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Inclusive handweaving in Japan

Earlier this year, I was very lucky to travel to Japan with the support of the Daiwa Foundation, to visit handweaving and visual arts studios supporting learning disabled people to practice, develop and teach their craft.

Days 1 - 5: Saori Toyosaki

I was particularly eager to make the trip to visit Saori Toyosaki, a weaving studio in Osaka, where learning disabled weavers teach the public how to weave. I spent 5 days with the studio and its parent company Saori Hands - where up to 30 learning disabled people gather at a time to weave for pleasure and relaxation (an absolute treasure trove of textile craft!).

I was keen to see how the craft of handweaving could create employment opportunities for people who still face such inequality in the workforce here in the UK. Mencap states that still only 5.1% of learning disabled people are in paid employment in England, compared with 75.8% of the general population.

Saori Toyosaki follows the Japanese ‘Type B’ model of employment, where people are remunerated a basic rate for their work.  The studio chose to implement this model to avoid a hierarchical structure and to enable a calm and stress-free working environment, where people with a range of learning disabilities (e.g. Down’s Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy) and Autistic Spectrum Conditions, can collaborate and make a positive contribution. 

Seeing learning disabled people in a position of authority as facilitators is transformative.  In our ableist society, this demographic is so often seen as passive, receiving support rather than giving it.  Here, this fundamental shift has been made possible through handweaving.  Participants of all ages are learning from these craftspeople and feeling inspired under their guidance – and interestingly, this is something they aren’t aware is going to happen before they arrive.

And the studio itself radiates a very colourful joy - there are pre-prepared warps suspended in every available space in the small and well-preserved 100 year old building. The staff seem to live and breathe the craft of weaving, they wear handwoven garments that they have made and all the while they aren't teaching, they are upstairs preparing warps, threading looms or weaving bracelets with 'treasure yarn' (scrap yarn that is saved for smaller projects - nothing gets wasted there) to give away to customers.

One facilitator has an incredible talent for creating woven cats, rabbits and penguins using the treasure yarn.  I marvel at her deft work on the loom and, after no more than 10 minutes, a smiling cat wearing a bow tie appears; her unique contribution to textile culture. She tells me “I like weaving because I can make choices for myself about what I do.  It’s also a time where nobody can disturb me, and I can concentrate and focus.”

This visit gives me a great confidence in pursuing my ideas of running co-facilitated weaving workshops with learning disabled people - something that I am currently working on here in the UK - more about that in the next blog!

My visit to Saori Hands was also fascinating. A huge space with around 30 looms where learning disabled people and those facing other challenges can weave in a relaxed and nurturing environment. One man, who was recovering from alcohol dependency, cited weaving has his 'therapy' as he unrolled an incredibly intricate, 10-metre long cloth that took him around six months to weave. Another man I met, with Down's Syndrome, was busy warping up a loom with colourful stripes. He used to be a road sweeper, but, the manager told me, he is much happier now that he gets to channel his creativity and love for colour in weaving. He also creates digital images on postcards and seemed pleased to give me one of a red dragon.

There is a sewing department at Saori Hands, where weavers are supported to turn their work into garments (that many people wear on a daily basis and at their well-attended fashion shows) and beautiful products for sale like handbags and purses. These smaller products form their brand OriOri, which are sold at various pop-up events around the city. Whoever wove the fabric then gets a portion of the sales revenue when their piece is sold.

On my last day with Saori Toyosaki, I joined them at an event on the other side of Osaka - a festival showcasing autistic artists and creativity. Another element of Saori Toyosaki's employment programme is to pop-up with the looms at various spots across the city and co-facilitate drop-in weaving sessions for the public. This was a contemporary space on the riverside, with performers, vegetable growers, makers and musicians all gathered to share their creativity and have a good time. After spending some time among the looms, we rounded off the week with some (more) delicious, hot and sticky takoyaki [lava-hot octopus dough balls with bonito flakes, soy and seaweed garnish] - what a week.

Day 6: Tanpopo-no-ye

Tanpopo-no-ye is based in Nara (famous for very tame, bowing deer!) and facilitates various opportunities for learning disabled people, including a visual arts centre, where I spent a very enjoyable day. In contrast to Saori Toyosaki, it is a huge space, with generous studio spots for each artist and maker - some of whom have exhibited around the world with the support of Tanpopo-no-ye. Naturally, I spent most of my day in the textiles studio, where there are a selection of adapted weaving looms, to enable people to weave as independently as possible. For example, wooden ledges are fitted beneath the warp to help the shuttle pass through evenly, without getting caught. One woman was eager to tell me about her favourite pop singers that she had stuck to her loom! There is a feeling here, similarly to Saori Hands, that people are devoted to practicing their craft and that the space and facilitators are perfectly attuned to the artist's sensibilities and potential.

I very much enjoyed meeting a weaver who had been working at the loom for many decades. She would work in a sketchbook to plan out her work, set the mood and colour scheme for her upcoming piece. As well as being a part of her creative practice, this was also useful in case there were different staff members supporting her and she could show them her concept and vision. She didn't communicate with many words and had a profound learning disability, so access to her sketchbook was an important communication tool for her work.

She showed me some of her weaving and it was very beautiful, with a particular rawness to it that ran through all of her pieces that I saw. On her loom was a black and gold piece that held a lot of drama, within the colour and texture contrasts. She was very pleased to share that a body of her work was currently on display in a gallery in Perth, Australia.

As well as supporting people to work on their individual projects, Tanpopo-no-ye's textile department also makes collaborative craft items and garments, again to sell through pop-up events and stores. I was interested to see how these projects enabled people with severe physical disabilities to collaborate, through choosing fabrics and embellishments, that others could then sew together - there is a role for everyone here. In the afternoon, I was invited to work on an embroidery project with a few women who were making a curtain for their studio. It was lovely to sit and work together on the same piece and observe each person's different techniques - I felt very honoured to be able to share in making something that would remain in their space.

Day 7: The Good Job Center!

The next day, I took a train south of Nara to a town called Kashiba (famous for pima cotton sock-making) to visit another of Tanpop-no-ye's projects - the Good Job Center! It is a very striking, modernist building - all wood and windows - that stands out from the rather non-descript street it calls home. On entering, there is a lovely pared-back cafe, a shop space, welcome desk, craft room and then an upper level with further craft items and a large packing and processing space. It is a haven for employment for learning disabled people and I was immediately intrigued.

The manager took me on a tour of the space and first of all I met some young men who were working on some 3D printed ornaments, which the centre produce for various shops including Muji. They are covered in layered paper to give them a feel of papier-mache. The deer are very popular and sold widely in Nara - in the city, deer roam freely and enjoy being hand-fed rice crackers at regular intervals and they bow in return for their food!

Upstairs, there were many people working on preparing and packing orders - at the Good Job Center! they curate craft from across Japan that has been produced by learning disabled people, something that is very close to my heart. The variety and quality of the work was fantastic, including embroidery, illustration, printmaking and weaving. I was delighted to be able to find out about many more handweaving projects across the country - some using natural dyes within their work too. The centre has numerous orders coming in every day for its products. Later, I spent the afternoon in the screen-printing studio where they were printing tote bags, t-shirts and pockets for mompe pants (a traditional Japanese trouser), with vibrant patterns for an upcoming pop-up shop event.

This trip was transformative for me. The people, the weaving, the craft and the places absolutely captured my heart. I hope to be able to put just some of what I have observed into practice here in the UK - and I dearly hope to go back to Japan to visit more inclusive handweaving studios in the not too distant future :)

The Good Job Center! and some products above.

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