Art as therapy

Posted: September 23rd, 2016 | Arts & Entertainment, Balboa Park, Feature, Top Story | No Comments

By Cynthia Robertson

Saori weaving embraced by developmentally disabled adults locally

On current exhibit at the Japanese Friendship Garden is “Constructs: The Art of Saori Weaving,” showcasing articles of clothing and other items made by students of Sophie’s Gallery, an arts program of St. Madeline Sophie’s Center for developmentally disabled adults.

The students learned this freeform style of weaving from their teacher Liz Walk.

Loosely translated as “freestyle weaving,” the phrase was coined by weaving artist Misao Jo, who created the art form. “Ori” means weaving in Japanese, and “Sai” connotes the beauty and dignity of each individual being in the world.


Friends of Sophie’s Gallery talk with the artists during the reception. (Photo by Cynthia Robertson)

Because of its spontaneous nature, Saori weaving is meant to convey something of the unique qualities of each weaver. In contrast, traditional weavers usually spend time planning and calculating patterns and a specific structure for their weaving, Walk explained.

“Saori weaving is very much about the feelings and the choices of the weaver in the moment as they are weaving. All variations in the cloth are not looked at as mistakes, but are rather viewed as evidence that the cloth was handmade and are prized for their one-of-kind nature,” said Walk, who has taken classes by Jo and other Saori artists.

Cali Williams was one of Sophie’s Gallery artists on hand at the exhibit’s reception on Aug. 25.

“Doing this weaving makes me feel very happy. It calms me. When I get worried about things, I can do this, and the problems all go away,” Williams said.

The beauty of Saori weaving is its accessibility to nearly anyone who desires to weave. The loom has a great many innovative design features that make it adaptable for weavers of varying physical abilities. Weavers enjoy seeing the immediate results of their work. Artists who may not have an interest in working with other media such as paint can find an outlet to express their love of color.

A typical weaving class at Sophie’s Gallery consists of six to eight students taking turns using the floor loom. Each student chooses the yarn they would like to use. The class might vote on a particular color palette to use for a shawl or a scarf. Some students are able to weave quite independently and may even wind their own bobbin of yarn and load their shuttle. Other students may occasionally need a verbal reminder of where they are in the weaving sequence.

Most artists are able to work with minimal assistance after becoming familiar with the loom over the course of a class period. As the weavers wait their turn on the floor loom, they may work on finishing another woven item by tying off fringe at the ends. Several students might work at measuring, cutting, and sewing pieces for a garment. The class encourages the students to work as a team and to share their talents and resources. The items are sold as a group project and weavers are paid for their contribution to the finished piece.

Cali Williams demonstrates how to use the Saori loom at the Aug. 25 reception in the Japanese Friendship Garden. (Courtesy of Sophie's Gallery)

Cali Williams demonstrates how to use the Saori loom at the Aug. 25 reception in the Japanese Friendship Garden. (Photo by Cynthia Robertson)

Photo by Cynthia Robertson

Saori cloth tends to be very textural, even sculptural. Sophie’s Gallery students often add pieces of dyed fibers and strips of recycled fabrics to their work. They incorporate various methods of manipulating the yarn to create variations in the density and texture of the fabric.

A Saori loom is unique in that it is designed to use a pre-made warp — weaver’s lingo for the set of lengthwise yarn held in place on the loom — that can be purchased from the Saori company in Japan. Most weavers spend a great deal of time making their own warps, while the Saori warps come in big rolls that are ready to be loaded onto the warp beam that looks much like a giant roll of paper towel.

“Then we can enjoy choosing our own spontaneous color combinations. We use two-harness looms to make what is known as ‘plain weave’ fabric. It has the familiar over/under/over/under weave structure,” Walk said.

The students typically weave lengths of fabric that are made into scarves, shawls and various clothing items. Often the class will vote on what they want to make with finished yardage. The students use Saori clothing designs, which are very simple and unconstructed garments that incorporate selvedges and raw warp ends into the design.

This art form became a regular part of the curriculum at Sophie’s Gallery just within the last few years. St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center executive director Debra Emerson and the art program manager at that time, Wendy Morris, attended a conference on disabilities in Washington, D.C. in 2010. At the conference, Kenzo Jo, son of the founder of the Saori Weaving movement, Misao Jo, gave a demonstration of weaving on the loom.

The Saori practitioners in Japan had included persons with developmental disabilities in their programs from early on. Both Emerson and Morris were eager to introduce the art form to the Sophie’s Gallery students. They brought back with them an unassembled loom back to El Cajon in a flat cardboard box.

“It’s been a long process in getting this art form in the hands of our students, but it’s been worth it — for everyone,” Emerson said.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-9-20-14-amWendy Morris, administrator of Sophie’s Gallery, agreed with Emerson. “To me, weaving is less about an individual project, as our weavers share the loom and all work on one item at a time. This teaches them the importance of sharing, patience and team work,” she said.

Many of the student weavers have done demonstrations at La Jolla Festival of the Arts, the New Children’s Museum, the Palomar Weaves Guild and Sophie’s fundraising events.

“It has been exciting for me to venture into this new art form along with my students,” Walk said. “It is wonderful to see that the work we are doing is appreciated by so many.”

— Cynthia Robertson is a local freelance writer.

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