SAORI: Japanese Traditions

‘When you get to explore your own creativity, you tap into your inner spirit, and what makes you unique.’
—Prue Simmons

There is something mythological about Prue Simmons—one senses that if you spent enough time in her company you would 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 Highlands 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 is different from other forms of weaving because in traditional hand weaving regularity is the law; an irregular thread is considered a mistake. In SAORI things are very different. SAORI weavers celebrate accidents, unexpected colours and textures.

Prue explains that colourful fabrics are dyed using bengala dye; a mud dye handmade in Japan from ‘iron oxides from earth’ mined from soil and originally used to protect the exterior of houses.

Entering Shizuka Ryokan, I notice a dozen freshly-dyed fabric objects slung over the bridge drying in the sun. Shizuka Ryokan’s dining room is an explosion of colour. In the corner is a table covered in spools of thread. There are half-a-dozen or more weaving looms with half woven projects coming out of them, and on another table a basket of llama wool and some SAORI clothing. At a long dining table sits Prue and her colour army of weavers, enjoying a Japanese feast.

In 2007, Prue was volunteering across remote parts of Japan and ‘going where ever the whim took me’. She was WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) on an island. 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 help building the pizza oven Toyomi Harada taught Prue SAORI and indigo dye techniques.

Prue explains the origins of SAORI weaving. Misao Jo invented SAORI in the late sixties. ‘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 an obi—a Japanese belt—and found 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.’

SAORI weavers follow four slogans:
1) Consider the differences between a machine and a human being
2) Be bold and adventurous
3) Let’s look out through eyes that shine
4) Inspire one another, and everyone in the group.

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 every year to study SAORI under her mentor Toyomi Harada. 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 asked Toyomi’s permission and was told that she would have to live with them in Japan, and undergo extensive training. Prue said she was told ‘You have to fit the SAORI family’ and that even at 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. 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’.

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 will be returning to Shizuka in 18-21 October 2018 for another fantastic SAORI weaving intensive. Visit here for more details.