Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Art of the Japanese Stencil

Stencils have long intrigued me as they are one of the oldest and simplest methods of making multiples of images. At the hands of a skilled artist, they can also be one of the most challenging and beautiful.
     This lovely mid-century sample book of designer's stencil patterns recently stopped me in my tracks. It is printed on Japanese paper in a method called katagami, and is one of six books (all sold, mind you), from the Boston Book CompanyI felt they all warranted display for reasons that should be apparent. With Japanese stab bindings, the six albums contain nearly 600 full-page designs in all. The catalogs are from Kamiya Kichinosuke of Matsuya (the company name).
     Katagami, is the term for the Japanese paper stencil used to make elaborate patterns for printing on a variety of substrates. Although stencilling can be a relatively simple printing process, this technique took skilled craftsmen years to master. The history of katagami can be traced back to the samurai warrior's armor in the 8th century, but it wasn't until the 17th century when the practice of printing the patterns on kimono fabrics began to flourish in Japan. In short, the stencils are made from a thin sheet of mulberry paper treated with persimmon juice to give it strength and water resistance. The sheets are then hung in a closed room and smoked for several days in order to harden the persimmon coating. For more detail, the Cooper Hewitt Museum produced this text for an exhibit on katagami in 1979, and recently demonstrated the process here 


My discovery of the Japanese katagami books at the Boston Book Company led me on a trail to another curious book about the process. The Book of Delightful and Strange Designs was written and printed in three languages in 1893 by Andrew White Tuer (1838-1900), a London stationer and printer from his Leadenhall Press, one of the most innovative of the Victorian era. Tuer writes with a wry wit and keen interest about the Japanese stencil process from the vantage point of a novice, often deferring to "the Gentle Reader" in his comments. He does draw a few interesting comparisons and insights to lithographic printing when describing the registration process. 

Tuer's book is a very quick and fun read and includes 100 katagami examples. One of my new favorite sites, Codex99 also wrote a great analysis with footnotes on this same book (which I discovered only after finding the Internet Archive version.)
     As another fun sidenote, I learned that Andrew Tuer and his printing partner Abraham Field, were responsible for publishing the influential Printer's International Specimen Exchange from 1880 to 1898. This annual subscription for the "technical education of the working printer" taught a whole new generation of printers around the world about printing and design at the time. The images below are from a Specimen Exchange set which British Letterpress kindly shared on Flickr.


  1. so glad I came upon this site - I'll return often. thanks!

  2. Absolutely stunning! Love that dedication to the "gentle reader".

  3. Jennifer:

    Ran across this post from a Twitter link. I absolutely love Tuer's book. It is completely bizarre and wonderful (indeed, his entire Ledenhall catalog is equally wonderful). Finally thanks for the kind words about my site, Codex99.

    1. My pleasure indeed! I am happy to have found your site AND Tuer's book. I look forward to exploring more of his works and yours as well.


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