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.