The Amazing Handmade Art and Craft of Japan : KATA KATA
Japanese craftspeople make some of the most exquisite handmade art in the world using traditional techniques passed down through generations. Kata Kata took a traditional Japanese art form and made it their own. At the end of the post, they'll show us step by step how they make their beautiful fabrics.
To visit Kata Kata’s studio and shop, you might take a pleasant train ride east from Tokyo to Chofu. Once you get off the train, you walk past a kindergarten schoolyard and through a park. The shop is tucked away in this peaceful neighborhood.
Sawako having fun in the park on the way to Kata Kata!
Once inside the expansive space, the beauty of their work strikes you. A bird in mid-flight, a tiger, a school of fish.
Their gorgeous and colorful fabrics hang in the shop. Their beautiful cards and other paper products are displayed along with their bold framed prints. Across the room, their stencils lay on a long work table in mid-process.
The shop is both a studio and a living space. The artists, Chie and Takeshi are the husband and wife team that started Kata Kata. They are enthusiastic, warm and welcoming.
Their cute son, Toramaru, might be resting on his tiger blanket or meeting new friends.
Consuelo from Hello! Good Morning! meeting Toramaru.
Chie’s sister, Chika, worked in the United States as a production manager/creative director and now helps Kata Kata grow and market their business, both in Japan and abroad.
Sisters Chika and Chie
Kata Kata keeps their business small in order to retain the quality of the work. They aren't interested in becoming a large company at the expense of craftsmanship. What they do requires incredible artistry.
A tenugui is a thin Japanese hand towel made of cotton.
Katazome involves the careful cutting of stencils out of shibugami tannin paper. This paper is made by layering washi paper that’s been treated with astringent persimmon juice. The cut stencil is then lacquered with a fine mesh to create a long-lasting usable design. Resist paste is made by pounding a mixture of rice flour and rice bran. The paste is then pushed through the stencil with a wooden scraper. When the fabric is then dyed, the dye is not absorbed into the areas covered with the resist paste and retains the original color of the fabric. This resist paste process is repeated to dye the fabric with multiple colors.
Chie and Takeshi met while studying design at Tokyo Zokei University. Now they both teach part-time at the university.
Chie enjoys making the delicate katagami stencil. She makes Kata Kata’s zodiac calendar every year. She loves cutting out 365 days of numbers while listening to her favorite music. She likes to include small hidden elements in her pattern for people to discover. Many of them are bugs or butterflies from her memories of growing up on her parent’s farm.
Takeshi's specialty is his unique style of drawing animals. Katazome is a very traditional yet challenging technique that requires much time, effort and patience just to make one pattern. Each piece is different and a puzzle that he enjoys solving. His style has matured by mastering the old skills and improvising the new tricks.
I asked Chika a few questions about Kata Kata.
How long has this craft been in your family?
Our parents have a studio in Shizuoka and have been practicing katazome for more than 40 years. Chie and Takeshi stay at their parent's house when they have a bigger piece to dye. Our father, Nobuyuki Takai, passed away in 2018. Our mother, Kyoko Takai continues to run their business. Kyoko has been very active and her schedule is booked with her exhibitions every month.
Work by Chie and Chika's mother, Kyoko Takai. The two girl dolls are Chie and Chika and were first made for them by their mother when they were little girls.
Kyoko and her grandson, Toramaru
What did you think about your parent's art when you were a child?
We loved it. We played with the dolls our mom designed. We wore skirts and dresses made from my dad’s fabrics. Every textile in our house was created by our parents. We did not grow up playing Mario video games. Instead, we were painting on rocks in our garden or making funny dolls using leftover fabric pieces.
Our case is very unique because our dad was the only kid out of his 5 siblings who did not become a teacher or a corporate worker. He studied textile design because he wanted to. He made his own design studio because he could. He did not follow anyone's direction because he was a cool hippie artist guy... So he told us to do the same. We were told to do whatever we like or go anywhere we want.
My sister Chie became a textile designer because she realized what her parents do is really precious. Not everyone can do this kind of work. She got really interested while she was studying the katazome technique at Tokyo Zokei University which is famous for its textile design program.
Many years ago, my dad also studied at the same university as Chie and Takeshi. After finishing school, Chie went on to apprentice with our father.
Is there a special quality in your work that you feel comes through because it is all handmade?
I think it’s our pride to do everything by hand. We even said no to a young student who wanted to be our intern and cut out our stencils. We want to do everything by hand instead of hiring someone or using a machine. Our charm is in the imperfections of our own lines and shapes.
I think the work Kata Kata does is very rare and they are successful at what they do. Kata Kata creates every artwork 100% by hand, but they do scan their art on some projects. They keep the traditional way, while also adopting newer approaches like silk screening and digital printing on some projects. I think they have a very good balance.
What does your family like to do for fun when they’re not working?
Creative people often forget to take a break from work. We work as we play, so we are always thinking about work 24/7 without feeling any stress. Even at the dinner table, we talk about the project we are currently working on. Our family vacation is visiting different cities for our events and exhibitions. Every new year’s day, we invite over 50 friends to our house and do a mochitsuki party. It is our family tradition (since the 1980s) that conveys our gratitude to our friends.
What are Kata Kata’s future plans?
Kata Kata is interested in doing product packaging design. They would also like to publish a children’s book. We are looking forward to making a variety of greeting cards at a more affordable price. We’d also like to make carpet and rugs with our design. While we continue doing our hand-made product line, we hope to start doing more license business.
Tell us more about the cute baby.
His name is Toramaru. The direct English translation is “Chubby Tiger”. He is Chie and Takeshi’s first child. He turned one on March 9th. He likes to eat everything. I bought him a beautiful and expensive pop-up picture book, and he ate a page in 3 seconds. I think he was a goat in his previous life, not a tiger. He does not appreciate the toys I buy for him. He plays with rocks and trash, so we are surely blood-related.
The Art and Craft of Katazome
When Chie and Chika were born, their mother designed handmade stuffed animals for them. Kata Kata carried on the tradition by making their son his own baby blanket. The process of making Chubby Tiger’s blanket shows how katazome is done.
The design for the stencil is sketched onto shibugami tannin paper. The paper is made of layered washi paper that has been treated with fermented persimmon juice.
The stencil is then cut out of the shibugami paper.
The cut stencil is laid out on silk gauze and then lacquered to create a long-lasting usable design.
New fabric from the mill is washed to remove starch and dust.
Resist paste is made by pounding a mixture of rice flour and rice bran. The paste is then pushed through the stencil onto the white fabric with a wooden scraper.
Resist paste on fabric dries in the wind.
The first (blue) dye is spread over the fabric with a spatula and brush and then rinsed. The resist paste washes away. The dye has not been absorbed into the areas covered with the resist paste. That area retains the original white color of the fabric. The fabric is then steamed to fix the blue dye.
The fabric is then dried in the wind.
Resist paste is added again to select areas to retain the white color of the original fabric.
The second (yellow) dye is applied with a hake brush.
The resist paste is rinsed away and the fabric is steamed. The fabric is hung to dry in the wind. Fabric will then be cut. Further details about the process here.
Chubby Tiger's finished baby blanket!