently as kata kata but it requires very little specialist equipment and can be scaled up or down easily. There was one piece in particular which proved this point. After arriving in the shop and Kyoko kindly introducing me, they happily pulled out their stencils and fabrics to talk further about their process. They had created a stencil approximately 60 x 40cm as a tile repeat (meaning it was cropped to a rectangle shape, but side-by-side the image would look continuous) and showed me a bright red scarf with a perfectly joined repeat. When screen printing, I prefer to avoid a harsh cut through of a repeat, and opt for a jog-line (more like a jigsaw puzzle) repeat as line up can be problematic. I was impressed.


The materials they use are surprisingly plant-based. Although they use reactive dyes (a chemical dye universally used due to its vibrant colours and flexibility with the various fibres it works with) the resists are rice (japanese rice is apparently better, perhaps something to do with the starch content) and seaweed. The dyes are diluted and applied with raw soy milk due to its high protein, which I am contemplating helps fix the dye.


Matsuyama and Takai are smart when it comes to running their business, while talking to them about what they produce two things struck me. Their textile offerings are broad, using different textile processes including katazome, chusen, screen printing and digital print. This allows them to offer different textile widths, weights and price points and therefore catching a broad range of customers. Secondly, by collaborating with other makers or larger brands they can offer other products like ceramics and avoid taking on production cost, buying the products at wholesale and receiving royalties. They are also in the process of designing packaging for a major UK brand, which they let me sneak a look at.


As the conversation continued, it became clear that there are universal concerns for smaller design brands. Between myself, Kyoko, Takeshi and Chie we all agreed that there are problems with plagiarism from competitors of all sizes. It seems though, that there is very little support for Japanese designers’ copyrights despite the strongly enforced rights within manga and the music industry.


Meeting the charming duo behind Kata Kata was a fascinating continuation from visiting the furoshiki factory. Their success is fuelled by their love of the processes and understanding of how to run a business as independent designers. Their aesthetic is clear and well presented with very high level of craftsmanship and it was an honour to meet them.

Again, my thanks to the lovely Kyoko for the introduction and engaging conversation.


7 Nov 2017: Furoshiki factory visit with Kyoko Bowskill, founder of Link Collective.

Accompanied by Chiyumi Nogami
Part hosted by Mitsuyuki Tanaka of Chiffonez (acting agent to Furoshiki factory)
Kensuke Serizawa, writer for Great Gear on NHK World TV channel.

Based in the Fujisawa area of Tokyo

Furoshiki (pronounced fu-rosh-ki) is a cloth wrapping used to elegantly cover and carry anything. Traced beginnings in the 17th century this cloth is evident in many stores in Tokyo today, perhaps an indication of the unerring dedication to refined presentation.

Meeting Kyoko Bowskill half way, we travelled over an hour to the South East, outside central Tokyo. Close to the popular beach and coastal town of Kamakura, Fujisawa appeared to be a small suburban town of low level housing, small cabbage patches and outlying light industrial buildings. 

This was my first chance to see craftsman at work, and try to understand the current textile print industry climate in Japan. 


Behind a domestic home, with a discreet company sign (apparently a recent replacement of a more traditional one) was a one level 1950s building. Comprising of winding narrow walkways, offshoots of dark outer rooms storing row upon row of aluminium framed silk screens finally led to the print room.


What was distinctive about this textile print workshop were the details that differed from those I know back in the UK. Angled print tables of about 10-15 metres allowed for the ease of printing solo and better for the back. The screens were therefore tailored to these changes; with detachable ink well troughs (to counteract gravity), handles to easily manoeuvre the screens, thin light aluminium frames and slightly thicker dye pastes to avoid too much dripping.


There were three simultaneous production jobs on the tables, showing that the two printers and assistant were using every possible moment to complete work for different clients. They worked with deceptive ease and rhythm, a testament to their honed skills. Every part of the workshop space was in use; the tables tightly packed together, weighted pulley systems lifted the wet prints to the ceiling and freshly whisked reactive dye pastes for the day were laid out.


As Kyoko warned, the printers quietly continued on with their work, preferring to let Mitsuyuki Tanaka, their agent, discuss the details and process.


One of the biggest surprises to me was the factory divisions. When I asked Mitsuyuki Tanaka the location of the steamers (for dye fixing) he told me this is completed at a separate factory, something Kyoko suggested could be a hangover from the now dying kimono culture. But this is becoming problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, as demand dwindles the larger companies cannot maintain the staff or facilities. This luckily is something this family business is managing to stave off. Secondly, and I admit I was previously naïve of, is the impact of natural disasters. Through typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis, factories often have to shut to rebuild or maintain machinery damaged, which then unavoidably passes delays onto the client. Particularly difficult considering the global market is obsessed with speed of production to maintain the fast fashion pace.


 In the extremes of the terrible tsunami of 2011, the sewing factory Link Collective used was destroyed. The area around Fukushima and Miyazaki has always been a place where there were a lot of factories making Japanese clothing, but the terrible damage from the tsunami has made it very difficult to get things up and running again, even now.


Yet Link Collective is a success story for furoshiki. I asked Kyoko about this concept of value I’d been stewing over for the past few months, only to realise she had at least begun to crack this nut many years ago. She quickly recognised the higher level of desirability in the American, Australian and European market for hand crafted, exceptionally executed Japanese textiles and targeted her marketing to this audience. There was a fascinating moment near the end of our visit where Kyoko presented Mr Fukuda with a recent Link Collective booklet (this conversation was kindly interpreted to me by Chiyumi Nogami). Within the context of his own factory the Link Collective’s products were traditional textiles, but was amazed by how transformative through the graphics, styling and even the photography style the products became contemporary and ‘European’.


Link Collective products have many indications of uniqueness of Japanese refined textiles beyond the exceptional print quality. The cottons, I think, are shantung and particularly unusual to UK offerings. It is fine and smooth but with a starch-like strength, which must be why it makes a perfect furoshiki material - being robust enough to use as a bag or wrapping and soft enough to use as a scarf.

In fact, the story of Kyoko’s success with the brand meant we were joined by major Japanese television channel NHK for their ‘Great Gear’ programme. This was a second visit to film the printing, proving that sensitively approached contemporary interpretation of traditional skilled work is both valuable and the best approach for endurance.

 Link Collective Furoshiki bag.     Image curtesy of Link Collective  

Link Collective Furoshiki bag.     Image curtesy of Link Collective  

My absolute thanks go to Kyoko and everyone at the furoshiki factory for their generosity, insights and patience.



Linda Florence: Wallpaper printing for Shanghai

I had the pleasure this week of supporting Linda complete a wallpaper commission for a retail space in Shanghai. A stunning process of layers of interlocking colours in golds and shimmering metallics - specifically designed for the colours and effects to work with the space's lighting design.

 I have worked with Linda for the past eight years, and seen her work first hand - an example of beautiful modern/traditional designs and imaginative uses of design in a installation context.

Here is a little bit more about Linda's work:

"Linda Florence produces bespoke hand printed wallpaper and installation artwork for public, commercial and private interiors.  Florence’s printing techniques incorporate a mixture of traditional and new technologies including silk screen-printing and laser cutting.

Florence draws inspiration from the materials, craft practice and historic and social context of the project site and builds a narrative for each project. Stories can play an important part in creating a sense of place, both as a design tool and a way to engage with everyone surrounding a project including clients, consultants and users."

You can also see her printing process in action below: