Sashiko - A Japanese Hand Sewing Technique
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Sashiko is a striking hand-sewing technique that originated in Japan.
In Japanese, its name means “little stabs” a reference to the plain running stitches that make up sashiko’s geometric, all-over patterns. Sashiko is usually described as a kind of embroidery, but it is also truly very complex. Sashiko patterns are very pleasing, with their regular stitches and precise use of space. But aesthetics are only one aspect of sashiko.
Traditional sashiko combined decorative technique with mending and quilting.
It was a practical technique that helped farmers and fishermen stay warm and make the most of their families’ resources.
Sashiko originated in Japan’s rural north and spread south along trade routes. Like many ancient textile traditions, its exact origins are lost to time. Sashiko probably developed some time during the Edo period (1615–1868). By the Meiji era (1868– 1912), Sashiko was a well-established technique.
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In contrast to Japan’s gorgeous silk fabrics, sashiko is considered a “folk textile” because it was produced and used by the peasant classes. Sashiko was winter work for women from farming or fishing families, who used the technique to extend the life of worn fabrics, mend, and winterise clothing, and embellish everyday items.
Industrialized fabric production didn’t reach Japan until the 1870s.
Cotton, linen and hemp were spun, woven, and dyed by hand.
Cloth was a precious resource that represented huge amounts of labor, and even scraps had value. Even after mechanized mills were built near Osaka, the fabric produced there was too expensive for many people to afford, and they continued to weave their own yardage for clothing and household items. Cotton was particularly scarce in northern Japan, where it was too cold for it to grow.
Given these circumstances, mending was an utter necessity for survival.
Sashiko was a crucial part of a mending technique called boro.
Boro means “tattered rags” in Japanese. Boro textiles look like color studies: multiple shades of indigo fabric are patched or quilted neatly together with sashiko stitches, covering holes and reinforcing worn areas.
Boro vastly extended the lifespan of clothes and household textiles. When garments wore out, the fabric would be quilted into work wear. This made clothing warmer and stronger. Women would quilt two or three layers together, with the oldest cloth in the middle, where it could still be useful, but hidden.
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Worn-out work wear might be made into bags and aprons. Fabric from these items could then be quilted one last time into thick cleaning cloths, or better known as zokin.
Traditionally, sashiko patterns were sewn with off-white stitches on dark indigo fabric.
These colors always strike as a classic combination, like whitecaps on the ocean, or dark blue mountains topped with snow. In truth, sashiko’s colours evolved from poverty and an oppressive class structure.
For much of Japan’s history, fabric was made from linen or hemp. Cotton farming began in about 1600. While cotton fabric was softer on the skin than hand-woven hemp, it was also difficult to dye—unless you used indigo. Families would weave their own fabric at home, and send it (along with their boro textiles) to a local dyer.
Sashiko is a beautiful way to add visual interest to your handmade wardrobe. Because the patterns are hand-drawn, you can adapt them to fit almost any piece of woven fabric. Sashiko works best on a medium-weight, loosely woven fabric that won’t scrunch around the stitches. Tightly woven fabric becomes hard to work with.
Sashiko is a technique of transformation that honours the thought of re-using waste and using materials efficiently. A long, sharp sashiko needle is no less than a magic wand, a tool of rescue that produces style as well as economy. Its beauty demands the question: why just “mend and make do” when you can mend with gorgeous graphic patterns?
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