Faking it

Copying the look of Japanese textiles with stenciling or block printing.

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Most modern fabrics with Asian inspired designs are not quite right for pre-1600 Japanese costuming. Esthetics have changed, new materials and new techniques for fabric embellishment have developed. To get an idea of what people actually were wearing, I invite you to examine the links to extant garments at the end of Kosode Made Simple. The bibliography at the end of that article also contains a number of good books with details on period Japanese decoration of fabric. And of course, the Kyoto Costume Museum website not only shows costumed mannequins from various periods and social classes, but has a textile gallery online. 

Not being able to afford to buy reproduction brocades from Japan, I nonetheless wanted to try to achieve the look of period textiles. The first time, I tried block printing to fake the look of Heian period textiles with their large brocaded roundels. Were I to do it again, I would not have thinned the paint. I originally liked the effect I was getting, but it has not worn well and has faded.   (The fabric was subsequently repurposed as a lining.)


More recently, I read about a technique called surihaku. Used on elegant garments the term has become synonymous with a particular type of Noh costume. Surihaku is done by applying rice paste through a stencil onto silk. The stencil is removed and gold or silver leaf is pressed onto the paste. Once dry, the excess leaf is brushed away, leaving a design in metallic foil. The 10th century diary of Murasaki Shikibu mentions metal foil decoration on the mo or train of certain court ladies' garments, but not how it was applied. In Kosode: 16th -19th Century Textiles from the Nomura Collection, Amanda Meyer Stinchcomb states that the stencil technique was developed in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and adopted by the Japanese (p. 33).

Metal foil applique techniques may themselves be a form of fakery. During the Sung period (960-1127), Chinese weavers began to produce brocades known as kinran, in which silk and paper-backed gold threads were combined to produce rich patterns. An example from the Ming Dynasty can be seen here. Kinran was expensive, highly sought after, difficult to get, and the weaving techniques were a closely guarded secret. It's likely that surihaku developed as a way to achieve a similar effect.

While it is extremely Japanese to prize the beauty of fleeting things, the practical and materialistically Western part of me was appalled to think all that effort and expense was spent upon decorating garments to be worn by people who spend a great deal of their lives on the floor. Much of the original gold leaf has flaked off this nonetheless stunning 16th century kosode in the Tokyo National Museum. The concept and look of surihaku fascinated me. Nonetheless, I knew there was no way I could afford to apply real gold leaf, much less watch it go the way of the ephemeral cherry blossom. 

Choosing material.  Silk, of course, was the most likely "canvas" for decoration in 16th century Japan. Whatever fabric your needs and budget allow, it should have a smooth, flat weave. I've done fabric painting on cotton (sheet walls for a friend's pavilion), canvas (my tent), and silk. Cheap cotton broadcloth is extremely prone to paint soaking through because it's so thin, so if that's all you can afford, be sure to use a VERY light touch with your paint. Slubs or lumps in the weave or too loose a weave will make your work harder. Wash your fabric thoroughly and press it before you go near it with paint or, for that matter, scissors. Printing and stenciling is easier on unassembled garment pieces. I shudder to think what it would be like to try to print or stencil on a completed pair of hakama, with all those pleats in it. However, if your design is going to do certain things at the hem and different things on the body, for example, having your fabric cut out into the garment's component parts, or partially assembled, may make laying out design elements easier.

Choosing a design. Again, I encourage the reader to look at artwork and actual examples of clothing from the period that they are trying to replicate. After all, if you're going to go to the trouble of doing this, you might as well do it right. Right? Bold patterns were very popular and if you're used to modern cotton calico prints, may seem unusually large. Plants and repeating geometric designs work well.

Dover publishes Japanese Design Motifs (Dover Pictorial Archive Series), originally produced in the 19th century by the Matsuya Piece Goods Store. Yes, that's 19th century, and I DO NOT recommend this book if you're trying to research pre-1600 heraldry. When non-noble families of Meiji Japan were permitted to adopt mon or family crests, an enterprising company printed a catalog of ready made designs.) However, it's currently in print and inexpensive enough at $10.95 US, and it's not a bad place to look for designs that translate well into stencil or print block form. If you've done your homework and looked at period sources first, you'll have an idea which of these designs will give you the right look for pre-1600 clothing. Dover also puts out a number of clip-art and design books which are inexpensive and may also be worth a look. Japanese Floral Patterns and Motifs by Madeleine Orban-Szontagh is one I dropped $6.95 on as many of its copyright free designs are actually taken from 16th century kosode. The Japanese Emblem Library is also a nice resource. You may want to run it through Google Translate as the text is in Japanese.

So you've found a design you like. You may need to blow it up on a copy machine or scanner to the actual size you want to pattern your fabric with. Make several copies at the size you want - if you don't draw, you can cut up one or more copies and trace the shapes onto the uncut block or stencil material. In fact, you may be able to run your stencil material through your printer. I've had good success doing this on card stock. 

To print or to stencil? It's a good idea to experiment on test swatches before making a final decision as to which technique suits you and your fabric best, particularly if you've never tried these techniques before. A stencil requires that you have connecting bits in the design so that the stencil maintains its structure, whereas a print block doesn't. Be sure to take this into account when choosing a design. If you're good at touching up with a brush, you can paint in the connecting bits on the stencil if you have to. 

An easy to make print-block if you don't carve. Print blocks can be made of just about anything. Kindergarteners are often supplied with potatoes for simple printing on paper. One early Japanese technique involved wrapping a piece of fabric over a carved wooden block. By rubbing crushed flowers over the fabric, an image was produced with the flower dye in the same way you can take an image off a coin by putting it under a sheet of paper and rubbing it with a pencil. More conventional printing is done by applying pigment to the block and printing directly onto paper, fabric, etc. Linoleum blocks are available from art supply stores and are popular for printing on paper. But what if you don't know how to carve? 


I've bled on enough of my projects over the years to have pondered whether trying to carve a print block was within my abilities. (It's not.) While roaming a local craft store trying to FIND printing supplies, I hit upon an alternative. Most craft stores now carry sheets of thin foam for children's crafts. I've seen it under the names Flexi-foam and Foamies. It's cheap, comes in a variety of colors and sizes, and sometimes even comes with adhesive backing. Get a sheet or two in a light color, trace your design on it, cut it out with scissors and stick it (or glue it) to a piece of wood and you've got a print block. 

Craft stores also carry small spongy paint rollers, and a styrofoam picnic plate makes a great disposable paint tray. Make some test prints on scrap fabric to see how much or little paint you need to load onto your block. Keep a swatch of your good fabric for test printing too. You want to see exactly how your fabric takes the print. I got good results with a Flexi-foam-and-wood print block on my gold habotai silk uchiki (shown above) and used the same technique to stamp heraldic suns on cotton sheets for a friend's interior pavilion walls. I was all set to block print on my next project, but several test prints later, the foam wasn't giving me a good print on the silk I'd chosen. I took a manila folder and an Exacto knife and recut the design as a stencil instead. 

Stencils. The file folder worked, however, card stock has disadvantages. It starts to get soggy after a certain amount of paint gets on it. Wet cardboard won't resist your brush and it becomes necessary to stop and let the stencil dry between applications, particularly if you have very delicate cuts in your design. It's also harder to clean excess paint off of, in which case, it's best to gently pat the stencil and let it dry for a few minutes before you risk using it on your fabric again. Mylar or acetate can be purchased at art stores or at some fabric stores, in which case, you should look for it with the quilting supplies. It's frequently transparent or translucent enough that you may be able to trace your design directly onto it. It can be cut with an Exacto or utility knife, and best of all, you can wipe it clean between stencil applications and re-use it immediately. Someone recently informed me of a material called Mask Ease, which is the next step between stenciling and actual screen printing. I haven't used it myself, but I think it would work well for this sort of project.

Brushes. Stencil brushes can be found at any craft store. They have blunt, round heads and come in a variety of sizes. The key to good stencil results is to be "stingy" with the paint. Load your brush with paint, tap it onto a paper towel to get rid of the excess, then gently begin tapping paint from the edge of the stencil inward. In the photo below, notice the vertical brush position. If you're not sure you can keep the stencil in place on your fabric, tape it down to avoid having it skate around. If you're new to stenciling, practice on scrap fabric first until you know you've got enough control to avoid having paint bleed around the edge of the stencil. If you're good enough free hand, you may be able to neaten up the edges with a brush after the fact, but the fewer messes you make to begin with, the fewer you'll need to clean up.


Paint. I've been harping on testing your stencil or print on swatches. Here's yet another reason: does your paint contrast sufficiently with your fabric? Red paint on black fabric, for example, tends not to show up well at all, though I solved this problem once by painting the "red" areas white first, letting the paint dry thoroughly, then painting over the white with red. It was still pretty dark, but better.

Use paint formulated specifically for use on fabric and FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS so all your hard work survives wear, tear and cleaning. Most fabric paints have to be heat set with an iron after they've dried. Some fabric paints may require a mix-in fixative (advantageous for Really Big Projects when you'd rather not iron the entire roof of a pavilion, for example). Dharma Trading has an excellent selection of paints and dyes formulated for use on fabric in all sorts of applications. If you're not sure what will work best for your project, contact them. Their customer service staff is very helpful. 

I knew that if I wanted to imitate surihaku, I needed a very good quality metallic paint or it was going to look cheesy. Lumiere was described as their best metallic paint, and I am pleased with the results I got. As you can see, the gold is has a nice, rich quality. I got excellent coverage on the fabric, a taffeta-like machine woven dupioni with relatively few slubs, without having to apply huge amounts of paint. In fact, almost no paint soaked through to the reverse side.


Laying out your design. Some people have the ability to eye things up and wing it. If you are not sure you can, don't worry. Use a yardstick and a pencil to measure distances between design elements and lightly mark your fabric so you'll know where to press your block or lay your stencil. Don't forget to allow for seams, hems, etc. when working on unassembled garments. For something with a single repeated element, working on precut garment pieces is pretty simple, once you decide how you far apart you want to space the pattern. 


For something a little more elaborate, it may be necessary to match patterns on different garment pieces. The Kyoto National Museum has this 16th century dobuku worn by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, dyed with his crest, pawlonia leaves, and a hem border of arrows. (A line drawing of the designs on this robe also appears in Japanese Floral Patterns and Motifs by Madeleine Orban-Szontagh, the Dover publication mentioned above.) I liked the band of vertical arrows at the hem and decided to do something similar, in keeping with my punning Japanese nickname. In order to assure that the hem band would line up and that the target and leaf designs on the body would be feather side up on both the front and back of the garment, I decided to sew the two body panels up the back seam.The back seam is clearly visible in these photos and didn't pose any problems to the process other than taking up space.


Photos of the windblown author at Estrella War XXI. Not surprisingly, the silk made an excellent windbreaker.

Recent projects include these experiments in faking Heian brocades. The hitatare kamishimo of the sort that might have been worn very informally by a member of the kuge (court) class. (Isn't that a man's outfit, Saionji-hime? Why yes, it is. Long story.) The design is typical of Heian brocades. The uchiki is a rebuilt version of my court outfit. Cutting the stencil for this design was the hardest part as there are so many delicate cuts. For the hitatare, I used a manila folder, started the cuts with an X-acto knife, then went in with - cuticle scissors! The small, thin, curved blades are perfect for this sort of thing. Neopaque white on orange dupioni that came with a tone-on-tone floral print that adds depth to the look. The uchiki was patterned with a plastic blank cut with an X-acto knife.

What a difference time has made! In 2002, I was staggering around trying to figure out how to fake textile effects with paint. Now there's a Facebook Group devoted to the subject, Etsy sellers will custom carve your print blocks, and SCA clothing from cultures all over the world is being used with decorative painting techniques!  Check out Printed Textiles In The Middle Ages on Facebook for more information. 


Dalby, Liza. Kimono: Fashioning Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001 (ISBN 0-295-98155-5).

Hickman, Money L. Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996 (ISBN 0-300-09407-8).  

Japanese Emblem Library [Online] Available. http://www.otomiya.com/kamon/index.htm 

Matsuya Piece Goods Store. Japanese Design Motifs. Dover Publications, 1972 (ISBN 0486228746)

Minnich, Helen Benton. Japanese Costume and the Makers of Its Elegant Tradition. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1963

Noma, Seiroku. Japanese Costume and Textile Arts. New York and Tokyo, John Wetherhill, Inc. and Heibonsha, jointly, 19774 (ISBN 0-8348-1026-3).

Orban-Szontagh, Madeleine. Japanese Floral Patterns and Motifs. Dover Publications, 1990 (ISBN 0486263304).

Stinchecum, Amanda Meyer. Kosode: 16th-19th Century Textiles From The Nomura Collection. New York: Japan Society in association with Kodansha International, 1984 (ISBN 0-913304-18-2).

Copyright 2005, 2019 Lisa A. Joseph

No HOBBY LOBBY products were used in these projects.