The Art of Sashiko

by Lilo Bowman

"Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without".  This phrase is very familiar to those who grew up during the 1930s and 40s, when every useful item was saved, re-used or refashioned until it literally wore out.  A child visiting a grandparent's home might discover a variety of unusual "treasures"--drawers filled with assorted sized paper sacks, jars of rubber bands, string in every size and length one could ever want or need. Then of course, there were the boxes and tins filled with the odd assortment of items from clothing long worn out; buttons, snaps, zippers, and bits of laces and trims.  As a child this activity far surpassed anything that today's TV could provide.  But why would anyone want to save such an odd assortment of items?

Jacket "Nogari" ca. early to mid twentieth century. Srithreads.com

People have been conserving tools, clothing, and other useful items for hundreds of years.  Sometimes, but not always, conservation was necessitated by wartime shortages.  Social ranking, economics or geographical location often played a central role.  From the challenges of frugality and conservation, however, true beauty and craftsmanship and craftsmanship would often emerge. 

Recently, while looking for a portable sewing project idea, we discovered the Japanese needlework called Sashiko (sashi = stitch ko = small).  A true art form, Sashiko evolved from the recycling and mending techniques developed by the rural population of northern Japan, but very quickly spread in popularity throughout the rest of the country. 

Silk was a status fabric, worn by the upper class and royalty.  Cotton had been imported to Japan since the fourteenth century, but --as with silk--was worn only by those who could afford its high cost.  Fabrics available for the general and rural population-- such as wisteria, hemp, paper mulberry, and bast fibers-- required many hours of hand spinning and weaving. To save time and effort, every scrap was therefore carefully mended and re-used. An initial length of fabric for a kimono (14" x 12 yards) would have many lives before it was eventually discarded.  Even lengths of thread were saved in boxes, to be used for a future date. 

 "Once the kimono of yore showed signs of wear, it began a long series of transformations.  When it could no longer serve as one's Sunday best, the kimono was worn as everyday dress.  The garment was later used as a sleeping gown or shortened to serve as an outdoor jacket.  When further worn...was made into say, an apron and a bag for use in the gathering of bamboo shoots.  Finally, layers of fabric scraps were sashiko-quilted together into dust cloths, which were stored in the hollow of a wooden footstool for future use."(Japanese Country Quilting by Karen Kim Matsunaga)

It wasn't until the 1700s that the price of cotton came down and cultivation began in Japan's southern provinces.  (Due to the climate, cotton could not be grown in the northern parts of the country.)  Cotton was recognized as a much better insulator against nature's elements than hemp and bast fibers, and it was discovered that quilting together multiple layers of cotton provided much more warmth and protection to the wearer.  Adding to its popularity was the fact that cotton was much easier to stitch through than other traditional fabrics.

Dust rag "Zokin" featuring hemp stitching 1920-1940 Srithreads.com

During the working months clothing was mended as needed. However, in the winter, when life centered on indoor activities, a great deal of time was spent around the central hearth constructing useable items such as work clothes, hand bags, aprons, and cleaning cloths. It was during these times that young women had the time to improve their needlework skills. Many young girls and women attended village schools where Sashiko was passed from hand to hand. Learning Sashiko taught patience and perseverance, both of which were highly desired qualities for a farmer or fisherman's wife.  But Sashiko was done by both men and women alike.


Detail of farmer's shin guard featuring blue cotton persimmon flowers.
ca. late nineteenth century, early twentieth century.  Srithreads.com

Typically Sashiko stitching was worked on indigo-dyed fabric using a white cotton thread similar to Pearl cotton #5 or candlewicking thread. It was extremely durable, repelled moths and other insects (due to the ammonia in the dye bath), and protected the wearer against salt water and sea air.  Often the location of the Sashiko stitiching was determined by the occupation of the wearer. A farmer for example, would need reinforced areas along the shoulders, back, and neck, while a fisherman would prefer to have more protections in the underarms and knees.  Firefighters would soak their reinforced coats in water before battling blazes.  Coats were worn inside out for work and right side out for special occasions.

Heater cover "Kotasushiki" ca. early to mid twentieth century. Srithreads.com

Early Sashiko designs began with very simple running stitches intended to simply hold bits of cloth together, but the stitching soon developed into more complex rmotifs, frequently reflecting elements in nature and the changing seasons. Before long, design and function became intertwined, and Sashiko was recognized as an art form.  It is now considered mingei ("folk art" or "art of the common people").

Hand guards ca. late nineteenth, early twentieth century.  Srithreads.com

To learn more about Sashiko you might want to check out The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook by Susan Briscoe or Sashiko: Japanese Traditional Hand Stitchery by A. Takeda. Both include numerous patterns and projects for all skill levels that are sure to inspire you.


Japanese Country Quilting by Karen Kim Matsunaga
Sashiko:  Easy & Elegant Japanese Designs for Decorative Machine Embroidery by Mary S. Parker
Sashiko and Beyond by Saikoh Takano
Threads Magazine, August/September 1988


Ruth Chandler really "got into" circles and made a series of circle quilts. Circle Series #4 is one of them.

Learn more about her circle series in Show 2504.

CircleSeries4byRuthChandler - 36 Pieces Non-Rotating

CircleSeries4byRuthChandler - 100 Pieces Non-Rotating

CircleSeries4byRuthChandler - 297 Pieces Non-Rotating

CircleSeries4byRuthChandler - 36 Pieces Rotating

CircleSeries4byRuthChandler - 100 Pieces Rotating

CircleSeries4byRuthChandler - 297 Pieces Rotating

Original Photo: Mary Kay Davis


Ruth Chandler really "got into" circles and made a series of circle quilts. Circle Series #4 is one of them.

Learn more about her circle series in Show 2504.


Original Photo: Mary Kay Davis


Nina McVeigh, the 2018 Educator of the Year for BERNINA, stops by The Quilt Show for the first time as a guest after having been featured in BERNINA teaching videos with TQS since 2007. During the show, Nina shares tips and tricks for working with watercolor paper, leather, and even cork. Nina’s creative ideas will have you rethinking what your longarm can do. She also shares a fun wool tote that features perfect machine quilted circles.

Quilt historian, and current Editor of Quiltfolk Magazine, Mary Fons, shares her family history with quilting, Fons & Porter, learning to quilt on camera, and how she came into quilting at the age of 29. She talks about the magazine, its coverage of quilters around the US, and quilting culture.

Watch Nina and Mary in Show 2505, when it debuts Sunday, August 25, 2019.


Fascinated by charm quilts, quilts with over 1,000 different fabrics, Janet Arkison decided she needed to make one and a series of "Goldilocks" quilts was born from her fabric stash. This is the smallest, Baby Bear.

Baby Bear was on exhibit at the Houston International Quilt Festival 2018.



Jen from Shabby Fabrics shows you how to make this table runner for Fall using a disappearing four-patch block. She also shares some tips for accurately adding the appliqué to each end. This easy to make Fall project brings back memories of quaint schoolhouses, and the excitement of the upcoming harvest season.
Click here for pdf download.


On TheQuiltShow.com we are always pushing you to get outside your comfort zone. But do we do what we say? Capt'n John is responsible for the audience during tapings. After the show is over, we then film the crowd clapping, smiling, concentrating, etc. One thing we ask them to do is laugh. So Capt'n John stayed up late the night before and learned to do this...(it's supposed to be the Floss).


Gift of Alice Larson, TTU-H2017-003-002. Courtesy of Museum of Texas Tech University.

Feed Sack Quilt from Dallas Estate Sale
By Marian Ann J. Montgomery, Ph.D.,
Curator of Clothing and Textiles, the Museum of Texas Tech University

The piece has a definite artistic and Art Deco feeling and makes one wonder about the maker. How interesting that the maker had access to so many beautiful prints from the “free” feed sack fabric and the funds to purchase the black print and the bright yellow background. Please be inspired by this beautiful piece to label your quilts so we can give credit to your beautiful work.

Sometimes a lovely donation comes into the Museum with little or no information as to its original maker or occasion for the piece, as the quilt was purchased at an estate sale or auction. One of these “orphan” quilts is now on exhibit as part of the feed sack exhibit, Cotton and Thrift: Feed Sacks and the Fabric of American Households, at the Museum of Texas Tech University through December 15, 2019.

The unusual yellow and black Grandmother’s Fan variation donated by Alice Larson was given to the museum in 2016. Alice found the quilt at an estate sale in Dallas, TX, but unfortunately sales agents had no information to share about the piece.

The quilt is in excellent condition and the use of black is remarkable for the late 1930s, early 1940s when the feed sack fabrics were available. I’ve not seen other examples of the use of black and chrome yellow with the feed sack fabrics at the time, but they certainly make for a very striking quilt.

The Art Deco inspired quilt makes one wonder about the maker's ability to access so many beautiful prints from the “free” feed sack fabric and the funds to purchase both the additional black print and bright yellow background fabric. Please be inspired by this beautiful piece to label your quilts so we can give credit to your beautiful work for future generations to enjoy.

In case you aren't able to view the exhibit in person, don't miss the unique opportunity to learn more fascinating tips and feed sack stories during the Monday 28th luncheon at the upcoming International Quilt Fesitval in Houston, TX, where Curator and author, Dr. Marian Ann Montgomery will be the speaking and selling the companion exhibit catalog.


Learn more about the Museum of Texas Tech University Textile Collections.

Click here for related articles from the Museum of Texas Tech University Textile Collections.


As you all know, many hours are spent in planning, cutting and piecing a quilt top. The excitement of the start, the satisfaction of all those pieces matching up, and then a celebration when what you envisioned comes to fruition. But now you are faced with the most daunting of decisions...how to quilt it? I wonder how many of you are toppers? And by topper I mean you love making the quilt top but then lose steam when it comes to sandwiching and quilting the layers together. I admit what really stops me in my tracks is the layering part...boy, if I could hire someone to layer my quilts I would enjoy the quilting, LOL. It is, after all, another step in the art. With that said, I have a flexible rule for myself...if I have worked really hard on the top...as in hand stitched wool, hexies or hand appliqué, I am sending it out to a professional longarmer. I feel no shame in this decision. On the other hand, if I have pieced a quilt with traditional piecing methods I will give it a go. I like honing my skills and testing my creativity. How about you?

So how do I decide what to quilt? I keep a running board on Pinterest called Quilting, The Final Chapter which is filled with ideas. I have a nice pile of stencils if I need a starting point and I also collect photos of quilting when we are on the road. There are so many wonderful longarm quilters. It truly is an art all by itself!!

I ran out of time so I sent this quilt to one of my favorite longarm quilters. It would have been a perfect quilt for me to practice on because the fabrics are so dark and busy it is hard to see the quilting.

But...when you see the quilting on the back side you really understand the gift of a longarm quilter!

Here are some amazing examples of how quilting sparks a quilt. The samples are hanging in The Quilter's Market in Tucson, AZ. Hope you are inspired to finish up some of those tops!

Click on a photo in the slideshow to zoom in.

Click to play this Smilebox collage


Stay tuned and travel along with us on Quilt Roadies.

Click here for Anna's blog.


We loved the timeless message in the quilt Show Up. We think it seems like something we should think about every day.

Show Up by Sam Hunter  - Quilted by Nancy Stovall

Part of Modern Quilt Guild Showcase at Houston International Quilt Festival 2018



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Apliquick Rods

Apliquick - 3 Holes Microserrated Scissors

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