Hiroshi Saito is a textile artist living and working in Kyoto. I was fortunate to meet him when he opened his studio to the public last week and we happened to walk past on our way home.

He has been working with textiles for over forty years, specialising early on in his career with technical yuzen techniques, then moving on to hand dyeing and abstract, free painting styles. He’s showcased his work at numerous exhibitions locally and abroad and is a keen community activist, having organised several craft workshops with communities in Iwate prefecture affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

Hiroshi was so generous with his time (especially for someone with beginner’s Japanese) and forthcoming about his practice, explaining the reasons why he made the switch from synthetic to natural dyes a few years ago. Like many people living in Japan, after the disasters in 2011 pollution and traces of toxicity in the water are an ever growing concern. As someone who works with dyes and is constantly in contact with water and dissolved chemicals, Hiroshi decided that he wouldn’t risk his health, which had already been gradually affected by years of using synthetic pigments. Natural dyes were the way forward for him and, as he explained, this new approach required him to rethink his methodology almost entirely.

 
Hiroshi Saito in his Kyoto studio

Abstract freehand-dyed yukata cloth.

 

When we arrived, Hiroshi had the most beautiful, summery fabric stretched out along the length of the studio. It was a design for a client’s yukata, and he was blending just three colours to create multiple pastel shades in a geometric overlay. As he was chatting to us, he casually took out a nozzled bottle containing another pigment and began drawing whimsical linear shapes over the first layer of colour. It was interesting watching him do this, as producing fabric for kimono and yukata requires an intrinsic knowledge of how the final cloth will be cut and sewn, and then wrapped around the body. The pattern and colour coverage needs to strike the right balance — these articles of clothing really read more like artworks than garments. I wondered on what part of the yukata each little squiggle, box or triangle would end up.

 

 

The simple and versatile method of stretching the cloth out with flexible bamboo extenders is called nobuko (伸子). They keep the fabric taught and light, allowing it to be easily strung up to paint on then dry out. Hiroshi has a nifty pulley system to hoist them up to the rafters so he can work on the next length below. The light flowing into his studio through the layers of dyed cloth created the most beautiful atmosphere.

 

 

Hiroshi also shared with us some archive work from when he designed using synthetic dyes. The bright, saturated colours are a departure from the earthy, muted hues of the natural dyes he works with now. They’re both beautiful in different ways, and it was great to get to see the progression of his style over the years. Yuko and I were both pretty into that scarf on the right.

 

Hiroshi Saito's hand-dyed scarves in his studio

 

Cotton garabo wall hangings and wool muslin scarves hung on display in the studio’s small gallery. Garabo is a type of woven cotton cloth originating in Nagano, and although on first glance it looks like a rough, canvas-style weave, it’s wonderfully light, soft and warm. The manufacturers achieve this by minimal processing of the yarn. Its two-ply structure is spun slowly on a machine, allowing the cotton fibres to retain their fluffiness, and its quite open weave creates the air pockets around the fibres which in turn trap heat. Like many of these beautiful and more environmentally gentle fabrics, it’s losing the popularity contest to mass-produced cottons. Hiroshi is determined to support and revive the industry in Japan, so the more knowledge that gets shared about these fabrics, the better.

Hiroshi also has a real talent for garment design, as he revealed when he whipped an amazing, gradated red jacket off a display rack in the gallery. Expertly constructed from naturally-dyed wool muslin, the jacket had been a collaboration between him and Kyoto design darlings Sou Sou exploring ways to re-fashion the classic workers’ kimono. As Yuko and I both tried on the jacket we noticed so many unique construction details, such as the lifting and pinning of the furi, the lower hem of the deep sleeve or sode (袖), a practical technique that farmers and satoyama (里山) workers used to solve the problem of the long sleeves getting in the way of their work. The jacket was also reversible, the contrast side featuring a textile design by a friend of his that had been digitally printed onto the same muslin.

It was a real privilege to try on this beautiful example of innovative garment design. The wool muslin had the most elegant drape and you could feel the masterful internal structure of the jacket in its weight and silhouette. If you’re in the market for an investment textile piece, this stunner is for sale (a few hundred dollars outside my budget, sadly).

I’m looking forward to my next visit to Hiroshi’s studio. He’s the kind of artist who is constantly developing his methods and generously sharing his wisdom. As he warned, he could talk for several hours about cotton garabo and wool muslin alone — as if he expected that to deter us.