SAORI: Weaving for Everyone

2 March 2022
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Many crafters want to learn how to weave but hesitate because it can seem intimidating. There are so many steps involved in making woven cloth and so many rules to remember. But weaving doesn’t have to be complicated to be beautiful, and this concept is at the heart of SAORI weaving. SAORI invites weavers of all skill levels and abilities to explore weaving without constraints.

SAORI weaving, known for its off-beat aesthetic, is not a specific technique but rather a philosophy about weaving. Based on the writings of the late Misao Jo, SAORI embraces a Zen-like approach to weaving, finding beauty in everything about the cloth we weave, including the imperfections. In fact, the word SAORI is a portmanteau of the Japanese word sai, the Zen concept that each thing has its own individual dignity, and ori, the Japanese word for weaving. In SAORI weaving there are no mistakes and there are no rules. The weaving is perfect, simply because it exists.

At the heart of the SAORI philosophy is the idea that each of us has an innate creativity and that weaving gives us a way to access that creative spirit and set it free. The absence of set patterns and instructions allows each individual weaver to discover their own style and express themselves freely. “Weave Yourself” is a mantra heard in SAORI studios around the world.

image description: a close-up of purple and orange hand-woven fabric, with irregular colour and pattern changes

SAORI encourages exploration and creativity to redefine woven cloth.

Misao Jo discovered this approach to weaving when she decided to take up the craft in her late fifties. She dreamed pursuing the highly structured traditional craft of weaving for kimono and obi—the traditional wrap belt worn around a kimono. Her son built her a loom and she set to weaving. When she showed her completed obi to a local weaver, she was told it was inferior weaving because of a missing warp thread. Another beginner weaver might have been devastated, but not Misao. She decided that she actually liked that feature  and saw it as a pattern rather than an error. With this in mind, she consciously duplicated that pattern  in her next weaving. That obi with the deliberate “mistake” was praised by a local shop owner for its uniqueness and she was asked to make more to sell. Soon, other weavers were asking her to teach them her secrets, and SAORI weaving was born.

Over the past fifty years, Misao’s tiny act of defiance against tradition has grown into an international movement, headquartered in the forest outside of Osaka, Japan. To remind weavers of the SAORI philosophy, Misao created a set of guiding phrases she calls “slogans” that sum up her approach to weaving.

  1. Consider the differences between a machine and a human being.
  2. Be bold and adventurous.
  3. Look out through eyes that shine.
  4. Inspire one another, and everyone in the group.

These slogans inform and shape the approach to weaving offered by the three licensed SAORI studios in Canada. Located in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, respectively, each studio shares the philosophy and methods of SAORI weaving, providing lessons, weaving materials, and SAORI-branded equipment and books.

Judi Gay of Earthshine SAORI in Saskatoon says you don’t need to take classes to weave in the SAORI tradition, but she does recommend that new weavers talk to someone who has spent time in a SAORI studio. According to Judi, “Understanding true SAORI weaving includes learning about the history and philosophy of the SAORI movement, and how it’s all interconnected, to realize the vision of the founder, Misao Jo. There are no rules in SAORI weaving (other than the inescapable mechanics of over and under, back and forth), and it’s been described as ‘weaving your heart.’” If you can’t find an experienced weaver to talk to, Judi recommends reading the foundational book of the SAORI movement, SAORI Self-Innovation Through Free Weaving, by Misao and Kenzo Jo, available from any of the SAORI studios. The book provides insight into Misao’s approach to weaving and she writes about her own weaving journey as well as the concepts of SAORI.

Each SAORI studio has a slightly different approach to teaching because each instructor brings their own interpretation of the SAORI philosophy to their teaching. Weavers are given basic instruction on how to use the loom and are then left to explore. The SAORI approach of “no mistakes” frees the weaver to approach the loom with an open mind and discover both the physical movements that work best for them and the aesthetic that expresses their individual creativity.

image description: a white woman standing next to a tall wooden frame, on which are suspended three handwoven scarves, each somewhat irregular in their pattern and colouring

Each SAORI studio takes a slightly different approach to teaching. Weaving and photo: Tanya Corbin of Seaweaves SAORI.

Terri Bibby of SAORI Salt Spring, in British Columbia, emphasizes the importance of community and of weaving together. We learn from each other and everyone in the group. This part of the philosophy removes all barriers—of age, of ability, of experience. It brings people together. I love the collaborative, sharing way of SAORI. In some arts and crafts, there are copyrights on work and carefully guarded secrets of methods. In SAORI weaving there is an openness and sharing. If I share my ideas and my work with others it becomes more instead of less. There is no copying—just more ideas and inspiration.”

Most SAORI is plain weave (tabby), keeping the weaving simple and direct. There is no treadling sequence to remember, no drafts to read, just the up and down of the warp. This simple cloth structure gives the weaver room to play with colours and textures in their choices of weft yarns, allowing for simple patterning or complex textures. If you run out of yarn or are tired of weaving with a particular colour, you just change it. Materials can be traditional weaving yarns, art yarns, shredded fabric scraps, thrums, or cut-up plastic bags. In fact, SAORI weavers consider bits of scrap yarn and other discards as “treasures” to be woven, making this style of weaving truly zero-waste. You weave what you feel in the moment, with what you have on hand and with no planning or design.

Because there are no rules or patterns to follow, SAORI is accessible to everyone, regardless of their skill, experience, physical or mental capabilities. In fact, accessibility is a hallmark of the philosophy, and SAORI is often used in art therapy for individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities, children, and cancer patients.

While you can weave in the SAORI style on any loom, the equipment manufactured by SAORI is specifically designed to make weaving more accessible. The equipment is elegant in its simplicity and is ergonomically designed to allow the weaver to become immersed in the creative process. Adaptive tools have been designed for weavers with physical challenges, including a fully wheelchair accessible loom, looms operated only by hands or by feet, and specialized shuttles that can be moved by mouth. There is even a small, portable loom that can be used by weavers of all ages, including children as young as three years old.

image description: a close-up of a weaving loom and a shuttle, threaded with multiple colours of yarn, the word "SAORI" is visible on the front of the loom

SAORI makes looms and accessories, including pre-wound warps, that make weaving more accessible.

Weavers can choose their level of involvement with the process, from warping the loom to wearing the cloth. Pre-wound warps are available that can be slipped onto the loom and quickly threaded, or warps can be wound and threaded using SAORI’s unique approach. Many weavers make simple hangings and scarves, but SAORI also encourages making clothing from your woven cloth to share your self-expression with the world. Like the weaving process, sewing SAORI clothing is simple, with minimal cutting and stitching to preserve the full beauty of the woven cloth.

image description: a hand-woven poncho, displayed on a wooden clothing display 'judy'

SAORI encourages weavers to wear their work. Simple garments can be made with minimal cutting and sewing.

For many, SAORI is so much more than just weaving. Judi says, “SAORI has provided me with the creative outlet I spent the first half of my life looking for, and the integrated philosophy has spilled over into the rest of my day-to-day life. I am constantly reminding myself to be more patient and accepting and less judgmental of other people’s choices. I live in hope that eventually it will become less of an effort and more of an unconscious behaviour.”

And, perhaps, Terri sums it up best: “SAORI weaving is a way to self, to heart, and to healing. There are no mistakes, only the joy of creation.”

All images, except where noted, by Michelle Boyd.

Copyright © Michelle Boyd except as indicated.

About Michelle Boyd

Michelle Boyd is a Master Spinner, weaver, and writer who lives in Olds, Alberta, located in Treaty 7 Territory, the ancestral lands of the peoples of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Michelle learned to spin in 1995 when her local yarn shop closed, and she became obsessed with the art and science of making yarn. She has taught workshops across North America and instructed for the Olds College Master Spinner Program for fifteen years. She is also a frequent contributor to both PLY Magazine and Digits & Threads and is currently completing her first book about spinning.

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