Although I was really in Japan for some hardcore temari studies, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a look for some weaving courses. It’s hard not to fall in love with the exquisite and wonderful world of Japanese textiles, in particular the world of 西陣織 (nishijin ori), the intricate weaving behind the most luxurious of fabrics.
I’d done a weaving experience at the Nishijin Textile Factory where I made a scarf/table-runner hybrid with all the charm and textural properties of a bag of fleas. Past that, I haven’t had much luck finding short, drop-in weaving courses. That was until I had the opportunity to not only meet the creator of saori weaving but to study in her studio.
The story behind the saori technique is that one day Misao Jo was weaving an obi and found one of the warp threads was missing. When she showed it to someone who was running a weaving factory, they said that the obi was ‘worthless’ as it was flawed. However, she was intrigued with the visual effect it had created and continued to weave intentionally ‘flawed’ cloth. She started to explore the possibilities of allowing students just explore and create as they pleased once they had learnt the basics of weaving, which is how saori weaving was born.
Misao Jo’s studio is located about an hour by train outside of Osaka and is open for lessons seven days a week. If you don’t speak Japanese, Misao Jo’s son, who teaches and helps with running the studio speaks excellent English so it might be worth contacting the studio beforehand to check he will be around for your visit. They offer a very flexible drop-in class where you can learn all about the world of saori.
The studio is absolutely beautiful, with a wall of weaving threads that would make anyone go weak at the knees. They have silks, cottons, metallic, jute…. Whatever you could dream of, all on one wall. A perfect complement to a studio with enough looms to keep any weaver happy.
The teachers were keen to stress that saori is not just a physical weaving technique, but a philosophy too. Learning to weave this way is supposed to be a journey of self-exploration, where each individual learns to create something truly unique to them. There is a real joy in techniques that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ go out the window, there is only ‘deliberate’ and ‘going to pretend that was deliberate later’.
I very much had a ‘kid in a sweet’ shop moment when I was told to get a selection of threads to wind together to make some threads to weave with. The colours, the textures, the possibilities… It’s very easy to just take a few cones and use a bobbin winder to mix several threads together. Word of warning with metallic though, they will snag on anything available!
I started with a bit of plain weave just to get used to using the saori looms. At heart, they are very nicely designed two-shaft looms and every part has simplicity in mind. The first lesson of the day was getting used to the boat shuttles and learning some handling techniques just to make the process a little easier and more relaxing.
As the day went on, I learnt a few new techniques to add to my arsenal, from weaving with multiple colours at a time. More weaving of course meant experimenting with more combinations of thread and colours. The whole focus of saori is on experimentation and improvisation, which I could definitely get behind with a wall of colour to play with. It’s a very different approach to trying to follow a regimented pattern as rigidly as possible.
Although the saori looms are very nicely made, with simplicity and ease of use at heart, they are essentially two-shaft looms. Now, depending on your weaving ethos, you might argue that is removing any impediment to your self-expression, or that is very limiting in terms of the patterns you create.
By the end of the day, I’d managed to cover nearly all of the basic techniques with the help of my very patient and generous teachers. I will admit 3-shuttle weaving did nearly get me into a few knots. I particularly enjoyed working the open sections, trying to find ways to get ‘free floating’ threads to hold interesting shapes. By removing the need to follow a pattern, I had the chance to focus a lot on the threads and colours I was creating, which was particularly fun.
After a day of weaving and the addition of nearly a kilo of thread, I had created a 2 m long monster scarf, that poses a serious thread of suffocation to the wearer. If I’m completely honest, the aesthetic of saori weaving isn’t really for me. However, it was an immense privilege to have a tour of the studio and be fortunate enough to experience the wonderful hospitality and expertise there. There is something truly amazing about getting to learn from people who, while insisting they are still learning something new every day, seem to have a complete mastery of a technique.
While I don’t think I’ll be giving up my 8-shaft loom any time soon, I hope something of the saori philosophy stays with me. A lot of the crafts I do, particularly my embroidery, require a huge amount of precision and accuracy. Moving to something a lot more free-form, where I could just enjoy laying down colours, really made for a refreshing change.
The Saori no Mori studio really is an island of tranquillity and I hope I get the chance to go back to spend another day in the suburbs, making meters of many-coloured cloth.