A Necessary Revival

A Necessary Revival
Saratetsu finds its place in the present

Hagiwara Ichizo is enthusiastic. With kind eyes and a jolly demeanor, he wants to show you everything. As the annals of history threaten to bind his work and the work of two fathers before him between their covers, he'd like to educate and encourage us to understand and embrace the beauty of hand dyeing in the Yuzen tradition. 

Hagiwara is the current proprietor of Saratetsu, of Nerima, Tokyo.  Founded by his grandfather in 1910, Saratetsu specializes in bespoke furoshiki, a traditional cloth used to bundle and carry items. Intent on making this common and generally inexpensive product of the people, Hagiwara continues the company’s dedication to hand dyeing. But in an era that prizes speed and economy, the techniques he employs have been all but abandoned outside the realm of high-end kimono production. Yet still, every piece of furoshiki fabric at Saratetsu is worked by hand in an intricate and laborious process. 

Saratetsu boasts the mastery and refinement of two dye application techniques, suri and bokashi. For suri, reminiscent of traditional silkscreen methods in which a dye is pulled across a stencil with a squeegee, Hagiwara mixes the dyes into a specially formulated rice husk paste. He has perfected this formula to enable the dyeing of each side of a single piece of cloth with differing colors.  Each color informs the reverse, creating depth with nuance and variation.

Bokashi, the hand brushing application of pure, undiluted dyes over a stencil to create subtle gradations and shading, is the second defining technique of Saratetsu. “If you just rely on the stencil, the feeling is too sharp, the edges too defined,” Hagiwara explains.

In the mid 1960s, Saratetsu attracted the attention of Takashimaya, Japan's largest department store chain. They proposed a collaboration that would utilize Saratetsu’s unique skill set.  They would select a few of Japan’s most recognizable paintings and recreate them on silk crepe in a special line of furoshiki. The results were well received and Saratetsu completed many projects for them. They also garnered requests from renowned artists and celebrities for personalized furoshiki.

...in an era that prizes speed and economy, the techniques he employs have been all but abandoned...

Harima Jun, Hagiwara’s apprentice and employee for over a dozen years now, demonstrates. Fitting a stencil over a stretched piece of silk, he carefully works a brush in a quick circular smudging action to apply the dye. He works his way through six stencils dedicated only to layering in the clouds around an image of Mt. Fuji. As Hagiwara watches Harima work, he explains, “It’s by using many stencils and incrementally layering up the dye that the feeling, the expression of clouds is created.” The results are stunning, the subtleties of shade, the nuance of hue, the softness of edge. 

It is impossible to witness the time, the care, and the effort without gaining immense respect and appreciation for the craftsmen and their work. Yet these cloths painted in scenes referencing great natural or cultural wonders feel of another time. They must have caught the fancy of madams shopping the halls of Takashimaya decades ago. They seem a thing of newer money, in bubblier times.

But the days of the department stores' rein are receding and most of Japan’s bubbles have burst. Even so, Hagiwara remains intent on his mission though he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s tough. “We barely make a living but we’ve preserved the technique. And since we have the craftsmanship, sometimes we get an offer,” he says. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every piece of furoshiki fabric at Saratetsu is worked by hand in an intricate and laborious process.

In 2011, Ai Kanazawa and Kathryn Manzella, of San Diego, were conceptualizing a new business, Studio Kotokoto, dedicated to bringing attention to the stories and crafts of artisans working in handmade traditions. While on a trip to Japan, Kanazawa met up with her former classmate Harima, of Saratetsu. “He mentioned how Saratetsu had thrown away many old paper stencils because they were poorly stored,” she says. “That got me thinking about how these designs might be lost if something wasn’t done with them now.”

From over a century in the business Saratetsu houses an extensive collection of katagami, hand cut paper stencils. Flipping through a stack of them, Hagiwara reminisces, “The makers of these stencils were specialists in their own right.” Each intricate pattern was hand cut from shibugami, layers of paper laminated together with persimmon tannin. “Stencil makers and dyers relied on each other, both integral parts of one process. And each took great pride in their craft,” says Hagiwara. “They would challenge each other. ‘Are your dying skills worthy of my great stencils?’ and vice versa. Such competition naturally encouraged both industries to improve and reach great heights.” But with the advent of computer generated graphics and machine cut stencils, “that knowledge and culture is dying,” he laments. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The makers of
these stencils were
specialists in their own right.”

“We knew we wanted to revive patterns from the old stencil collection,” says Kanazawa. “Kathryn and I considered many options to make something that would appeal to the people now.” Ultimately, in honor of Saratetsu’s métier, furoshiki seemed the best place to begin. “We felt that furoshiki was something a lot of people overlooked despite its long history in our culture,” she explains. “My mother used to go to school carrying her books in furoshiki and we wanted to explore the utility of furoshiki.” But in place of silk, they chose to work with linen. “That was the textile of the people for its affordability and durability in the past.”

Though a result of Studio Kotokoto’s direction, the furoshiki born of this endeavor are Saratetsu to the core. The designs are not replicas of another artist’s work but rather patterns from the depths of Saratetsu’s own history and of course, the dual sided dyeing is the house specialty. And in working together, Studio Kotokoto gave Saratetsu their first opportunity to take ownership of their product. “Until we brought Saratetsu's work to the eyes of the people, they had never been able to put their name on their work,” Kanazawa explains. “Behind this is a complex tale of the craftsman to wholesaler relationship in Japan that could not be broken for decades. In the past era, wholesalers had exclusive retail channels that the craftsman depended on to sell their work. Craftsman stayed anonymous.”

The collaboration between Saratetsu and Studio Kotokoto shows the potential, with the good vision, to usher the past into the present. Saratetsu’s challenge going forth is to continue the wave Studio Kotokoto has encouraged, to marry a rare skill set to more contemporary applications. And they are experimenting. Since working with Studio Kotokoto, business is reported to be on the rise. Hagiwara has been prototyping a series of cotton tenugui, or hand towels, economical in size and material. And his son is working out a line of silk scarves, hand brushed in bold colors. Studio Kotokoto also remains close by in the wings, with plans for future collaborations. 

 

Visit www.studiokotokoto.com
to see Saratetsu's furoshiki.