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Finding self through saori; No `mistakes' in this freestyle weaving.

Byline: Margaret LeRoux

Mihoko Wakabayashi teaches weaving by breaking most of the traditional rules of the craft. Instead of designs based on complex, mathematical patterns, the looks that emerge in the colorful and multi-textured cloth she weaves are purely improvisational. At the storefront studio on Highland Street in Worcester where Wakabayashi and her students work at a cluster of looms, you may find pieces of bark or feathers woven into a wall hanging or a vest that combines a vivid array of coarse and fine threads.

Wakabayashi teaches saori, a freestyle weaving that has no restrictions on what or how to weave. It's less complicated and easier to learn than traditional weaving; the simplicity of saori enables weavers to improvise endlessly.

Saori looms have only two pedals instead of the four or eight of traditional looms. Beginners don't have to master the daunting task of setting up the frame with dozens of vertical or warp threads before starting to weave. Wakabayashi sets up the looms in her studio ahead of time; her students choose their weaving threads from a generous stockpile of bright colors and textures.

Sitting at one of a half-dozen small looms that allow them to work together, most saori students quickly master the basic weaving process. But if they don't, there are lots of helping hands available; saori is a community style of weaving that emphasizes sharing of knowledge.

Wakabayashi's students range from children to retirees. She has conducted workshops with developmentally disabled people as well as victims of traumatic brain injuries. In saori, "everyone can express themselves, regardless of age, gender, intellectual or physical ability," Wakabayashi said. "And they can find their true selves through weaving."

Learning saori weaving in a studio in Kyoto, Japan, led Wakabayashi, formerly a teacher in an alternative education program, to set up

a studio in Worcester. She met her husband, Nat Needle, at a conference of educators in Michigan and when they married and moved back to Japan, she took up weaving as a hobby.

"I fell in love with the saori concept of free-form weaving," she said.

The founder of saori is 95-year-old Misao Jo, who still teaches weaving at her studio in Osaka, Japan. Unlike generations of weavers before her, Jo wanted to express spontaneity in her work and create one-of-a-kind cloth rather than follow conventional patterns.

In a book she wrote with her son, Kenzo, Jo notes that saori embraces the natural beauty of unintended "mistakes." Practitioners of saori also note that it's effective in meditation, stress reduction, rehabilitation and therapy.

In the Kyoto studio where Wakabayashi learned saori, she saw disabled and able-bodied people working together make wearable art. When she and Needle decided to return to the U.S., they chose Worcester because Needle had friends in the area and the pair thought a saori studio would garner attention more easily than in a big city such as Boston. They liked Worcester's diversity and figured the city's numerous care and rehabilitation institutions would offer opportunities to market the therapeutic features of saori.

For the first few years, Wakabayashi taught saori weaving in their apartment; when a storefront became available on Highland Street in 2004, they bought it and opened the studio.

At week-day afternoon class, Cindy Erle, a student weaver from Boylston, is working on strips of cloth that will be turned into a three-dimensional wall hanging.

Erle says she loves the repetitive aspect of weaving. "It's relaxing and I also like the social aspects of saori weaving. We all help each other."

Needle and Wakabayashi have developed partnerships with several organizations to bring saori weaving into the community. At the Boys & Girls Club in Worcester, a group of young weavers is learning patience, cooperation and how to work independently in weekly weaving classes. They are taught by Joan Kariko, a volunteer who is creating her own project at the saori studio on Highland Street.

On Tuesday afternoons Kariko supervises a group of youngsters - mostly pre-teen girls - who crowd into the craft room at her arrival and vie to be first on the loom.

Patiently, Kariko helps them set up their projects, offering the girls choices of colorful fibers for threading the shuttle, an oval shaped wooden holder. As each young weaver sits at the loom, Kariko shows her how to push down on one of the pedals to lift the frame creating an opening in the threads, called a shed.

"Shoot the shuttle through the shed," Kariko tells the girls, trying alliteration as a memory tool. They roll their eyes, but follow her directions. After a few minutes at the loom, each of the girls finds a rhythm to the movement of alternating pedals and shooting the shuttle from left to right and back again.

"Learning how to do saori weaving instills confidence," said Shauree Allotey, cultural arts program director at Boys & Girls Club. "It's something these young people wouldn't otherwise have the chance to experience."

Weaving will be one of the options offered to stressed-out students at the College of the Holy Cross through the efforts of Marybeth Kearns-Barrett, an associate chaplain who recently completed a saori class.

"The process is so deliberately slow, I found it to be very calming, in contrast to the fast-paced lifestyle I lead," said Kearns-Barrett, who is also a mother of four. She used part of a professional development award to learn saori weaving and plans to purchase a loom for the campus ministry house.

"We will have the loom here at the house and students can use it to unwind," she said, noting the meditative quality to the weaving process.

At Community Healthlink's Grace House, a residential program for teenage girls who are substance abusers, saori helps give them a new outlook on their lives. The young women who have mastered the loom and created beautiful weaving projects "see themselves as someone more than a drug addict or an alcoholic," said Melanie Amir, program director.

"The girls take their music and work on a loom. They're surprised at how quickly they can create something," Amir said.

"I found that our girls are rich in talent," she continued. "One has had her weaving exhibited. It's been very affirming for her. For these girls to see that they can produce something that other people recognize as worthwhile is tremendous," she said.

The beauty of saori weaving, both the end product and the process of creating it, is the absence of mistakes, according to Wakabayashi. "There is no wrong way to weave in saori," she said. "What's hard is letting go of the idea that you have to have a pattern or make sure the weaving is symmetrical. You have to allow the other side of your brain to work and let the weaving emerge."

"With saori weaving, no two pieces are the same - what you create happens in that moment," Wakabayashi added.

Needle, who is a jazz pianist, says that saori is to traditional weaving what jazz is to classical music.

"It's simple, like the three-chord basis of the blues," he said, "yet the possibilities are almost limitless."


PHOTOG: Photography by Tom Rettig

CUTLINE: (1) Mihoko Wakabayashi and her husband, Nat Needle, own Saori Worcester, where people can try freestyle weaving. (2) Mihoko Wakabayashi watches as students weave at the studio on Highland Street. (3) Isaiah Soto of Worcester uses the saori loom at the Boys & Girls Club in Worcester.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 27, 2008
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