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岡村美和さんの 型染の袋

Miwa Okamura's Stencil Dyeing
Elegant colors stencil-dyed on washi paper envelopes


Ever since Mingei movement founder Muneyoshi Yanagi wrote these words in 1937, Japanese people seem to have developed a preference for restrained elegance with a clear aversion to anything common and unrefined. We can see this in the eternal love of black in the world of fashion and in the choice of plain matte colors in lacqerware and natural ash glaze pottery.

There is one craftsperson for whom simple design and subdued colors are the catchwords of her craft. Ms Miwa Okamura studied stencil dyeing while working at the International Folkcraft Museum in Kumamoto City, Kyushu. Since leaving her position at the museum she has been enjoying her time experimenting with dyeing. I remember her telling me once that the petals of the deep red Higo camellias that fell in her garden at the end of the spring produced a surprising charcoal grey. Discovering the many unexpected colors that come from sources close at hand is as thrilling for her as the creative joy she gains from putting color and pattern together.
It is not easy to see Ms Okamoto's work. Occasionally she shows at the Japan Folkcrafts Museum and at the Western Japan Craftwork Exhibition. Otherwise she is busy dyeing lengths of kimono cloth, obis and tapestries for friends.

Saying it with fine, handcrafted envelopes

I am proud to present in Feature 009 stencil-dyed envelopes for traditional money gifts that Ms Okamura has produced especially for handmadejapan.com.
I am sure I am not the only one who becomes dismayed at the dismal range of gift envelopes available in stationary shops. One usually has the choice of printed envelopes lacking entirely in distinction or flashy versions with decorative strings. Neither has what it takes to convey my feelings. In the case of condolence envelopes it is also hard to find something suitable for a Shinto rather than a Buddhist ceremony since standard condolence envelopes have such a strong Buddhist feeling. And it is even harder to find something appropriate when the gift is for a Christian.
Ms Okamoto's envelopes provided the answer. In this age of restraint, I wanted something subtle to convey my deepest feelings of joy or sorrow, and Ms Okamoto's sensitively executed stencil designs on soft handmade paper for celebratory envelopes have just the right tone of gaiety, while her quiet grey-toned condolence envelopes are perfect for solemn occasions.

We would also like to explain how the envelopes are made. No elaborate equipment is necessary, nor is much space required. The envelopes are easy to make, so why not give it a try.

<How to make envelopes >

 Materials and tools

  • washi paper such as kozo (paper mulberry) washi paper, standard Japanese writing paper size (26 x 41 cm)
  • paper for sketching designs
  • tanned paper (shibugami) or any stiff paper for making stencils
  • pigments
  • one small cup of soybeans soaked in water overnight
  • several thin brushes
  • one carving tool or cutter
  • one lightbox
  • one blender
  • one filter cloth
  • several small plates


Sketch the design that you will use to make your stencils.



Trace the design onto the paper you use for the envelope. Before using the paper it is best to soak it in water for two to three hours and then let it dry naturally so it shrinks completely.



Use the cutter or carving tool to cut out the design traced on the paper. (Prepare different sheets for each color.)



Cut washi (mulberry paper) into a sheet 41 cm x 26 cm, which is the size of an unfolded envelope. (Professionals use a Higonokami, which is a knife made in Kumamoto to get the most beautiful clean-cut edges.)



Fold the cut washi to the predetermined size. Make sure that the envelope flap has the natural (not cut) edge. Fold the cut side at 4.5 cm, and fold the remaining half over it. The top folded over part is 12 cm, the part under 10.5 cm, and the envelope part 18.5 cm.



Put the soybeans that were soaked in water overnight including water that they soaked in, in the blender. (Be sure to use a one to three ratio of soybeans to water to have the proper consistency. Add more water if necessary.) Then filter the blended mixture through the filter cloth and make gojiru, which is a kind of thin bean paste.



Put the pigments on the small plates and add the gojiru to make dyes. (Be careful as only a little pigment of each color is enough. Add the gojiru little by little until the desired depth of color is obtained.)


8: Place the stencil on the washi and use a brush to stencil the dye on. (Be careful to hold the brush perpendicular to the washi.) Complete it by placing the stencils for different colors on, one after another, following the design.



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