In 1956, at the age of 57, Motohiko Katano (1899-1975), under the advice of the founder of the mingei (folk arts) movement Soetsu Yanagi, decided to abandon all other artistic expressions to focus exclusively on shibori resist dyeing textiles.

For an artist who had once hoped to become a yōga (Western-style) painter and had even trained with the renowned Ryusei Kishida, it seems like an unusually specific move at a late stage in his career. Yet within less than 20 years, Katano became known as an unparalleled pioneer of Japanese tie and stitch resist dyeing, and the creator of a technique that artisans now refer to as “Katano shibori.”

The Japan Folk Crafts Museum’s “Indigo Shibori: The Works of Motohiko Katano” is a captivating showcase of Katano’s kimono, noren curtains, wall hangings, textile samples and bolts of patterned fabrics. At every turn, striking indigo blues against crisp whites catch the eye, while tessellated patterns and unusual motifs that seem to defy the capricious nature of resist dyeing entice visitors to pause for closer inspection.

The exhibition includes the work of Kaori, Katano’s daughter who also dedicated her life to shibori, continuing her father’s legacy until her death in 2016.

Textile by Motohiko Katano

Little is written about Katano, but it’s known that before he chose to focus on shibori, he had studied textiles for some time, even dyeing fabrics for Matsuzakaya department store to help ends meet while working as a painter. Upon the death of his mentor Kishida in 1929, Katano stopped painting altogether. After following Yanagi’s advice to concentrate on shibori, his reputation as a textile artisan began to grow.

With a background in Western-style painting and acquaintances who included textile designer Keisuke Serizawa and ceramicist Shoji Hamada — both members of Kokuga-kai, an art group that embraced freedom of expression — it’s little surprise that Katano’s application of shibori would be so innovative. There are hints of traditional Japanese motifs — the seigaiha wave, kikkou tortoise shell, tatewaku stream, even sakura cherry blossom — but all are interpreted into unmistakably modern Katano designs, some of which were also influenced by other tie-dyeing cultures, such as India’s.

The collection of exhibits, which range from bold wall hangings of huge abstract geometric compositions to samples of patterns composed of hundreds of tiny repeated motifs, also serve as a primer to the array of shibori techniques. You’ll find pleating, looped binding, bound resist, stitch resist and more, all faultlessly executed in cotton, hemp, silk and even the notoriously difficult to dye wool felt.

Among the primarily aizome (indigo blue-and-white) works is also a scattering of surprisingly colorful examples of suō (sappanwood) pinks, reds and mauves, and yamamomo (Chinese bayberry) greens and browns.

Textile by Motohiko Katano

But it is the Katano shibori pieces that fascinate the most. Their tessellation of well-defined motifs and shapes, including hexagons, diamonds, squares and circles, in varied but even shades of color seem an impossible achievement in resist dyeing. Involving a complex process of concertina folding fabric and placing it between a supporting textile tightly bound together with intricately stitched patterns, it’s a technique that few artisans, if any, have been able to replicate to such perfection.

It is here that “Indigo Shibori: The Works of Motohiko Katano” resonates with poignancy. Black-and-white photographs of Katano and his daughter poring over designs and stirring vats of dye at his humble home studio in Nagoya remind visitors that since Kaori passed away three years ago, there has been no successor to the family tradition.

This rare opportunity to see up-close the meticulous details of shibori techniques that took years of dedication, experimentation and honing to achieve is haunted by the knowledge that it will be some time before anyone as trailblazing as Katano emerges again.

“Indigo Shibori: The works of Motohiko Katano” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum runs until June 16; ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.mingeikan.or.jp/english.

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