There is something mythological about Prue Simmons—one senses that if you spent enough time in her company you might rise like a phoenix from the ashes of your boring office job.
Prue is the founder of Dyeing to Weave, a SAORI weaving and natural dye studio based out of Clunes in the Central Highland of Victoria. Prue was at Shizuka Ryokan last week to teach a three day SAORI weaving workshop.
The Japanese word SAORI comes from ‘sai’ meaning individuality, and ‘ori’ meaning weaving. SAORI differs from other forms of weaving. In traditional weaving regularity is the law, an irregular thread is considered a mistake, whereas SAORI weavers celebrate the accidents, the unexpected colours and textures.
“When you get to explore your own creativity you tap into your inner spirit, and what makes you unique.”- Prue Simmons
Entering the building I noticed a dozen freshly dyed fabric objects slung over the bridge entrance drying in the sun. Shizuka’s dining room was an explosion of colour. In the corner was a table covered in spools of thread. There were half a dozen looms with half woven projects emerging from them, baskets of llama wool and examples saori clothing. At a dining table sat Prue and her colour army of weavers enjoying a Japanese feast.
In 2007 Prue was volunteering in remote parts of Japan and “going whereever the whim took me”. She was wwoofing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) on an island and the season was coming to an end but she didn’t want to leave Japan. Somebody mentioned that they had a friend who lived in the mountains in Naka who needed help building a pizza oven. Prue arrived to find an old wooden school house in an Arts & Craft Village devoted to traditional Japanese handicrafts. To thank her for her help building the pizza oven Toyomi Harada taught Prue SAORI and indigo dye techniques.
Misao Jo invented SAORI in the late sixties. Prue explains, “Misao grew up as a very traditional Japanese woman, learning all of the traditional crafts, such as the tea ceremony and ikebana. It was all very precise, very perfect.” But one time Misao was weaving a Japanese belt and saw that one of the threads was missing. Looking at the belt she realised that the mistake was pleasing to behold. She showed it to a person running a weaving factory who dismissed it as flawed and worthless but this did not deter Misao who had an inherent sense of the value of the handmade object. Prue says, “She did not see it as a mistake, but as human uniqueness.” Misao thought that what made the flawed obi interesting must be the result of something hidden within herself. She suspected that the obi’s beauty was a result of escaping conventional thinking in order to express herself. “Everything that you do on the loom is meant to happen,” says Prue.
From Naka Prue returned to Melbourne and took up SAORI as a hobby “to destress from a stressful job.” Prue is a zoologist by trade but she kept returning to Japan to study SAORI under her mentor Toyomi Harada every year. Eventually she decided to leave the stressful job (running a world conservation program), and in what Prue describes as “a push in the right direction” she was made redundant. Together with her partner Prue moved to the country and started White Stone Farm, where they raise llamas for fleece. With values grounded in permaculture, community and sustainability her medium of choice for weaving is llama, alpaca and sheep fibres.
By this stage Prue wanted to teach SAORI. She requested Toyomi’s permission and was asked to live with the SAORI masters in Japan for an extended period of time in order to undergo extensive training. Prue was advised that she would “need to fit the SAORI family” and was warned that even by the end of the training she might not be accredited to teach. Prue went to Japan and immersed herself in study. The gamble paid off, she is now one of only three accredited SAORI teachers in Australia.
The SAORI three day workshop is “great for both beginners and seasoned SAORI weavers” who Prue says “often find that they have their loom at home but life gets in the way. That’s the power of SAORI, it allows people to step out of their daily lives.” Looking around at the people weaving everyone seems to have entered into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls an “optimal experience”, a flowing state of consciousness during which people experience deep creativity and focus.
Prue’s practice brings together the philosophy of SAORI, natural dyes, upcycling and repurposing and aims to “offer people an opportunity to discover their individual creativity and relaxation through workshops and studio sessions in the time-honoured activities of weaving and dye.” You can observe the “meditative process” that is Prue weaving in this video produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. There are upcoming SAORI workshops at Shizuka. Dates to be announced.