Weaving – saki-ori: some design considerations

June 19, 2009

Draft essay… a work-in-progress…
Over the last few years, I’ve found the contributions to issues of the newsletter of the Complex Weavers Japanese Textiles Study Group relating to saki-ori weaving from recycled silk kimono very informative and inspiring. I’ve supplemented that knowledge with watching sakiori auctioned on eBay, including textile dealers in Japan who buy at auction and re-sell to the West via the internet(1). When last in Japan, I noted several examples sold at the regular antique dealers market at Toji Temple in Kyoto held on the first Sunday of the month in the temple grounds- this is the smaller, more specialised version of the larger general temple markets held late in the month. I was very pleasantly surprised to see saki-ori weaving included in the San Francisco Folk Art museum book devoted to recycled Japanese textiles (2), which confirmed my impression that this was a textile activity that was popular in the first decades of the 20th century, apparently having flourished allegedly since around 1750. It looked very much a ‘lost art’ in Japan, and relatively little studied outside Japan, until details emerged recently of a Sakiori Association in Japan (3) which seems to have moved the art form from historical re-creation and isolated indvidual weavers back towards centrestage in the variety of weaving forms of contemporary Japan. As we know, organising individuals into formal craft associations is the key to longterm survival and promotion in Japan – Associations lead inevitably to public exhibitions (e.g. saga nishiki) and sometimes graded certification (e.g. temari) and worldwide networks (e.g. shibori), sometimes to loose gatherings of individuals meeting at conferences (e.g. kumihimo and loop-manipulated braids).What follows is an overview of some design considerations surrounding sakiori, since information in English to date is very often limited to the technical aspects of how they are made – how to prepare the warps and the possibilities of using paper, hemp and silk as wefts. Since my discussion is really only based on several dozen examples at most of 1920s/30s sakiori, the discussion is inevitably a bit simplistic.
Obi, lags and vests
The first thing to be said is tha the vast majority of early 20th-century sakiori, those which are extant, are obi – a very informal obi considering the recycled nature of the materials. Secondly, sakiori must, of necessity, be linked to rural Japan(4). And thirdly, much use is made of colur – karafuru or colorful, seems to have been the overriding approach (5). Many sakiori obi are thinner than the standard Japanese woven textile width of 13inches – very manyseem to half that width, some as narrow as 4inches. I think the appropriate term is han-0bi or half-obi. It’s thick enough not to require folding. Where sakiori stick to the standard 12-13″ width, these obi lengths are sewn together to form lags or blankets and they seem to fall in line with a standard of five obi widths, with a length of the same total: most are about 65″ square, e.g. 65×65, 47×47, 68×55, etc. – the largest one noted is 70-76. Comparartively few of these come on the market, compared to the informal obi. The lags are invariably of the same type: plain stripes. I’m aware of some sakiori obi transformed into blanket-type lags but used as welcome mats at the front doors of houses and ‘carpet’s (cotton wadding used as padding and backed with plaid or check fabric). I’m also aware of a rug with a detachable square in the middle perfect for a family sitter around a brazier in the winter. Even more rarely, sakiori vests, sometimes with sashiko stitching, come on the market. I’m aware of a bunch of American recently who created knitted sakiori vests in the sleeveless style, known as sodansha – sleeveless, so that Japanese agricultural workers didn’t get their long sleeves wet planting rice I imagine. 
Sakiori entails the recycling of not just one kimono, but many. So it makes sense that the vast majority of early 20th-century sakiori that have come on the market recently feature horizontal stripes. Different coloured kimono translate into carefully placed different coloured stripes, sometimes of differing widths.
sakiori red yellow black  orange red stripes on pink
Left: detail of a full-width obi. Right: entire width of a half- or han-obi.
Plaids and checks
With a lot of additional planning, especially with repeated sets of different coloured warps, sakiori weavers create plaids and checks. Very occasionally, checks can become ichimatsu/chequerboards.
 scan0027  scan0028
Both photos show only part of the entire width. Right: shows loose rag weft.
“Feature” stripes
To add interest to the overall look of the obi, sometimes a contrasting pattern of a stripe or stripes is added to a more or less monochromatic background.
Ichimatsu/chequer-board surface design. Both are full width with fringes, han-obi.
Vertical central stripe
Very occasionally, a design feature is made out of a central vertical stripe running along the entire length of the obi. This is done by using warps in the centre of a different colour.
White warps with a central group of red warps. Full width, han-obi.
While saki-ori weavers can achieve a greater subtlety using very pale and pastel colours, in contrast to the karafuru(5), it’s possible to find sakiori obi which are entirely monochromatic. This seems to imply a considerable number of kimono all of the same general, plain colour or very close to it.
Rags of pink kimono with a red pattern, emerging in the sakiori as calligraphic spots. Full width, han-obi.
Very occasionally, so rarely they defy the rule of plain stripes, sakiori obi with rather more complex surface designs come on the market.
 scan0015 scan0024
Tapestry weave as used extensively in formal silk obi sashes from urban areas such as Kyoto. Both are full width; han-obi.
Less formal use of tapestry weave in blank against a grey and pink ‘background’. Full width; han-obi.
(1) In Japan, Osaka dealer, Ichiroya; Ryujapan – www.net.shinei.co.jp ; www.kimonoboy.com  In America, SriThreads www.srithreads.com and www.yokodana.com among others.

(2) From rags to riches

(3) Vavmagasinet. Scandinavian weaving magazine, Sep/Oct 2008 issue. A Sakiori Association was formed in 1996 at a meeting of 120 people at Nagano, followed since by four juried public exhibitions in Tokyo. http://www.sakiori.com

(4) I’m aware of Izumo sakiori, produced in Hirose City, Shimane Prefecture. The idea is that this was promoted in areas such as Northern Tohoku (near present-day Aomori City), Sado Island – that bastion of traditonal Japanese culture – and Sanin District, where cotton does not grow well, so using valuable cotton (and/or hemp) for the warps freed up the wefts for recycled fabric in lieu of cotton. From the Japanese monograph, “Weave and Dye”. Iwao Nagasaki also mentions that sakiori was predominantly produce in San’in and Sado; on Sado Island, gold miners wore sakiori for its warmth and sturdy nature.” The traditions of folk textiles in Japan, p.17 in Rathbun.

(5) Explained by Steven of SriThreads NYC in one of the descriptions of his sakiori for sale as typical of eastern Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps to counter the tradition till then of using mainly earth tones and pale blues.



Yoshida, Shin-Ichiro and Dai Williams, Riches from rags: saki ori and other recycling traditions in Japanese rural clothing. San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum, 1984.

Rathbun, Beyond the Tanabata Bridge: traditional Japanese textiles. London, Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Weave: handmade style. Designs by Wendy Cartwright et al. Murdoch Books, Sydney, Australia 2007.

Vav Magasinet, Sep/Oct 2008


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