Dr Sarah Desmarais: Drawing Inspiration from Katagami Stencils

Sarah Desmarais was a participant in MoDA’s research project, Katagami in Practice. Her research focused on the practice of making, and how it can be used to approach the katagami reflectively, critically and creatively.

Sarah’s response goes beyond simply noting the stencils as examples of interesting motifs, technical virtuosity or traditional technique. She combined her professional experience as a textile maker with her experience of using ethnographic and auto-ethnographic methods of data collection.

Sarah’s reflections on “Thinking through Drawing”

My research concerns the distinctive kinds of learning and reflection possible through the process of making. I’m getting to know the katagami through practical engagement. A good part of this practical work involves printing and dyeing textiles using traditionally made stencils and rice paste. But I started off by drawing from the katagami at MoDA.

Every drawing is a new exercise in learning to see, as valuable in terms of process as end product. I know from experience that making a drawing is a good way of assimilating visual material. The process of capture through mark-making is slow in comparison to taking a photograph. It is spacious enough for the metabolization of visual information. This is particularly useful when I find myself dazzled by spectacularly complex and finely executed designs of many of the katagami stencils.

Writing about the Drawing Process

My methodology also involves making ‘field notes’ as a way of documenting the practical process and the fleeting subjective dimensions of making activities. While drawing, I write down thoughts as they occur. These notes are fragmentary, reflecting the quality of thinking while doing. I allow them to emerge in a spontaneous, free-associative way. I’m also careful to record things that are apparently irrelevant or so mundane that they hardly seem worth writing down. For example, the experience of boredom, frustration or resistance in drawing or slow making processes is an interesting phenomenon that would disappear if I only captured insights, experiences of aesthetic pleasure, or creative excitement.

This writing contains a number of interesting themes concerning what drawing contributes as a way of exploring the katagami, as in the following extracts:

I’m immediately aware that the full beauty and complexity of the pattern don’t register until I start to draw. So drawing forces a process of sorting and categorisation – mentally dividing areas up to produce a schematic representation. It obliges an initial consideration of how the design is constructed.

To draw a design you have to understand something about it, reduce it to its component elements. I find myself thinking in the case of each stencil about the repeat and how it would have been created. In some cases this happens quite simply, as for instance where a central diagonal meander dictates, as it leaves the frame at the top, where a line must appear to continue it at the bottom of the stencil.

I’m really interested in how much more I’m noticing through drawing. For example, how a blossom motif in one place is made through a positive, dark image on a light ground, whereas elsewhere on the same stencil, it appears as a negative, light image on a dark ground. I’m noticing how the designer has played with the contrast between these strategies, often in relation to whether the blossom motif is in the background, or overlapping another form.

Drawing seems to be a way in which one can build hypotheses about designerly intentions. One enters into the same frame of mind, which seems to be a playful one. Play is perhaps the creative response that counterbalances processes that are arduously slow and repetitive.

Reflections on my Process

I’m building up a body of such notes in relation to my katagami drawing and textile printmaking activities. These will be part of the ‘raw data’ that I draw on in analysing my findings. I’ll use them when thinking further about how artefacts in museum collections can be approached and ultimately better understood through practical making activities.

My experience of documenting the katagami in this way has forcefully underlined the role that drawing plays in the assimilation and transformation of design languages. As Glen Adamson (2009) points out in relation to the work of Owen Jones and his Grammar of Ornament, ‘sketches and published patterns based on them act as points of translation’ (my italics). These observations are conducive to reflection on the processes of cultural influence evident in the Silver Studio collection, where features of Japanese design are translated into the languages of late 19th and early 20th century British textile and wallpaper design. More broadly, drawing and writing stimulate reflection on how artists and designers assimilate and transform the design influences that circulate around them, the conscious and unconscious processes involved, and about the focused uses of collections and archives.


Adamson, G., 2009. Out on the tiles. Victoria and Albert Museum blog, [blog] 30May. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/sketch-product/out-tiles[Accessed 13 February 2009].

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