Hidden SME Champions

Philknot Art Studio

Illuminating the world’s entertainment shows with shinning fiber optic lace

Knotting light into lace

Shimamotocho, OSAKA – The workshop of Philknot Art Studio is located in a quiet residential neighborhood within a picturesque rural town on the border of Kyoto; a town with abundant natural streams, lush greenery and a view of the Minase peaks – a mountain range revered for its beauty in Japanese waka poems of old.

It is here that Philknot’s artisans spend their days designing and weaving beautiful lace products using macramé*-knotting technique. But there’s more to Philknot lace than just the intricacies of design. Made from strands of optical fibers, the knots in the lace radiate a luminous glow. This shining lace – a masterful blend of cutting-edge innovation, technology and traditional handicraft – is what Philknot is famous for.

Optical fibers are ordinarily used to transmit light between two ends of the fiber. When used in a straight line, the fibers are capable of transmitting, but not emitting light. When knotted, however, the light is reflected against a concentric loop with less refraction, resulting in the emission of a gentle, transparent, crystalline light.

Focusing on this characteristic, Philknot has succeeded in knotting optical fibers into a unique, glowing lace that is being used by entertainment facilities in and outside of Japan, and in various stage costumes, such as for Japanese pop idol groups. In this way, Philknot products have helped to bring joy to millions of people across the globe.

All of the firm’s products are designed and knotted in the living room of the old Japanese-style house that serves as the firm’s workshop by Philknot founder and current chairman Hisako Honda, her daughter and executive director Asako Inamori and four highly experienced craftswomen. While macramé-knotting technique is often used in textile making, when making fiber-optic shining lace, the amount of light emitted is swayed by the tightness of the knots, requiring experienced hands.

The fibers used are made from transparent acrylic resin and range from just 0.25mm in diameter, or no thicker than a single human hair, to 1mm in diameter. Different fibers are chosen based on design, or how the product will be used, enabling the creation of a wide selection of products ranging from the most delicate of laces to large three-dimensional objects.

Encountering optical fibers

The roots of Philknot can be traced to a knitting classroom that Honda started in 1965 as a part time hobby while raising her children. As her classroom took off and her students increased, Honda took a trip to the US to visit a friend. There, she came in contact with macramé, which, at the time, was experiencing a frenzied heyday with Hippie-inspired folklore fashion.

Macramé was not foreign to Japan, as the technique had been used since ancient days to create adornments for shrines and temples, or for tea ceremonies. But Honda, inspired by how making different types of knots could result in not only two- but three-dimensional creations, became an avid follower of the art, honing her skills to a level where she was asked to appear on TV as a macramé instructor and teach classes at local culture centers.

Always the curious type, Honda soon became bored with using traditional cotton and linen cords and branched out into unusual materials, such as metals. Soon after, a friend told her about cords that would shine, prompting her to visit an optical fiber factory in Kyoto. At the factory, she picked up a piece of fiber she found lying on the floor and without thinking, turned it into a knot. When she attached the knot to a light source, she found that only the knotted part of the fiber emitted a delicate light. Seeing that filled her with unprecedented excitement and that was when she knew that optical fibers were the material that she has been searching for.

Dealing with an influx of orders

Honda quickly submitted an application for a utility model for the technique to make optical fibers shine at the knots, and later obtained several patents for related technology. Honda’s daughter, Inamori, who had a degree in engineering, was intrigued by her mother’s use of optical fibers. So intrigued, that she quit her job to join her mother in her interesting new endeavor.

In the beginning, the two displayed their creations at small local galleries. At one of those exhibitions, their shining stage costume, “Madonna,” caught the eye of a reporter, who wrote about in a tabloid newspaper. Seeing the article, the manager of an entertainment facility called the two out of the blue: “We want to consider using your products in our upcoming show. Can you show us your prototypes?”

Honda and Inamori were thrilled at the prospect of their creations becoming a marketable commodity. But despite their enthusiasm, communication with the prospective client tapered off after the initial interaction and after about a year had passed, the two were ready to give up. That’s when the phone rang again. “We would like you to join our team for the next project. Please come right away.”

As the two women rushed to the client’s office, they found that the show’s costume designs had already been created and they had just received an order for 150 costumes.

Turning a hobby into a business

Together, Honda and Inamori managed to make good on the first order and were able to secure good word-of-mouth recommendations, which led to more business from entertainment facilities and repeat business from past clients. But because their business had begun as an extension of a hobby, the two had little experience in actually running a business. While their goal was to ultimately create products to be used in internal decorations and lighting, they were finding it difficult to make headway into the new business area. Seeing their predicament, Honda’s son, Kanta Ozaki, decided to step in to help.

With Ozaki on board as president, Philknot continued to attract attention for its unique products. But as a business, its foundation remained weak. That was when, at the suggestion of the local chamber of commerce, the firm sought out assistance from SME Support, JAPAN. From 2011, the firm received help in expanding its sales route and managed to learn the ABCs of corporate management along the way. Soon afterward, they were selected for SME Support’s Feasibility Study program for overseas expansion. Having always wanted an overseas presence, the firm traveled to the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, where they received praise for their shining costumes. The high-fashion industry, in particular, showed a strong interest in Philknot’s products, and the three vowed to make costumes one of their mainstay products.

A while later, one of the lighting decoration makers the firm had dealings with succeeded in developing a small power source. Teaming up with that company, Philknot was able to create costumes for pop idol groups and performers who move and dance rapidly and powerfully on stage. At the same time, orders for materials for interior goods and lighting – for which general-use products had been deemed difficult – started to pick up, as the firm’s high craftsmanship gained increased recognition.

Honda, now past the age of 80, has since retired from the frontlines and serves as advisor to her son, who handles management of the firm, and her daughter, who handles production. While they continue to receive assistance from SME Support, the friendly family firm continues to move forward, step by step.

Overseas and beyond

While Philknot has made a name for itself among domestic entertainment facilities, their presence overseas is currently limited to a number of places, such as Hong Kong and Los Angeles.

Going forward, the firm hopes to create costumes for foreign artists and also make headway into the high-fashion industry, from which they received strong interest during the feasibility study. Inamori’s goal is to supply material to designers at the Paris Collection. Furthermore, while Philknot’s products are currently made only by bespoke orders, she hopes to explore use of more generic materials that will enable the firm to create ready-to-wear products, and, as an extension of that, she also hopes to branch out into the creation of luminous fabrics.

Philknot’s high quality technology, created by expert hands, and its passion for Japanese “monozukuri” or manufacturing, has gained the firm backing from various business partners who have stepped into invest in the firm’s growth potential. Just like the macramé knots it creates, the firm has managed to tie in the support and expertise of other firms, creating a radiantly glowing firm, which continues to evolve.

*Macramé is a form of handicraft that traces its roots to the Arabian Peninsula, which involves the knotting of cords to make lace.

Philknot Art Studio

Tel. 075-962-0774 / Fax. 075-962-0784
Website. http://philknot.com

Organization for Small & Medium Enterprises and
Regional Innovation, JAPAN
(SME Support, JAPAN)
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Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation,
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