The History of Sashiko

12th August 2022

Sashiko is a style of Japanese embroidery where gorgeous patterns are stitched in running stitch, using white thread on a deep blue fabric. Sashiko has regained popularity in recent years due to the striking simplicity of the designs and ease of stitching. This makes it a technique that can be learned by anyone, no matter their skill level. Printed panels and fabrics are now widely available, and quilts, table dressings and clothing featuring Sashiko are becoming common.

The technique arose out of necessity during the Edo period in Japan between 1603 and 1867. At that time, Japan had become highly insular, with the borders closing to foreign travel, trade and ideas. All Japanese citizens were subject to strict, often repressive laws including sumptuary laws that dictated precisely the kind of clothing that people of different classes were permitted to wear.

The ruling classes in Japan at the time wanted to ensure that class divisions were clearly visible.

The result was that certain fabrics and colours were reserved for particular classes, making it illegal for anyone who was not of that class to wear them. The working classes were left with hemp fabric, which was usually handwoven. It was dyed with indigo, a common plant that allowed people to create a deep, blue-shaded cloth.

Because of the labour it took to make the cloth, as well as the availability of materials, fabric was precious and clothing items were never thrown away. Instead, they were patched and repaired, which served to increase the warmth provided through additional layers of fabric. Patches were attached using running stitch to ensure that they were secure, but it didn’t take long before natural human creativity prevailed and the stitches became more decorative.

The thread used to stitch on the patches was also handmade, often by reusing strips of old fabric that were soaked and separated into threads. This yarn could be left undyed, which accounted for the striking combination of white on blue that characterises Sashiko today. 

The thread was relatively thick and had an additional twist to it to increase its strength. Because of this, Sashiko required a special needle that had an eye large enough to accommodate the thread. It was also slightly longer than your average needle to allow for the stitcher to run several stitches at once.

There were a range of common Sashiko patterns that featured frequently on garments and other stitched items. These included Hishi-moyō (diamonds), Uroko (fish scales), Kōshi (checks) and Toridasuki (interlaced circles of two birds) among others. Patterns would be used in different combinations to create beautifully unique designs.

The word ‘sashiko’ itself translates as ‘little stabs’ and refers to how the technique is done.

Using only running stitch, the secret to a beautiful result is to ensure that each stitch is even in length. With the printed panels available today, this task is easier because the stitcher can follow the pattern, but prior to that, it required a careful eye and a steady hand. Mothers used to teach their daughters the technique so that they could take the skills into their future roles as wives and mothers. Being able to mend clothing or blankets was an essential task for a working-class woman.

Although Sashiko was practiced in Japan for centuries, it did see a decline in the 1950s as fabrics became cheaper and modern, printed fabrics became more common. However, because of the philosophy behind the technique, in particular the Japanese idea of mottanai that emphasises the importance of not wasting anything, it is enjoying a resurgence all over the world.

Sashiko is a wonderfully meditative technique, which is perfect for introducing a beginner to embroidery. Sashiko projects are also ideal for experienced stitchers who are looking for something that can be completed in a relatively short period of time, or that can be transported easily and picked up at any time when you have a minute or two to spare.

Nowadays, with the wealth of fabrics and thread we have available, people are pushing the boundaries of the traditional colours and designs, producing Sashiko-style embroidery in a rainbow of colours and with intricate and representative designs. 

The traditional patterns, worked in white thread on deep blue, still attract many people even today. Sashiko materials and tools are widely available, often with the best quality being those that come straight from Japan, its country of origin. If you’ve ever wanted to give this traditional technique a try, there’s never been a better time.

PS – if you missed out on purchasing the new book Sashiko Stencils pictured above, more stock is on its way and can be ordered HERE.

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