Learning Sakiori Weaving – A Look at Waste in the Fashion Industry

#HawaiiFiberProject Part II – Waste

Scraps, leftovers, rags, used clothes, our society trains us to see these as dirty, disgusting and unsuitable for new designs. Before moving to NYC I had an upcycling brand, mostly denim, but also painted tanks and one of a kind pieces. Selling my products at events I was like a broken record, telling people that the clothes were used but not dirty, repeating over and over again “yes, they’ve been washed”. This stigma is deeply rooted in our culture, but with recent advances in recycling materials and innovative design, a lot of progress has been made.  Not to mention, sustainable fashion is becoming more mainstream and it’s losing the association with being a crunchy granola phenomenon. In Part II of the #HawaiiFiberProject, I take a deeper look into waste in the fashion industry and learn traditional Japanese rag weaving. 

The Project

To bring attention to waste in the fashion industry, I was determined to make something completely out of scraps, and rags. I tapped my Mom’s weaving knowledge and settled on making a sakiori tote. Hours were spent cutting scrap fabric for the tote bag from garments that would otherwise be thrown in the back of a wardrobe or tossed in the garbage. Most households don’t have a closet full of scraps for projects like this, thankfully my Mom saves everything. It was like looking through an archive of moments in my life, I found jeans from summer camp, leftover fabric from the dress my mom made me for a father daughter dance, and beautiful vintage kimono. Settling on all black pieces of varying fabrics, I chose a blazer (using both it’s lining and body fabric) and a pair of cotton spandex pants for my weft.

After finding a tote with dimensions I liked, I eyeballed the size and used it as a template for my project, it was all done free hand. Back in 2011 when I lived in Japan for a year while pursuing my MA in Religion, I used to frequent fabric stores and buy yards of fabric that were unique, sometimes making up my own patterns for dresses and skirts. Sewing a garment from a store bought pattern always felt rigid to me, I’ve never been great at following directions. Creating my own patterns meant everything fit me perfectly, and I could make tweaks that suited my own aesthetic vision.

I used this method when creating the sakiori tote bag too, and I sewed everything by hand because it made more sense to me. Adding a pocket inside for convenience and taking some fabric from the blazer I cut up for the handles, everything came together piece by piece. I might be biased, but I think the outcome looks pretty good. Hopefully the used textiles don’t make it look like low quality work or dirty fabric. Granted I made some mistakes, the lining is a bit small and I should have made the bag a couple inches longer to fit my laptop better. I’ll probably add some type of closure at the top since it opens up too easily. All that considered though, I’m happy with it, and I’m proud to own something that I made completely from waste materials, and made completely by hand.

The Takeaway

It would be an interesting exercise to challenge everyone in a America to make something completely from scratch, to see the time and thought that goes into it. Asking them to make it out of recycled materials would be even more fun. I spent almost a solid week and a half to make my sakiori tote bag, and I even cheated a little with the warp threads, they just happened to be available in my Mom’s weaving studio. Processing the pineapple fibers took a couple days, cutting up the waste fabric took about a day, setting up the loom was two days, weaving the textile was three days, sewing the bag was another three days, all in all that’s 12 days. Granted, a more experienced weaver and seamstress would be faster, my guess is that it would take a week. This exercise sure worked on me. I will never throw away this bag. I will repair or repurpose it before discarding. Maybe if others had the same hands-on experience with a piece of clothing they would rethink their wasteful fast fashion habits?

As garment manufacturing moves farther and farther away from the home, clothing has become increasingly disposable in the mind of the American consumer. When women were in the home making textiles and garments for their family, no one would have thought of throwing away a shirt for losing a button or getting a small rip, now we throw away clothing just because it isn’t the right color, or you just plain get bored of it. This trend goes beyond fashion, throwaway culture spreads through all consumer goods. In my view, the problem is two-fold 1) We don’t have an appreciation for the work it takes to make beautiful and long lasting textiles and clothing 2) We need more innovative ways of making closed loop product life-cycles and breaking the take make waste model.

Japan has a strong textile traditions and is a great comparison to America’s disposable fashion culture. Sakiori weaving, sometimes called rag weaving, and mended textiles were abundant in 19th century Japan. The country has a long history of using scrap fabrics to make new textiles and fixing worn textiles. That’s not to say that fast fashion hasn’t penetrated their culture, but as a result, there is a higher respect and appreciation for hand woven, hand made, and overall well made clothing. In my experience, Americans don’t have the same attachment to their textile heritage, possibly playing a role in their preference towards cheap and disposable pieces. Craft hobbies like quilting, knitting and crocheting are discarded as pastimes for women at home, and not beautiful artisanship. 

Very few people in America are taught to sew, because of this, the simple task of sewing on a button or fixing a hole in your shirt becomes a reason for discarding a garment. Also ignorance always breeds problems. I’ve met several people that think clothing is made by machines and don’t consider the human behind the sewing machine. This makes it easier to throw away clothes when you think no one is working hard to produce it for your consumption.

We’ve discussed the lack of attachment to the physical product and lack of empathy for those producing them, now let’s talk about waste itself. We sure do produce a large amount of fabric waste every year, 15 million tons to be exact. The amount of waste created from the fashion industry is astonishing, and the implications for the environment are terrifying. With athleisure trending, synthetic non-recyclable garments like spandex black leggings are in landfills everywhere. Most fashion businesses operate on the take make waste linear model, but some are slowly shifting towards a more circular product lifecycle, like cradle to cradle. But by closing the loop and using all recyclable or biodegradable materials, hopefully the fashion industry can be demoted from being the 2nd most polluting industry.

Many brands have jumped on the bandwagon to promote waste reduction solutions like taking in old garments and offering discounts in return. Eileen Fisher is a great champion of this effort with their Green Eileen program, taking in old pieces and restoring them, making one of a kind pieces for their Green Eileen line. On the other side there’s H&M, who has a similar program, except it isn’t explicitly clear what they’re doing with the used clothing once they’ve been donated. Furthermore, their business creates so much waste that these recycling programs can hardly reverse the environmental harm they’re created. This article by Lucy Siegle gives a great in depth explanation of how this is counter intuitive.  

In addition to these types of recycling programs, product innovation is needed. Browsing the Cradle to Cradle website you can see the 23 Fashion and Textile products that are certified. This is a start, but there is a lot to be desired when it comes to attractive design. Although this seems to be the trend in sustainable and ethical fashion. First comes the basics and purely utilitarian products, then slowly, others will start to emerge with beautiful and engaging design. When starting my career in the sustainable fashion world, there weren’t many high-end fashion companies paying attention to environmental concerns. Now brands are behind the curve if they’re not finding ways to work this into their brand. I look forward to increasing innovations in waste management within the global fashion supply chain, hopefully in a couple years I can write an update on how far we’ve come.

I would love if this article inspires you to make a garment or textile from scratch to reconnect with the process. If you do, please share your creations with me. It would also be wonderful to brainstorm and discuss strategies to close the loop of the product lifecycle. Feel free to leave a comment below with any ideas.

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