“Wow!” Reiko Domon demonstrates the basics of hydrangea stitch
“Wow!” Reiko Domon demonstrates
the basics of hydrangea stitch

Today, sashiko is generally thought of as a highly decorative style of Japanese stitching or embroidery that was popular in the late 19th century. Its origins, however, are really quite humble: if you’d been travelling in rural Japan 200 years ago, you'd have found sashiko's running stitch being used to sew together the heavy, layered cotton clothing worn by fishermen and farmers. It was while working in northern Japan, among the countryside where this technique had its beginnings, that I first encountered sashiko.

Chie Hori’s sashiko sampler – a whole (tan) roll of cloth
Chie Hori’s sashiko sampler – a whole (tan) roll of cloth

Between 1991 and 1992, I was an English teacher in Yuza-machi, a small town in the Yamagata prefecture, a region that retains many aspects of Japan's traditional rural lifestyle. While I was there, I became interested in country textiles, kimono and the tea ceremony, and bought many books about all aspects of traditional fabric arts. One of these, Eiko Yoshida's Sashiko Hyakuyo, showed images of Japan's countryside and old houses that had been captured by sashiko's running stitch, and which were strongly reminiscent of the area around my home.

Provincial origins

At the time, I knew relatively little about the origins of sashiko and assumed that the technique was the same all over Japan; it wasn't until I returned to Yuza eight years later, that I learned otherwise. While visiting the town library, Town Hall and the Aoyama House – an 19th century mansion that has been preserved intact as a museum – I noticed a number of sashiko table runners that had been worked in unusually small, dense stitch patterns. Many of these patterns, I learned, are unique to Yuza or the Shonai plain area of Yamagata prefecture. While these pieces are worked with sashiko's characteristic running stitch, they’re classed as hitomezashi or 'one stitch' sashiko.

Sledge hauling jacket or sorohiki happi. Reconstruction stitched with opposing butterflies pattern and shippo
Sledge hauling jacket or sorohiki happi.
Reconstruction stitched with opposing
butterflies pattern and shippo

Keen to share these fascinating patterns with quilting friends at home, I was fortunate in being introduced to one of Yuza's sashiko workers, Mrs Chie Ikeda. When I visited her, Chie had laid out many of her pieces, including a wonderful sampler that had been made into a screen, and an impressive panel stitched with the noshi motif (a bundle of dried abalone strips traditionally used to decorate special gifts). I was also inspired by the way in which Chie had succeeded in fusing old Shonai patterns and modern clothes, which she'd decorated with sashiko stitching.

It was Chie who encouraged my early attempts at the kakinohanazashi (persimmon flower stitch), and through whom I met the old sashiko stitchers like Chie's teacher, Mrs Yoshimi Arakawa, who taught 'from hand to hand', passing skills down through the generations.

Chie Ikeda shows how to mark a grid with graph paper and chaco paper
Chie Ikeda shows how to mark a grid with
graph paper and chaco paper

Unbroken Thread

I dreamed that someday there would be an opportunity for Chie and teachers like Yoshimi to come to the UK and instruct needleworkers here in sashiko. In the meantime, my acquaintance with Yuza's sashiko stitchers continued when, in 2001, my former neighbour Mrs Reiko Domon brought her Peaceful Heart Quilters to England. The quilt group included many familiar faces, from tea ceremony friends to high school pupils' mothers, all of whom were now experimenting with combinations of traditional sashiko with patchwork and quilting. When the group mounted an exhibition of this work in Yamagata City that year, I contributed two small pieces of my own that also employed sashiko, appliqué and patchwork.

In 2002, I returned to Japan where, as I reported in Popular Patchwork (November 2002), Reiko had arranged for me to visit Mrs Chieko Hori, who lives in the foothills of Mount Chokai. Chieko is a prolific sashiko stitcher among whose many pieces is a 12m-long sampler – a whole roll of old narrow-width cotton richly patterned with sashiko. I also saw, for the first time outside a museum, a very old piece of sashiko. It was an apron, with tiny stitches in the masusashi (square box stitch) pattern and an unusual border made with a chain stitch that looked very much like the work of the Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan's northern island.

Heel covers or agudake with straw snow boots. Date unknown. Sasaki family heirloom. Cedar pattern sashiko, attributed to the owners great grandmother.
Heel covers or agudake with straw snow boots. Date unknown.
Sasaki family heirloom. Cedar pattern sashiko,
attributed to the owners great grandmother.

I also visited the home of Keiko Hori where I saw another large panel that featured the noshi motif, each strip of which was represented with a different sashiko pattern, and whose sections were worked over appliqué shapes made from old fabric.

A pattern emerges

It was seeing work of this extraordinary quality that set me thinking further about the possibility of mounting a sashiko exhibition and workshop in the UK. Before I left Yuza, then, I arranged for Reiko to send some pieces of her work to the Gresford Craft Group's annual exhibition later that year. The enthusiasm with which the shows visitors received pieces such Reiko's The Kite Picture – which combines stained glass appliqué and sashiko – only confirmed my belief that a larger exhibition of Shonai and Yuza sashiko could be a success.

Man’s work coat or nogi, 1800s Hori family heirloom. White thread on indigo cotton cloth, in a spiral pattern
Man’s work coat or nogi, 1800s Hori family heirloom.
White thread on indigo cotton cloth, in a spiral pattern

The opportunity to make the show a reality finally came when I was demonstrating Shonai sashiko techniques at the Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace in October 2002. My display included several of the works sent for the Gresford exhibition, and they caught the eye of Janice Gunner and Patty Murphy of the Quilters' Guild of the British Isles.

In the conversation that followed, I heard for the first time about the inaugural Festival of Quilts at the NEC, which sounded like the ideal showcase for the work of Japan's sashiko stitchers. Andrew Salmon of Creative Exhibitions, the Guild's partner in the event, felt the same: he was convinced that it was something that should be displayed and taught at the Festival, and offered us a space at the show. Our only problem now was collecting enough work to fill it!

A beautiful Kimono for the gala dinner
A beautiful Kimono for the gala dinner

Pulling the threads together

In curating the exhibition, I wanted to show the progression of Shonai and Yuza sashiko over the last 200 years. I started by emailing Reiko with a long list of items that I hoped we might be able to include. As well as specific pieces that I knew, such as Chieko Hori's 12m sampler and Keiko Hori's noshi panel, this list included examples of old work jackets and sorohiki happi, sleeveless sled-hauling waistcoats. I wasn't sure how much success we'd have in finding early examples of these clothes, however: because sashiko was originally used for workaday items, it simply wore out, and relatively little early pieces have survived.

 “Fuji Musume” (Wisteria Girl) designed and made by Reiko Domon, 2003. Appliqué of old and new
fabrics with Sashiko worked through wadding
“Fuji Musume” (Wisteria Girl) designed and
made by Reiko Domon, 2003. Appliqué of old
and new fabrics with Sashiko worked through wadding

Chie and Reiko worked tirelessly to find exhibits: every few days I received a message to tell me that they'd found two sorohiki happi, or a special sampler, or a piece of sashiko showing a specific stitch pattern. However, when Reiko reported that they were starting to find sashiko in kura – the family storehouses that were traditionally used to keep a family's possessions safe from fire – I knew that we'd have some wonderful old work to show.

There's a strong link between the modern quilters and their sashiko-stitching ancestors, and some of the kura finds could be traced back to through three generations. The kuru also turned up some very unusual pieces, such as the tekkou (hand covers) and agudodake (heel covers) belonging to the Sasaki family. The heel covers were worn with straw snow boots, and Chie and Reiko even managed to find an 82-year old man who kindly made two pairs of boots from rice straw for our display. Reiko was also busy organising her group of contemporary quilters and their exhibits, completing Wisteria Girl, a new appliqué and sashiko quilt for the exhibition, as well as preparing for her daughter's wedding in June!

The Finished Piece

When the show opened, we were overwhelmed by the visitors' response. By the second day, there were queues for our 'sit and stitch' area – where visitors were given an introduction to sashiko in the traditional 'hand to hand' way – had such long queues forming that a second working area was improvised. With the help of several dictionaries and the lingua franca of quilting, the language barriers were crossed and more than 150 visitors of all ages were able to try their hand at sashiko.

The exhibition itself took the form of a journey through sashiko's history, and for the first time in the UK, visitors were able to see some examples of 19th century Shonai sashiko, such as the sorohiki happi and nogi (men's work coats). Among the more modern exhibits, several chabaori (women's jackets) from the 1970s were particularly significant, as they were represented the technique as it was practiced immediately before the late 20th century sashiko revival. The use of sashiko on non-traditional clothing pointed to its fashion potential while quilted wallhangings, which combined sashiko with patchwork either as embroidery before piecing or as quilting patterns, demonstrated new uses for traditional patterns. Finally, three small samplers placed at the end of the exhibition gave visitors the chance to really experience the magic of sashiko by touching its highly textured surface.

'Remembrance of the lifetime'

I shared the Yuza quilters' delight in the popularity of the Festival of Quilts and the success of our exhibition in particular. However, the Magic of Sashiko also afforded me a very personal satisfaction: it was the realisation of the dream in which my Japanese friends were to be able to share their skills and tradition of sashiko with people in the UK. After their return to Japan, Reiko e-mailed me whose message of goodwill between peoples, cultures, ages and traditions is only accentuated by the computer's endearingly stilted translation: "It thinks that the experience corner this time becomes the remembrance of the lifetime as the experience which is good for all who participated, too." I think that says it all, doesn't it?

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 12 Number 1 - January 2004