Why Reiko Sudo wants to reuse what other textile makers refuse

Japanese designer Sudo repurposes cloth scraps and unwanted materials from the silk-making process, and has created some 2,000 new textiles

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2017, 6:30pm

For Japanese textile designer Reiko Sudo, recycling is not just about environmental and social consciousness. It is essential to keeping her – and the 50 small workshops across Japan that weave and stitch her innovative creations – in business.

“In our business, we amass mountains of scraps, which is a serious problem for us. The bottom line is that we can’t afford to be wasteful,” she said at a recent forum on women’s commitment to technology in textiles, hosted by the MILL6 Foundation in Hong Kong.

“If we produce a 50-metre length of fabric and then find a tiny flaw right at the very end, the entire piece will be rejected by our client, even if it is hardly noticeable,” she adds.

“We can’t return this sort of ‘reject’ to a tiny workshop as it would completely destroy their business, so I had to find another way to use the flawed materials.”

Sudo is renowned throughout Japan for pushing the boundaries of traditional textiles. After completing her postgraduate studies in textile design at Tokyo’s Musashino Art University in 1975, and founding Nuno with textiles master Junichi Arai in 1984, she went on to design nearly 2,500 creative textiles. Although her cutting-edge contemporary works often use new advanced weaving technologies, the textiles are produced in many of Japan’s regional production centres and craft workshops, helping to preserve the country’s traditional techniques.

Her works have been shown at major international museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and the National Museum of Modern Art’s Craft Gallery in Tokyo.

When it comes to recycling, Sudo believes there is no such thing as scrap. “Everything is useful, as long as we do not waste our imagination,” the designer says.

At first the Nuno team stitched “reject” pieces of fabric together to create a variety of smaller accessories, such as patchwork scarves, tote bags and cushions, which were sold at the Tokyo-based studio and various retail outlets.

Over time, however, Sudo extended her combinations of different materials and technical processes in her recycling efforts, transforming rejects into new textiles. One of the best examples is Nuno’s Feather Flurries fabric that, she says, “started life as a failure”.

“We were trying to weave a polyester taffeta but the loom kept tearing holes in the fabric, so we came up with the idea of cutting the damaged parts into narrow strip yarns restitched on a base to create a distinctive pattern.”

The shimmering embellished fabric has been featured in the Louis Vuitton Aoyama boutique designed by Japanese architect Jun Aoki, and can be seen in high-end homes around the globe.

Realising that waste materials offered a host of new creative opportunities, Sudo began looking into recycling all sorts of different materials, including feathers left over from poultry farming.

“We selected the biggest, softest and most regular-shaped ones from peacock, duck, pheasant and guinea hens,” says Sudo.

“We then snipped off the tough points before inserting each feather by hand between layers of fine organza, starting and stopping the weaving loom each time a feather was added.”

Nuno’s painstaking approach means that even materials that had previously appeared impossible to weave offer new potential. One of these materials was kibiso, the outermost, tough protective layer of a silkworm’s cocoon. Considered by modern weavers to be too thick and hard to spin, it was typically used for animal feed or discarded.

Hong Kong accessories designer Vincci Ching committed to upcycling for sake of environment

The designer decided to approach several retired women from a mill in Tsuruoka, one of Japan’s remaining silk-producing towns, to weave the tough thread by hand, using the same technique employed to hand weave straw left over from the harvest to make waraji sandals.

Over time the material was gradually refined to a thinner and thinner thread, until it was suitable for mechanised weaving

“It’s a fascinating fibre that we have used to make completely new textile designs, like Kibiso Hairline and Kibiso Not Knots,” she says.

Nuno’s flamboyant Tiggy fabric also used natural materials in an innovative way, employing konyaku gel, traditionally used to waterproof paper kimonos. This resulting fabric, with stiff, flat bristles, was used to create a unique series of table lamps at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo hotel.

Other natural “waste” materials include banana fibre recovered from plantain fronds damaged by typhoons in Okinawa.

“We collaborated on a project to dissolve the fibre in an alkaline solution and then coated cotton thread with the gel to create a number of different Nuno fabrics that have a very contemporary feel, including Basho Bakuba and Basho 80 Stripe,” says Sudo.

Mill revamp is cue for Hong Kong textile workers to reminisce, and upcycle

Sudo visited a weaving research centre in Amami Oshima, where she had heard about an all-natural dyeing process that used mud and juices pressed from subtropical bushes. The technique, known as dorozome, has been passed down over 1,000 years and requires silk threads to be individually dyed in iron-rich mud before being woven into different intricate patterns.

“We asked a professional silk spinning mill to rewind thread into loop yarns to create machine-woven scarves that have a light, natural, unique feel,” she explains.

In 2016, Nuno started work on a new project looking at the very last bit of the thread excreted by the silkworm. Each cocoon yields about 1,300 metres of thread, but the last bit (called ogarami choshi) that sticks to the metal spinning rod is too tough to use.

Why yarn queen Nicola Robb is telling Hong Kong to get knitted

Noticing that ogarami choshi could be broken off in small flakes, Sudo experimented with laying the flakes by hand like a mosaic to create a series of membranes. These one-of-a-kind sheets are so striking that last year they were selected as part of a seminal textile exhibition at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

Sudo points to Nuno’s silk organdy Nuno Kasané and the puzzle-pieced cotton-and-linen Nuno Tsunagi as examples of how even the tiniest fragments of fabric can be reused.

“The idea is basically a patchwork, using an embroidery machine to freely stitch along any curve or angle,” she says.

In 2008 Sudo was appointed as a design advisor to Muji, the Japanese lifestyle brand much loved in Hong Kong, to provide strategic direction for product development and environmental practice regarding clothes and household textiles. She became a member of Muji’s advisory board in 2016.

Sudo says she had long admired the company’s socially motivated philosophy of mottainai (don’t waste). Muji was a pioneer in Japan in encouraging customers to purchase less-than-perfect products, such as broken but otherwise safe udon noodles that are repackaged and sold at a lower price.

Muji has also been a long-time participant in the Fuku-Fuku Project, a nationwide effort by retailers inviting customers to drop off their unwanted clothes for recycling. Fuku means both “clothing” and “happiness” in Japanese.

Sudo noticed that many of the clothes returned to Muji were perfectly wearable and, keen to avoid unnecessary waste, she suggested recolouring the donated clothes with indigo, before selling the “new” garments in-store.

“An indigo dye-works in the famous denim centre of Okayama prefecture helped us here. We selected three beautiful tones of indigo from for re-dyeing. After dyeing, each item is thoroughly checked and ironed before being displayed in the store as a ReMUJI product.”

Clothing that doesn’t meet the standard for reuse is recycled into bio-ethanol.

“Since starting the project, we have collected some 60 tonnes of clothes from around 350 Muji shops. We continuously sell out whatever we put in the store. It really has given the clothes a new lease of life,” she says.

The project may seem contemporary but reflects traditional Japanese habits where old kimonos were often re-dyed to extend their life.

The brand has also made an extensive survey of artisanal and industrial dyers and, last year, extended their thrifty approach to include reusing wool. Wool mills in Ichinomiya, Aichi prefecture, are commissioned to repurpose the woollen items by hand, transforming scraps into creative new wool products, including hats, bags and sweaters.

“Through these ReMUJI ventures we’ve taken a closer look at the relationship between people, lifestyle and textiles,” Sudo says. “In a sermon, Buddha once said, ‘Never waste what has been given; do not discard even the smallest scrap that can be used’. This speaks to the heart of what I have always tried to do.”