Imagine you live in a very different kind of world than most of us inhabit today. There are no thrift stores full of an endless supply of cheap clothing and fabric. There aren’t any affordable stores for new clothing either—fast fashion is a foreign concept, and a superstore like Target inconceivable. Bolts of fabric are only available to the very wealthy and their clothing designers. Worst of all, there aren’t any fleece-bearing animals or cotton-bearing plants anywhere to be found to help you create your own cloth. How would you clothe yourself?
This was the reality facing Japanese peasants until the mid-20th century, when manufactured clothing became available for most Japanese citizens. Indeed, up until the late 15th century, most Japanese wove thin, uncomfortable linen cloth from wild hemp and other rough natural fibers to clothe themselves, even for outdoor work in the dead of winter.
By the 15th century, imported cotton was within the budget of the wealthy but well beyond the price range of the peasantry. Only after new cloth had been sewn into garments, worn out, and sold to rag merchants, who had more affordable prices, could peasants get access to precious cotton.
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The smallest, most worn of these rags were woven together with a hemp warp into thicker, more insulating cloth. This tradition came to be known as sakiori, from the word saku (to tear or rip) and oru (to weave). It was usually the work of the woman of the house, who would sit down to sakiori work after spending all day doing hard manual labor, preparing food for the family, and caring for children.
The hard work was worth it though, as clothing made from repurposed cotton was vastly warmer, softer, and more durable than the rough linens that could be made from Japan’s natural fibers. This style of textile creation was nearly ubiquitous until the mid-20th century, when the rise of inexpensive manufactured clothing caused sakiori to be seen as “old-fashioned” or a sign of deep poverty.
Today, however, sakiori is seeing resurgence as a very “green” and economical art form. To learn more about the history of this tradition, see more photos, and learn to weave a Western Sakiori Scarf, check out 2015’s March/April issue of Handwoven!