[Part3]Japanese dyeing designs get kiss of life in Germany, Britain

Visitors to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden museum gaze at 19th century "katagami" stencils. (Masanori Sako)

When samurai traded in their kimono for Western business attire after the Meiji Restoration they were inadvertently dealing a severe blow to a rich sartorial heritage in Japan.

Tens of thousands of "katagami" stencils, used to pattern kimono, were no longer required by dyeing artisans.

Also, as the stencils, created by carving a design into "washi" paper, are discarded after being used a few times, few from the 19th century remain in Japan.

But at that time, Japonism was all the rage in Europe and 16,000 of the obsolete stencils ended up in the warehouse of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden museum in eastern Germany.

They were purchased by the museum in 1889 from a Berlin art dealer, according to Yuko Ikeda, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto.

An exhibition of 140 of the stencils was recently held at the museum.

"I want the Japanese people to also know about the existence of this treasure," said Wolfgang Scheppe, 59, who planned the exhibition.

He said he was astounded by the details of the designs on the katagami stencils.

"There are 900 tiny dots within one square inch (about 6.5 square centimeters)," Scheppe said. "From a distance, it doesn't look as if there is any design, but up close the design becomes visible. It was unthinkable in the Europe of those days to create something that was so time-consuming."

In 19th century Europe, the textile industry was undergoing major developments due to the Industrial Revolution. Kimono stencils, which have also been unearthed in France, Britain and Austria, likely influenced the design of cloth back then.

The German textile industry at that time was desperate to improve the visual appeal of its cloth as it was considered by most of the world to be pretty dire. Many arts and crafts museums were established in an effort to collect samples of beautiful cloth that could be used as reference points for designers in the textile industry. Saxony was considered a hub of the industry and Dresden was the capital.

"The cases for the stencils also contained instructions on how to handle the katagami when viewing the display," Ikeda said. "The stencils might have been used as a teaching tool at the crafts school affiliated with the museum."

The number of stencils hoarded at the Dresden museum far exceeds that found in other European cities.

Scheppe said he would continue his research into how the stencils influenced the textile industry in Germany.


Across the North Sea in Britain, katagami designs are being put to good use by carpet manufacturer Brintons, which has its roots in the Industrial Revolution.

The rug merchant began using some Japanese designs in the manufacture of its products after 1,000 stencils were found in the archive at Brinton's headquarters in Kidderminster, near Birmingham. The stencils, discovered in 1999, date back to the same period as those in the Dresden museum and have designs of birds and flowers as well as geometric patterns.

Brintons dusted down the stencils and began producing its "Katagami" series of carpets in 2007. The series has grown into a mainstay product line and the carpets are now used in luxury hotels and VIP lounges at airports around the world.

Yvonne Smith, an archivist at Brintons, said although the designs were old, they had a timeless quality, and were just as appealing now as they must have been in the 19th century.

The katagami designs of the Brintons carpets have even been imported back to Japan and can now be found in the banquet rooms and suites of the Oriental Hotel in Kobe.

The British retail-chain New Look also produced a hit with its "Kimono" series that was introduced in 2014.

Unlike the regular Japanese kimono, the outer wear sold by New Look was robe-like, being lighter and looser than kimono. Another characteristic was the gaudiness of the printed designs.

Each piece sold for between 12 pounds and 60 pounds (2,000 yen and 11,000 yen). From spring to summer, the company sold about 40,000 "kimono robes" a week, leading one British newspaper to run an article about how the "Kimono" apparel was a must-wear item for young British women.

Fashion trendspotter Francesca Muston was quoted as saying: "Kimono are very versatile, working as a spring jacket, a lightweight cover-up, or, with a belt, as a dress. It doesn't matter what size or shape you are, you can wear it."

Other fashion companies, such as H&M and Zara, have also come out with products using the word "kimono."

Akiko Fukai, the chief curator at the Kyoto Costume Institute who is knowledgeable about Japonism in the West, said, "People living abroad may better appreciate the fundamental and intrinsic attraction that kimono have with their novel design and the flowing line of the cloth."

(This article was written by Masanori Sako and Emi Tadama.)

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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