“Sometimes the strongest way to communicate is through the creative choices we make,” said Brandy Godsil, the director of SAORI Arts NYC, a New York-based nonprofit that uses a contemporary Japanese weaving method to reach people with disabilities.
Pioneered by a woman named Misao Jo in 1960s Japan, Saori is based on the idea that creative “accidents” are a valuable form of self-expression. The Saori aesthetic hit the fashion industry last spring in a collaboration called “ Beauty Without Intentions” between a dozen young US fashion designers, fashion design students, and weavers with disabilities in Japan. Each designer was paired with the work of a weaver and asked to design the textiles into a piece of clothing. The results combined Japanese minimalism with a very contemporary sense of chaos. Some pieces were edgy and deconstructed, while others were more classic, but all were wearable.
A similar sense of fun and experimentation, along with a strong measure of compassion, can be found on a daily basis at SAORI Arts NYC. By fostering collaborations with artists, painters, photographers and designers, SAORI Arts NYC is bringing fresh significance to the Big Idea that Saori founder Misao Jo had in the 1960s, that it was necessary to radically rethink the concept of perfection - and of flaws.
When Misao Jo developed her weaving technique, her approach was nothing short of revolutionary. Traditional Japanese textiles were hand-loomed and plant-based, with many Japanese peasants wearing clothing made from hemp fiber. Rural Japanese craftswomen spun the hemp and hand-loomed the fiber threads into fabrics used for clothing and domestic wares, and sometimes they sold their products to provide secondary income for a family. By the 1870s, Japan was industrializing, and becoming part of the world market. Large commercial cotton spinning and weaving mills came to dominate the textile industry. Japan’s tradition of hand-weaving was all but lost.
In the Swinging ’60s - 1969, to be precise - Misao Jo changed all that,, and her story is a testament to faith in one's own aesthetic. Misao Jo was 57 when she decided to take up weaving as a hobby, and as often happens, the hobby turned into a vocation. In Misao Jo’s case, it grew into something even larger: a movement.
It started when Misao Jo made a mistake while weaving an obi, a wide belt worn at the waist of a Japanese kimono. Instead of correcting it, she found an unexpected pleasure in the pattern. She brought it to a local weaving factory, but the manager told her it would be worthless as a commercial product.
Instead of shifting course, she doubled down. She began hand weaving quality obis with the intention of making ‘flawed’ but beautiful pieces, deliberately skipping blades of the reed when warping her loom. The owner of an obi shop on Shinsaibashi Street, Osaka's chic shopping district, became her first buyer. Misao Jo had discovered keys to both business and creativity: first, she learned to trust her unconscious, and second, she discovered that sometimes, success is simply a matter of finding the right audience.
As her work grew in popularity, Jo came to believe that freeform weaving could be a new art form. She invented the name Saori:.ori means weaving, while sa is the first syllable of the word sai. In Zen practice, sai is the principle that everything has its own dignity. Misao Jo’s creative philosophy is expressed on the Saori website: “In Saori we do not weave only a cloth. We weave our true self.”
Half a century later, Saori weaving is practiced in more than 40 countries. At 102, Misao Jo remains active in the movement she started.
In New York, the epicenter of the American fashion industry, it was inevitable that the movement would intersect with clothing design. New York's first Saori studio, Loop of the Loom, opened in 2005 as “A Mindfulness Zen Weaving Dojo.” The studio’s founder, Yukako Satone, who had studied design in Japan, met Misao Jo on a visit toJapan just a month before 9/11. She hosted her first Saori workshop near Ground Zero for friends and children of the victims of the World Trade Center attack.
Galvanized by that experience, Satone went on to found Loop of the Loom, and later, SAORI Arts NYC with the help of Ria Hawks, a pediatric nurse practitioner who had established a Saori weaving program for children as part of a palliative care program at New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center.
The studio's fashion connection is Brandy Godsil, whose background is in fiber art and fashion having worked for Etro, Marni and Isaac Mizrahi. But Godsil’s interest in Saori weaving is as much personal as professional. A few years ago, she introduced Saori to her non-verbal autistic brother, who now lives with her in New York.
Godsil noted that self-expression among otherwise voiceless clients often reveals unexpected aspects of their personalities. One of her success stories was Constance (not her real name), a woman who, like Godsil’s brother, is severely autistic and unable to speak. Her story may be more dramatic than most, but the struggle is universal, according to Godsil.
“I've seen the results of artistic self-expression in so many autistic people, but Constance really stayed with me,” Godsil said. “She came across as very timid. But the materials she chose for her loom weaving were colorful and textured. Her confidence increased as the class progressed, and the rhythm and consistency of weaving seemed to have a calming effect.
“The final result was incredibly vibrant, unlike anything we had seen before. It was incredibly profound to witness an unfiltered creative mind emerge.”
SAORI Arts NYC is seeking partnerships and collaborations.