Last year I didn’t write about the autumn exhibition, an annual event my sashiko group always participates in, so here, belatedly, is my report.
With the pandemic still raging, it was a slightly more somber and diminished crowd than usual which gathered to set up the exhibition on October 17. My sashiko group usually makes collaborative wall hangings for this exhibition, but as we had not been able to meet during the year, all of us had worked at home on our 15 by 15 cm squares for the hanging, not knowing what everyone else was doing.
To date the hangings have had geometric patterns, snowflakes, and poem themes, but the theme for 2020 was butterflies, with one hanging in classic blue and white, and the other in colour. This was moment that we all saw for the first time our squares all sewn together, and the butterflies emerge in one glorious flock. It was most thrilling!
For my contribution, I took the opportunity to explore the effects that varying pattern and colour can have. Using the same basic butterfly outline, I made three butterflies based on variations of cross stitch (juji-zashi).
Butterfly 1 is the basic cross stitch (juji-zashi), add a diagonal grid between the crosses in Butterfly 2 and it becomes rice stitch (kome-zashi), or add diagonal lines over the crosses in Butterfly 3 to make another variation of rice stitch.
For the colored butterfly wall hanging, version I used the same butterfly outline and stitch patterns, and simply varied the use of yellow, blue and green thread to see what effect that would have.
Our teacher, Chiyoko Nakazaki, also made some butterfly bags to continue the butterfly theme.
Other notable items exhibited by the group were this spectacular tablecloth stitched in hempleaf (asanoha), by Ryoko Shiba.
And Masami Inoue made this gorgeous hanging composed of hemp leaf (asanoha) in overlaying fishing net (amime).
My own contribution was two hanafukin (read more about what hanafukin are here). One done in shades of purple featuring a lightening variation (kawari raimon) stitch, which is derived from the manji, an ancient spiritual motif that looks like the swastika. The other hanafukin was done in shades of blue, a nod to the pattern, which is the well frame (ido waku) stitch. This stitch is a stylization of the character for well, which is 井.
And finally, was this red bag which I completed during two weeks of self isolation earlier in the year. The centre panel is indigo-dyed cotton stitched with the small flower cross stitch (juuji kohanazashi) pattern. For the surrounding red panels I used a fabric called Kurume kasuri (ikat-dyed).
On the last day of the exhibition after we had gathered to take everything down, Sensei handed us materials and instructions to make four more wall hangings. The 2021 exhibition should be spectacular indeed!
It’s the custom in Japan to send New Year greetings postcards at the beginning of January, but this year I just couldn’t face it. With all that’s been going on in the world, I really didn’t feel like writing cookie-cutter greetings over and over. Instead, I decided to make good luck charm bags as a gift for people who I wanted to send a special message of thanks to for their support last year. I got the pattern for the bags from Saki Iiduka’s book, Sashiko Accessories and Mending, which I reviewed last year.
Omamori bukuro, as these bags are called in Japanese, are sold at temples and shrines. They are believed to bestow the protective power of the gods on human beings, and can be bought for many purposes, such as wishes for a safe birth, passing exams, financial success, or safety on the roads.
In my bags I placed a tiny Amabie figurine. Amabie is a folklore spirit that has gone viral in Japan since the pandemic started. According to legend, Amabie lives in the sea, but comes out to predict good harvests and plagues. Sharing its image is supposed to prevent disease spreading, hence the plethora of covid countermeasures using the image of Amabie in their PR!
Ordinarily, you are not supposed to look inside an omamori bukuro as that apparently negates its power, but since sharing the image of Amabie is supposed to keep away plague, I think in this case it is okay! Besides using them for good luck charms, these little bags would be ideal for putting in some lavender or other herbs and spices to use as scent bags.
The bags themselves are simple enough to make, and take only a few hours to complete. The blue one with white stitching is done with rice stitch (komezashi) and the one with red stitching is rice flower stitch (kome no hanazashi).
The most difficult and time-consuming thing was making the knot! Though I learned to tie a knot or two as a girl guide back in the day, this was a challenge on another level. Not having a sense of how to hold and handle the strands made it difficult to follow the printed instructions, so I resorted to YouTube and found this very useful video. After many attempts, I finally got the knack of it and was able to tie a passable good luck knot.
For anyone who’d like to try making these bags, the good news is that last year I was asked to translate this book, and the English edition is coming out later this year.
May the power of Amabie keep you safe and well in 2021!
This is the newest sashiko book to brighten up my desk. With its stylized and colourful patterns of leaves, flowers, pinwheels and other lovely things, the charming hanafukin on the cover represents perfectly what this book is all about: having fun with coloured thread.
Chiku chiku tanoshimu ito asobi: Hibi no sashiko komono (Fun with thread and sewing: Everyday sashiko items for daily life), published by Boutique-sha this April, is a collection of hanafukin and daily items to make with beautiful coloured thread, according to the introduction.
It is divided into four sections:
Hitomezashi (one stitch sashiko), kugurizashi (woven sashiko), moyozashi (pattern sashiko) and enjoying chiku chiku (more on that later).
The hitomezashi section is the largest, with thirteen different items to make. There are the usual hanafukin, tablemats, coasters, as well as brooches, pincushions, a zip-up pouch, card cases and a fold-up accessory case. Patterns range from the simplest traditional cross stitch hanafukin in blue thread on white cloth, to the complex non-traditional creative patterns on the sampler hanafukin pictured on the cover. I happened to have a clover brooch set to hand, so I had a go at making the zig-zag patterned brooch pictured on page 14. The diagrams are to size, which makes it easy to copy.
The kugurizashi section has four items: two different hanafukins, coasters and a card case. But pages 18 and 19 have to be my favourite in the whole book; the white hanafukin stitched with juji kuguri (woven cross stitch) in green thread is just gorgeous – a fern-like lace! — while the two simple coasters on the opposite page, diamond pattern stitched in three colours, show off to advantage the possibilities of pattern and colour. This really speaks to me, as that creative potential is one of the things that drew me to sashiko in the first place.
The moyozashi section has just three items: a large cloth in ‘scrap’ pattern (whatever that means – I’m not really sure); a lovely bag with a tobi asanoha (scattered hemp leaf) pattern; and, a cute round drawstring bag with the shippo tsunagi (linked seven treasures).
Lastly, there is a section on enjoying chiku chiku. Chiku chiku means a prickly feeling or pricking motion. It’s often paired with the words for needle (hari) or work (shigoto) as a general term for needlework in Japanese, which of course includes sashiko. In a quick glance through my collection of sashiko books I found three with chiku chiku in the title, but none of those contained anything in the style of the items featured in the chiku chiku section of this book. The potholder and coasters are stitched with the straight-lined seemingly irregular stitches that typify chiku chiku. This is the first time I’ve seen a section devoted to chiku chiku in this type of sashiko book, which is perhaps an indication of its growing influence. It’s easy to understand its popularity when you see the amazingly artistic and inventive pieces in this blog post from Blue and White.
As usual there is a section on the basics of sashiko; eight pages of photographs and diagrams, showing all the materials, basic instructions for transferring patterns, stitching processes, and guide to symbols used. Diagrams are clear, the patterns are to size, and some but not all are in colour.
I was confused at first by the numbers in the list of contents, which I assumed matched the numbers for each item as pictured on the page because the fonts are the same. It took me a while to work out that the content numbers are actually page numbers. That was my only complaint.
Life has changed abruptly in ways we could never have imagined only a very short while ago. For me sashiko offers a blessed escape from the anxiety and stress.
In the spirit of providing a tiny bolthole from the darkness, I searched my collection of sashiko photographs and chose fourteen of my favourites that I shared over two weeks on instagram. Below are those photographs with accompanying text, which I hope will also convey a sense of the history and versatility of sashiko.
This is my own work, a hanafukin that I stitched with a freestyle cherry blossom motif couple a few years ago. I like to get it out in April, but this year feels particularly poignant. As I write, the cherry trees are starting to bloom, but even if we cannot enjoy them in the usual way, looking at this hanafukin is one way to mark the season.
“Everybody Had Dreams” is the title of this piece, which I saw at the 2016 Tokyo International Quilt Festival. The fabric is a large furoshiki (wrapping cloth) which had belonged to the creator Harumi Iida’s brother-in-law. He had used it to carry his belongings in when he was evacuated to the countryside as a schoolboy during WWII. Seventy years later it came into Harumi’s hands and she stitched it with patterns to evoke the dreams she imagined those children must have had, while feeling sad and lonely at being separated from their families.
Boro, which means ragged or tattered threadbare clothing in Japanese, played an important role in the origins of sashiko. This kimono made from rags held together by sashiko stitching, was probably mended and handed down, over and over again. It was in the BORO collection assembled by folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka (1933-2013) that used to be housed at the Amuse Museum in Asakusa. However the museum has closed since I saw it and the collection was taken on a world tour.
This is a Tsugaru Koginzashi kimono, also from the Chuzaburo Tanaka collection.
Koginzashi originated in the snowy regions of Aomori in northern Japan, where hemp was the only available fabric. A law passed in 1724 forbade peasants from wearing cotton, permitting only indigo-coloured hemp. Thus the distinctive patterns and style of stitching using white cotton thread evolved to fill in the rough weave of the hemp and make it warmer.
This gorgeous multi-coloured piece of Nanbu Hishizashi sashiko was stitched by local Ibaraki sashikoist Reiko Yazama. Hard to believe that this type of sashiko also evolved in Aomori, not so far from the blue and white Tsugaru Koginzashi of yesterday’s photo. Nanbu hishizashi patterns are more elongated in shape, and colourful. The reason for this was a relax g of the rules by the local feudal lord when a train line brought coloured thread into the district. Women took advantage of this to make colourful items for festive wear, in particular aprons.
Here is another example of beautifully coloured Nanbu Hishizashi sashiko. This pair of children’s tabi (footwear) was made sometime in the Meiji era, which could be anytime between 1868 and 1912. They’re so adorable I’d be happy to wear them myself!
One last photo of Hishizashi sashiko. The dense stitching on these workman's trousers would have kept out the cold northern winds. I don’t know anything about these trousers except that they were probably worn in the Meiji era, but the design seems timeless. I can imagine them being worn today in Aoyama, Ginza or any other upmarket district of Tokyo! Indigo dyes were also a precious resource that had to be conserved, thus stitching navy blue stripes onto lightly dyed fabric was one way of achieving that.
This wall hanging by Eiko Suzuki is a sampler of sashiko from the Shonai region in Yamagata prefecture. Shonai sashiko patterns are typically geometric with their origins related to daily life and work. Shonai sashiko was stitched on whatever fabric was available (unlike Tsugaru kogin and Nanbu hishizashi which evolved on hemp). Patterns shown here include futome tsunagi (thick links), ganze (sea urchin), asanoha (hemp), soroban (abacus), sugi (cedar), kawari hishizashi (diamond variation) and kakinohana (persimmon flower).
The pattern on this hanten (workman’s jacket) by Hide Takahashi is called ganze, which means sea urchin. The word ganze comes from the dialect spoken on the tiny Japan Sea island of Tobishima, off the coast of Akita Prefecture, where fishing was obviously a big part of life. Looking at the mesmerizing spiky lines and circles on this jacket, it’s easy to see the resemblance to sea urchin.
This table centre stitched in ishiwari (paving stone) style was made by my teacher, Chiyoko Nakazaki. You’ll see segments of asanoha (hemp leaf), Bishamon kikko (Bishamon tortoiseshell) and kumi kikko (interlaced tortoisehell), sayagata (brocade weave), tsuno kikko (horned tortoisehell) and kagome (basket weave). Sashiko was born out of practical necessity, but made the leap from being a mainly practical to a decorative handcraft. Nakazaki-san studied under Akita-born Eiko Yoshida, who was influential in popularizing sashiko as a decorative art from the 1970s.
From the Taisho period (1912-1926) onwards sashiko began to get colourful. This gorgeously coloured noren (curtain) is the work of my classmate, Masami Inoue. I’m a big admirer of Inoue-san’s stitching, which is unfailingly neat and even; regular in size but also plump and fluffy – like little grains of rice. The pattern is called a noshi, a motif traditionally used on gifts and messages. Patterns used in the strands of this one are, left to right; nowaki (autumn grass), kagome (basket weave), juji tsunagi (linked crosses), asanoha (hemp leaf), maru shippo tsunagi (linked seven treasures), Bishamon kikko (Bishamon tortoiseshell) and higaki (cypress fence).
More lovely colour in this wall hanging by Akie Ginza, who is another important name in modern sashiko. Ginza has a gallery and shop deep in the countryside of Tokyo (I know that sounds a contradictory but Tokyo is not all city). Her work, which she describes as art, not handicraft, is characterized by the use of naturally dyed fabric and thread, and and by varying the thread thickness to achieve artistic effect. The design in this wall hanging is composed of one stem each of peony, chrysanthemum and cherry blossom, which are a combination of adapted traditional and original designs. The flowers are elongated into a diamond shape, while the border is a playful blue and white spiral pattern.
Mend, use, remend and reuse – the spirit of early sashiko lives on in this vest made from, pieces of old fabric stitched together. I came across it for sale in a travelling exhibition. All around Japan there are shops and dealers who specialize in old cloth and clothing made from old fabric. The dealer selling this vest has a shop, but travels to different regional towns and cities to show and sell the fabric and clothing that she sources from other dealers, sashikoists and seamstresses all over the country. The multi-coloured buttons lend a modern, playful touch!
For the final photo of this gallery of sashiko, I leave you with this detail from a workman’s apron (probably Meiji era). The pattern name is yatsude asanoha, which means ‘eight-fingered hemp leaf.’ The hemp plant has been a revered and vital part of Japanese life since ancient times, and the pattern based on it is ubiquitous in daily life even now. Hemp has six ‘fingers’, but aralia, the plant on which this pattern is based, has eight. The pattern is called ‘eight-fingered hemp’ because aralia leaves are similar in shape to hemp. The hemp pattern is traditionally used on children’s clothing, to symbolize the wish for them to grow strong like the hemp plant, and as a charm against evil, but it can also be used to express wishes for good health. Therefore in this time of worldwide sickness and uncertainty, I offer it as an expression of my wish for your health and safety.
I know there is not one amongst you who is not touched by the effects of the terrifying virus sweeping our planet. Life has changed abruptly in ways we could never have imagined only a very short while ago. But if you are like me, I know you will find sashiko offers a blessed escape from the anxiety and stress.
In the spirit of providing a tiny bolthole from the darkness, I have been looking through my collection of sashiko photos and chosen fourteen favourites that I would like to offer for your enjoyment over the next two weeks on instagram. Don’t worry if you are not signed up for insta, at the end of the two weeks I will collate them all into one long blog post.
To kick off, here is a hanafukin I stitched in a freestyle cherry blossom pattern. Thank goodness that through everything, cherry trees still bloom!
Times are strange indeed when even sashiko class is cancelled because of coronavirus. But if you have to stay at home, what better way to pass the time and stay sane than by doing sashiko. It’s the perfect stressbuster, though I’m sure any sashikoist reading this doesn’t need me to tell you that.
This is just another example of how you never know what life will throw up next. After the hiatus of last year I was happy to return to my regular sashiko class in January, but saddened to learn when I did that one of our classmates had recently passed away, at the age of 67.
I remember Junko Takashi as quietly elegant, reserved but warm, and always simply and beautifully dressed. She often brought along clothes to show us that she had decorated with a touch of sashiko. In fact I think that was her forte. She confided in me once that she wasn’t much good at sewing—something we both had in common--and enjoyed looking for items of clothing to buy off the rack, that she could individualize with sashiko. I have seen many examples of how she did this on blouses, tunics and jackets. I wish I’d taken photos of them all. After combing through my photo collection, however, I did find a few samples of Junko’s work, which I put here now in memory of a sashiko friend.
This cream tunic blouse has shippo tsunagi (seven treasures) on the right sleeve; vertical lines of free sticthing on the front for balance; and seigaiha (blue sea wave) and masu zashi (square measure) on the shoulder.
A white blouse with tobi asanoha (scattered hemp leaf) on the front and a form of linked cross (juuji tsunagi) on the right shoulder
Concentric circles in purples and showers of vertical lines below. Lovely.
It's a pity the glass reflection blocks a better view, but this framed piece is all variations on ajisai (hydrangea).
Masu zashi (square measure stitch). Imagine how much time it took to do this!
And this! Hishi seigaiha (diamond blue sea wave).
Last but not least, this beautiful kaki no ha (persimmon flower) cushion.
As it’s been so long since I’ve written a book review, I recently went to check out the shelves in a large Tokyo bookstore to see what’s new. Not much has changed in relation to how disappointedly few books about sashiko in Japanese there are, but I did pick up some new ones. This one jumped out at me as something slightly different.
Sashiko no komono to otsukuroi (small items made of sashiko and sashiko mending) by Saki Iiduka was published in November 2019 by Nihon Vogue-sha. It seems to reflect a trend towards focusing on sashiko’s functionality for mending and recycling, rather than simply making pretty handicrafts, as many of the books in the past have. This one is very much a reflection of the author’s lifestyle, and shows how sashiko fits in with her ethos and way of living.
Ms Iiduka (pronounced ee-zu-ka) studied painting at university and spent ten years living in the rural prefecture of Yamagata, where she had opportunity through her studies to closely observe rural life. She first encountered sashiko after graduation when she and a group of friends ran a café and lifestyle workshops in an old school building. She began making items for everyday use from sashiko, using and recycling whatever materials were at hand. In this sense her sashiko is close to the origins of sashiko, as a means of strengthening and reusing precious fabric. Many of the items pictured are things that she has made and uses. Nowadays she lives in a village in Gunma prefecture with her family and has a studio called Kaeru-top where she runs sashiko workshops, sells sashiko and runs a café.
The first section of the book introduces 21 different items with instructions for making each at the back, and the stitch pattern diagrams shown to actual scale, which is a plus. The items include an amulet bag, brooch, pincushion, coaster, name card case, purse, book cover, pot holder, shoulder-bag purse, box-shaped pouch, sturdy drawstring bag, tote bag, lunch wrapper, stole, and boro drawstring bag.
The section on the basics of sashiko has a series of photographs that show the process for drafting and stitching three different patterns (hishizashi diamond stitch, komezashi rice stitch, and hon-juji-hishikake real cross diamond woven stitch) in very clear detail, with the reverse side shown as well.
Then there is a section on mending, once again with close up photographs showing how to mend holes, and photographs of suggested items to use mending techniques on, such as shirt collars and cuffs, cushions and knitted socks.
My favourite section shows the author’s handmade swatches of stitch samples that she has made over the years for her own reference. I was pleased she wrote that names for the same pattern and variations are different in different regions, as this is something I always struggle with. Just as I think I’ve learned the name of a pattern I will find it in another book that gives it a different name.
Nihon Vogue books are always high quality and this one is no different. What I liked most was that it is a real reflection of the author’s actual lifestyle with an emphasis on practicality, which gives it a pleasing freshness and authenticity.
Recently I had the experience of receiving bad news just as I was just about to board a plane. It was an international flight, and after learning that my brother was on his deathbed, I was in no frame of mind for reading, watching movies or any other kind of entertainment over the next ten hours. In that situation all I felt like doing was sashiko. The hypnotizing effect that comes from rhythmically moving a needle through fabric was exactly what I needed to make the long trip bearable.
Fortunately I had something to work on. I don’t usually stitch pre-printed pieces as I prefer to draw up my own, but I had with me a Hobbyra Hobbyre brand hanafukin, which I had bought to try out after a visit to one of their outlets in Tokyo earlier in the year.
Incidentally, carrying sewing in hand luggage aboard planes can be a hassle because of rules about taking scissors on board. I lost several pairs before discovering that a stitch unpicker is all you need to cut thread and can make it through security inspections without being confiscated. But I make no guarantee - rules may vary according to country!
Hobbyra Hobbyre is a craft company that sells mainly needlework and sewing supplies. It was founded in 1975 as an offshoot of the Mitsubishi Pencil Company, with the first store located in the Ginza-Core building in the trendy and prestigious Giza district. From there it expanded into a franchise with 45 shops across the country. Nowadays the Ginza store is located at street level (Denso-kan 1F, 5-9-5, Ginza, Chuo-ku) and has just celebrated its 5th anniversary at these premises.
The store I visited was in Shinjuku, on the sixth floor of the Keio Department Store. I was impressed by the extensive range of pre-printed hanafukin with patterns ranging from traditional to free style, and variety of thread colours. There were some really cute and unusual free style designs such as puppies, kiriko glassware and cactus!
A range of kits for making items such as bags, purses, coasters and table runners in traditional blue and white was also available.
The Hobbyra Hobbyre website doesn’t have any English information unfortunately. This page lists shop locations, which Google translate might be able to help with, otherwise if you are visiting Japan and want to find a shop, try plugging in your destination plus Hobbyra Hobbyre.
Below is the hanafukin I began that day in the plane. I like that it had six different traditional patterns and an enclosed instruction leaflet with diagrams clearly showing the order of stitching for each, which were: shippo tsunagi (linked seven treasures), kagome (woven bamboo), hana juji (flower cross) koshi (lattice), juji hanazashi (cross flower stitch) and toridasuki (crossed birds). To finish off I sewed a backing cloth made from an old skirt. The finished piece is indeed full of memories.
Every autumn, my sashiko group participates in an exhibition at a community art gallery in the train station. Over the last three years I have made a series of framed works featuring different patterns, and contributed to the joint wall hanging that we make especially for this exhibition every year. Although I was unable to contribute this time, I was happy to be able to view the exhibition recently.
This years’ joint wall hanging project was a series of four vertical panels depicting the iroha song, an ancient poem famous for incorporating every syllable of the Japanese hiragana syllabary. Sort of like the Japanese equivalent of ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’ Even native Japanese speakers can find it difficult to make out what this stylized writing says, so kudos to my four clever classmates who were able to transfer the patterns and fill them out with such beautifully even stitches!
Other classmates each stitched flower designs to frame. Here is a selection of a few.
The above are all examples of jiyuzashi, or free stitching, which is basically stitching along a freely drawn line. There were also plenty of examples of moyozashi , or pattern stitching.
Then there was this spectacular runner below, which was made by one of my classmates done in the bunkatsu (section) style. The patterns you see represented here are (left to right, top to bottom); sayagata (brocade weave), kagome (basket weave), Bishamon (Bishamon-name of a god), asanoha (hemp leaf), tsuno kikko (flower tortoiseshell), and ajiro (wickerwork), plus one more I can’t for the life of me remember or track down – which is driving me nuts!
Finally, these three versions of the same stitch, tsuno kikko (horned tortoise shell), on the same kinchaku (drawstring) bag, are a wonderful illustration of how varying the thread colour or pattern size can alter the overall effect.
What a thrill it was to see my number one favourite pattern, asanoha (hemp leaf), plastered across the TV screen, splashed around sports stadiums, adorning buses, and even adding a touch of class to rugby balls! Sports matches usually leave me cold, and I couldn’t care less about the outcome of any international match, but my interest in rugby has definitely been raised of late.
Rugby World Cup 2019 Japan posters
It was all due to the inspired graphic design scheme for the Rugby World Cup 2019, which incorporated a variety of traditional Japanese patterns that were applied to all aspects of the enterprise, from tickets, uniforms and posters to balls, banners and fence advertising and bus decoration, and of course all the mandatory accessories and souvenirs.
I was jumping from my seat and getting quite excited every time I got an eyeful of seigaiha (blue wave) on the back of a referee’s shirt as hovered on the edge of squirming bunch of muscly men. Or saw the trunk-like legs of burly rugby players pound a carpet of asanoha at the entrance to the field. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The organizing committee apparently wanted to create an image of unity, and with the image of a traditional screen in mind, they came up with a core design that superimposed the symbols of Japan — Mount Fuji and the rising sun — on a rugby-shaped pitch filled in with traditional patterns.
These are the patterns that are at the heart of sashiko. I was already familiar with most, but there were a few I struggled to identify. Watching rugby is way more interesting when you can play “what pattern is that?” at the same time.
The Japanese team’s uniform was based was based on an overall concept of a warrior’s helmet, and encompasses a glorious patchwork of the most common traditional patterns any sashikoist would be familiar with: seigaiha (blue ocean waves), kikko (tortoiseshell), asanoha (hemp leaf), tatewaku (rising steam), sayagata (brocade weave), hishi (diamonds) and yabane (arrow feathers). This style of composition is also very typical in sashiko.
And oh, by the way, I believe the green team won.
I love sashiko. I love its simplicity and complexity, I love looking at it, doing it, reading about it, and talking about it.
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