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Maki Aizawa and the hidden art of kimono-making

Textiles artist Maki Aizawa’s original line of kimono-inspired jackets are featured in the prestigious Santa Fe International Folk Arts festival this month. She’s humbled to be sharing kimono-making techniques which she applies to the modern-designed jackets, her way of giving visibility to what she describes as “a dying art form.” But despite designing and sewing beautiful garments that are attracting attention, Aizawa doesn’t like to call herself an artist.

“The artist term is very challenging for me,” says the Sonoma resident.

It’s not a lack of skill or a self-effacing attitude that makes Aizawa resistant to the title. Rather it’s a knowledge of and respect for the kimono-making process in Japan. The art is taught by master kimono teachers, like Aizawa’s mother, who’ve committed to a lifetime of study and practice.

From as far back as Aizawa can remember, she’s had a seat at the table where kimonos are made. Her parents operated a school in the building where Aizawa grew up in Sendai, Japan. She learned sashiko stitching — a fine hand-sewing technique that, along with rectangular cuts of fabric, are integral to a kimono’s comfort and flexibility.

Kimono-making, Aizawa says, is a “hidden art.” Since stitching is done on the inside of the garment, the “effort is hidden—it’s very implicit. I grew up with these women (makers), and I know how much they work. It’s not really celebrated. I’m here to celebrate them.”

Even in Japan, where the traditional garment was, until recent generations, worn exclusively — now people wear them only for special events, if at all — the efforts of kimono-makers go largely unrecognized.

The advent of the sewing machine has contributed to this. While the ease and speed of machine stitches allows for faster production, some quality is compromised, hand-stitching is done less and less. Even as Aizawa laments this, she acknowledges that machine sewing makes the production of her jackets possible.

But the preservation of the artistic process still drives her. At her parents' school other disciplines were taught. Aizawa learned Japanese floral arts, ikebana, and calligraphy, shodo. These arts were taught by master teachers who, like their kimono-making counterparts, underwent years of study, practice and formal examinations. In Japan, master teachers commit to the lifelong pursuit of a single artistic medium.

And while the ikebana and shodo teachers would scrutinize and correct Aizawa’s work, there was great respect for the learning process. In class, Aizawa says, “(a master teacher) is not just teaching the skill. There’s a ceremonial part. (In ikebana), we bow to the floral arrangement. Even the teacher bows to my arrangement.”

In Japanese, “do” means “the way,” says Aizawa, which relates to the “the way of learning.” The path is as revered as the result in these arts.

It was the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011— with the earthquake's epicenter near Aizwas’s childhood home in Sendai — that brought greater urgency to her practice and sharing of these cultural arts. The disaster killed nearly 20,000 people and triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“It really changed me,” says Aizawa, who was living in Sonoma teaching ikebana at the time.

“Looking at my country, I thought ‘The country could be gone. What do I want to do?’ That was the moment I thought, ‘How could I preserve these amazing arts?’”

Aizawa began thinking about the bold colors of kimonos and thought they would look good on Western-style jackets. She made a pattern and shared it with her mother who led a sewing circle of support for “women who lost everything.” They were learning a specialized embroidery stitch known as sashiko, which is used on the collar.

Intention and healing was very much behind the sewing circle. “In Japan, when everyone sews together, the garment (and wearer) become protected,” Aizawa says. She likens it to making cranes, a practice which is more widely known about.

The women worked together in the shelter. Their sewing also gave them a source of income.

After the tragedy, Aizawa was impacted by the stark contrast of life as usual in Sonoma, with the lasting devastation in her childhood hometown. “In Japan, there was still suffering for years,” she says. Still today, the land and lives of the region remain scarred.

In addition to Aizawa’s efforts abroad, she — along with her business partner, Mitsuyo McDermott — opened the Sonoma Cultural Exchange in 2014, dedicated to preserving Japanese arts. They offer performances, lectures and classes from ikebana to block art.

The organization was set to offer a Bunraku puppet performance for the first time this past year, but the pandemic put a stop to that.

While cancellations were difficult, new opportunities presented themselves as Aizawa and McDermott adapted to a Zoom venue. A Tokyo-based teacher was able to teach online classes in modern kintsugi, the Japanese art of repair, wherein broken ceramics are repaired with a gold-pigmented lacquer, creating an organic decorative effect along the lines of the cracks.

“There was a beautiful way to connect people through the arts,” Aizawa says of the Zoom classes. A kintsugi kit would be mailed to students, and sessions were viewed from as far as the East Coast, Canada, Africa and Europe. “If this pandemic didn’t start, we would (only) focus locally.”

Aizawa will continue to do her work of creating and highlighting the work of others in the Japanese arts. She finds Sonoma is a great place to do so. Aizawa — who also lived in Boulder, to attend college, and San Francisco — says of her hometown and the local makers scene, “It’s a creative space” and “a very productive space.” The quiet is good for work and inspiration.

And of the audiences of that artwork, she adds, “I do believe, in Sonoma, people are very supportive of the artist.”

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