History of Japanese Folk Art Sashiko
Maybe you haven’t heard about Sashiko or you are an expert. During COVID lockdowns in California, I came across this amazing art and fell in love. I wanted to know more about Sashiko and where it came from.
Sashiko is a broad term for multiple kinds of Japanese embroidery, Hishizashi, Koginzashi, and Shonai sashiko. Sashiko roughly means “little stabs”. Hishizashi is based on a grid pattern using larger stitches to form the design , where simple sashiko is a small running stitch. Gushinui, is usually used with geometric patterns. Shoai is said to represent snow on the ground. Some people relate the stitching to grains of rice, komezashi, because it looks like the kanji character for rice. It would take a book to explain all the differences in styles and designs but trust me, they are all terrific.
Know the history of Sashiko
Sashiko originated in Japan most likely during the Edo Era, approximately 1600’s to 1860’s. There is no official date of when it was created. The art was common among the northern prefectures in rural areas. It was mostly used by lower class citizens like farmers. In the 1870’s to 1910’s, it became more popular for fishermen in the south.
Mothers would teach their girls the family tradition with patience and perseverance as a lesson to make them good wives. It was common for women to hand down the articles 3 and 4 generations. Boro, meaning something repaired, rags, or tattered were made into donja (a padded kimono for several people to sleep in), futons, men and women's work clothes like noragi (jacket or vest) and momohiki (trousers).
Sashiko stitching was used as a way to mend worn clothing or blankets, make them decorative, strengthen fabric with patches, and increase warmth with the multiple layers. Sashiko mended clothing does not last forever. Eventually, the fabric would become worn out. The smaller pieces could be recyled and made into other items like aprons, floor cushions, rice bags and cleaning cloths until there was noting left.
Most often you will see white or natural sashiko stitching on indigo (blue) fabric. Blue on blue was also used but the bright colors we see today were illegal for lower class citizens centuries ago. The fabric was either hemp or ramie (ramie is made from the stalks of the plant called Chinese Nettle (Boehmeria nivea) which is similar to linen. Ramie is considered the oldest fiber known to be used in textiles around the world, about 5000 years old. Cotton was available but it was costly and wasn't seen as much. On rare occasions, silk would be used for formal engagements.
Sashiko thread or yarn was often white. Strips of old cloth were soaked in rice water to separate each thread and then hand spun to create the tight yarn used for stitching. The yarn was usually not died and sewn in small running stitches. However sometimes Kakurezashi (hidden sashiko) was dyed indigo to match the fabric. The yarn would fade over time revealing the design. Then there is Chirimenzashi (crepe sashiko) where the stitching was puckered up to resemble crepe fabric. Many prefectures or counties used their own distinct patterns to represent their families and communities. There is a belief that the particular stitch can provide protection from evil spirits and bad situations or give prosperity with lucky numbers like 3, 5 and 7.
Needles used are longer than most quilting. They are around 2' to 2.5" long with a large eye to accommodate the thick yarn. A ring thimble on the middle finger is used to balance and push the yarn through the cloth. It is sew with a simple running stitch but the rhythm and decorative patterns make it sashiko.
Sashiko saw a decline around the 1950's as modern fabrics and less traditional designs were being used. In the 1970's and 1980's when quilting was becoming popular in Japan, there was a revival of Sashiko for the Folk Art it was. Now we see people who are appreciating the art and seeking the creativity and relaxing properties of the stitch.
How to honor the style and not appropriate the style: Learn the history behind the art so you understand what the original artists had to do as a necessity for survival. We now honor their hard work by learning technique and keeping the original art alive. This doesn't mean you can't make variations and use colorful fabric or yarn, but knowing the history will ensure the original art is not lost.
It is important to me to teach the history of the ancient ways of sewing to remember where it came from and how culture was created through out the world. If you have always wanted to try hand sewing and would like to try an easy project, you can find templates and kits in our Japanese or Kits section. You may fall in love with the cerein feeling you get when hand stitching.
"Itsumo osewa ni natte orimasu"
(Meaning, "Thank you always for your continued support")
Brisco, S., The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook, (Reprint 2020) David & Charles Ltd.
Title: Sashiko Jacket, Period: Meiji period (1868–1912), Medium: Indigo-dyed plain-weave cotton, quilted and embroidered with white cotton thread, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/50805