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