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The Fabric That Makes the Story: Interview with Dawn Yanagihara, Kiriko

Kasuri. Boro. Shibori. These words might not mean much to you if you don’t think very much about textiles or Japanese arts and crafts. But for Gosei Dawn Yanagihara, the words also represent a deep connection to her Japanese ancestry and the passion that helped her co-found her Portland-based company, Kiriko. The company uses Japanese textiles and heritage fabrics in order to create striking accessories that are meant to last a lifetime. I was able to speak with Yanagihara over e-mail. (* All images are courtesy of Kiriko’s website and Instagram.)


Can you tell us a bit more about how and why you co-founded Kiriko? We’re especially interested in the connection between your family history and your appreciation for heirlooms.

Dawn Yanagihara

The idea for Kiriko started with fabric. My business partner, Katsu Tanaka, had received some woven kasuri fabrics from a kimono manufacturer based in southern Japan. We shared a vision of wanting to take the material and thinking about it in a different way; the patterns and designs were so beautiful, the colors so vibrant, accessories seemed like a great way to showcase these qualities.

For me, as a fifth-generation Japanese American, I honestly felt a little detached from my culture and really have loved discovering the craft and history of the materials. My family doesn’t have any pieces from my relatives who immigrated to Hawaii over a century ago, and working with these fabrics has created a whole new understanding for me of my cultural identity and makes the pieces have so much more of a personal meaning.

The kiri is a flower that might only be familiar to our audience from hanafuda playing cards. Where does the name for the company come from?

It’s a combination of two names of people who mean a lot to my business partner and myself.

In a recent interview, you and your co-founder talked about telling the story behind your fabrics (and products) as one of your biggest obstacles. You also said here that “It takes the right person and audience to see the value in an old piece of cloth that is full of holes, patched and re-patched; to me nothing is more beautiful, because there’s a story there, to some that story is lost.” Can you say more about the importance of that story? Do you have a favorite example or examples of fabrics that tell the story you’d like to narrate for your customers?

One of a kind antique boro blankets. Handwoven hand dyed Japanese indigo. Early 1900s.

One of the first fabrics we started with and one of my favorites is boro. As many Japanese speakers know, the words pretty much means, “rags.” To an American audience some have come to think of boro as Japanese indigo. Truly boro is a utilitarian fabric, used and reused by families, the same piece being a jacket, then becoming a bag, and then being turned into a quilt—it was considered “too precious too waste.”

Today, it seems most things are not made to last. Be it a result of trends or quality, people just don’t hold on to items like they once did. Our aim with Kiriko is to make heirloom pieces. Pieces that are made by hand, pieces that are precious, something that a person values, pieces that become part of their story. Many customers use our items as gifts for someone special in their life and it makes me so happy to hear that.

Without giving too much away, how did you find the vintage fabrics, the one-of-a-kind kimono bolts, the kind that cannot be made anymore?

Kurume kasuri split scarves. Handwoven traditional kasuri fabric from Japan.

We have great relationships with some fantastic manufacturers and vintage collectors in Japan. They share our appreciation for the materials and the processes behind them. We often talk about our frustration and sadness that some of these techniques and fabrics are being replaced with modern materials that just don’t produce the same quality. They’ve been wonderfully supportive of our goal to make these fabrics available to a larger audience and hopefully have people learn about the true craft and history behind them.

What is your favorite thing about working with Japanese artistic influences in your creations?

I think it makes our creations so much more personal; the story more authentic and the pieces more sincere. I’ve worked in other industries and as a designer for other larger retail companies. These pieces and this brand, however, the fabrics have so much to share; they are so unique and when you really look at their texture and their designs they are so unquestionably Japanese. There’s nothing like them in the world. I know I keep coming back to the textiles, but they really are the foundation of our line. They have such a wonderful story and such a rich history, I just feel lucky that I’m able to share it.

Where do you see the company in five years?

We’ve got a lot happening right now. From the start, we wanted to take this brand as far as we could. We’re starting to explore new ways to represent the materials we work with, and we’re still learning and finding new textiles with their own stories and qualities. It’s just our goal to do what we can, and do the best we can without compromising the quality of what we’re creating.

Kazuyuki tsubaki tie. Handmade in the US. Pressed and packaged in Portland.

© 2014 Tamiko Nimura

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