I was in Sendai recently with a couple of hours to spare, so I set out to see what I could find in the way of sashiko in the centre of the city.
Sendai is the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture, part of the northern region of Japan known as Tohoku, where the three main types of sashiko originated. Shonai sashiko (of which hitomezashi is typical) comes from Yamagata prefecture, on the eastern border of Miyagi, while kogin sashiko and nanbu hishizashi originated in Aomori prefecture, which is north of Miyagi but with Iwate prefecture in between.
I didn’t have to go very far to make my first discovery. Less than a hundred metres from my hotel I found TRY6, a community-sponsored business incubator shop for local entrepreneurs, where my eyes were immediately drawn to a couple of shelves with a beautiful display of small items such as brooches, buttons and hair-ties stitched with kogin and Shonai sashiko. These were the work of an artist whose needle name is engawa. I couldn’t resist buying a charming brooch of white komenohana zashi (rice flower) stitched on indigo-dyed cloth. According to engawa's website, s/he was born in Hokkaido, lives in Sendai, and has been stitching sashiko items since 2013. Take a look at this link (in Japanese) to see more of engawa’s delightful creations. “minne” and “creema”, by the way, are online Japanese shops.
The helpful manager in TRY6 gave me a tip about another gallery he thought might have some sashiko, and sure enough when I reached the galerie arbre, I discovered the work of two more sashikoists.
Kogin mameco, the needle name of a lady who specializes in kogin sashiko, had a lovely range of book covers, zip pouches and pencil cases on display. Once again, however, I couldn’t resist the brooches, and purchased a sweet button-sized brooch covered in a rough-weave beige cloth stitched with a red ume no hana (plum flower). See Kogin mameco’s work here.
Hitomezashi and kogin sashiko are currently extremely popular in Japan, so I was not surprised that all the sashiko I had found so far was exclusively in those two styles. The sashikoist known as harinoto, who lives in Tochigi prefecture (which is not Tohoku) and whose work I also discovered in galerie arbre, however, was doing something quite original with kogin. Harinoto had made a series of coasters representing the six prefectures in Tohoku, stitched with a kogin-style motif emblematic of each prefecture. These were apples for Aomori, iron tea-pots for Iwate, woven straw horses for Akita, wooden kokeshi dolls for Miyagi, cherries for Yamagata, and toy red cows for Fukushima. Naturally I bought a kokeshi doll coaster as a souvenir of my visit to Miyagi.
I tracked down harinoto’s blog and found that she has also published a book about kogin sashiko. Koginzashi moyo asobi (Playing around with kogin sashiko patterns) Nihon Vogue, 2016 (Amazon Japan affiliate link)
All in all it was a very pleasant and satisfying way to while away a few hours, walking around the backstreets of Sendai in search of sashiko!
New years greetings and best wishes for happy stitching in 2018!
I love the beginning of a new year, when anything still seems possible. This year I am especially excited to be starting the year with my Watts Sashiko website. I’d dreamed of making this happen for a long time and was thrilled last year to finally get started. There are still many refinements to make and projects to get started, but little by little I’m moving forward. Please sign up for the newsletter if you’d like to get monthly updates of my progress.
I’m thrilled to be starting on the next phase of my vision – the subscription kits. Kits were very important to me when I first started sashiko, as I had no one to consult or teach me (in pre-internet days), but finding and choosing them was always a random process, and I was often confused by the instructions. That experience led me to the idea of offering subscription sets. If I can deliver a short series of kits in a particular style, with instructions translated by me, and subscribers can share that experience with each other, then overall it should add up to a fun and informative experience of learning about sashiko.
So for my first offering I have three special order Hitomezashi (‘one stitch’) kits from Olympus, which you won’t find available anywhere else on the internet. Hitomezashi is typical of Shonai sashiko one of the three major sashiko styles. The deadline for ordering this series is January 15th.
I’m such a fan of sashiko that I often forget other people don’t necessarily know what the appeal is. But when I was visiting Australia over Christmas, and talking about my doings naturally enough, I was asked many questions about it. And to put my answers in a nutshell this is what I said: Sashiko is beautiful, practical, fun, easy and good for you!
It’s true, sashiko is easy – but it has depth — and If I can do sashiko, anybody can. I’m not crafty or good at sewing, but I can stitch sashiko and make beautiful things. It’s extremely satisfying, and such a great outlet for latent artistic ambitions. And as for the part about sashiko being good for you, well, if you take a look at comments columns and online groups related to sashiko, you’ll find many people say the same thing: doing sashiko makes them feel better because it’s relaxing, soothing and meditative. In fact, I always say it’s better than drugs.
Oh, and another thing, sashiko is not just for women! Historically men also did sashiko (though it was largely women’s work to be sure), and nowadays men around the world are also getting into it.
Sashiko changed my life. Why not give it a chance to change yours too?
This a translation of an article written by a journalist from the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper ( December 10th, 2017). It felt very strange to translate myself, but at least I could easily check the quotes with the source!
Alison Watts (54). Literary Translator and Resident of Tokai-mura
Alison Watts became fascinated by intricate sashiko patterns stitched on fabric and began making her own work two years ago. She makes about one piece a month, and has made items such as a denim jacket stitched with Yoshiwara tsunagi (large entwined chains), and a decorative cloth stitched in yellow and green gingko leaves. “Once I start I can’t stop” she says with a smile.
Alison also writes about sashiko on the internet. On her Watts Sashiko website she introduces pieces she’s made, facts about sashiko she’s learned from Japanese books, reviews of books, as well as sashiko pieces she has found being used in daily life along with photos.
Overseas fans of sashiko leave comments on her site. “I want to make the most of living in Japan and my language skills to provide the kind of information and detail about sashiko that is not available elsewhere,” she says.
Alison came to Japan from Australia thirty years as an English teacher. She taught staff at the Japan Nuclear Research Institute (in Tokai-mura) but now works as a freelance Japanese to English translator.
She became aware of the beauty of sashiko about twenty years ago, and although not very skilful at sewing or craftwork herself, bought some kits to try it. A turning point came, however, in 2015 when she became ill and couldn’t work as a translator for six months. While resting at home she began doing sashiko again and became completely absorbed by it, even starting to make her own pieces instead of using kits. “It was so soothing, and satisfying. I found that even a clumsy sewer like myself could still make things easily and enjoy it,” she recalls.
Alison turned the experience of being ill into an opportunity to change her life. She began pursuing her passion for sashiko when she recovered, by joining a sashiko group in the town, and starting up a website and blog. This month she opened an online shop on her website, which is selling sashiko kits sourced from a Nagoya-based craft company. The kits contain English instructions she translated herself.
“Sashiko is growing in popularity as it becomes more and more widely known overseas,” says Alison who senses a need for more literature in English, as there is very little available.
“I think it’s because sashiko is beautiful and easy to do. It’s a craft that anybody can enjoy. You don’t need to be an expert sewer,” she says.
Alison Watts. Born in South Australia, October 1963. A literary translator by trade, she has translated Durian Sukegawa’s novel An (English title: Sweet Bean Paste). She also produces poetry and music concerts, and in February produced a concert in Tokai-mura to mark the sixth anniversary of the 2011 disasters. The concert featured Durian Sukegawa’s performance of “A New Road to the Far North,” the record of a journey he undertook six years ago by bicycle, travelling in the footsteps of poet Matsuo Basho and measuring radiation along the way in disaster-ravaged areas.
I’ve been busy getting the online shop ready and haven’t had much time for writing recently (or doing sashiko!), but here’s a review of a book I wanted to tell you about. Also, if you haven’t already ordered, don’t forget to take a look at the three-kit subscription set I’m taking orders for at the moment in my shop..
Anyway, the latest addition to my collection of sashiko books is this neat little volume published by Nihon Bungeisha in October. Sashiko no Teshigoto (Sashiko Handiwork - Amazon Japan affiliate link) is a collection of beautifully photographed fukin and other small handiwork items — such as a tissue box cover, purse, bag and coasters — with instructions on how to make them.
As so often happens, when I bought this book and flicked through I immediately wanted to make everything, which of course I don’t have time for. But even if that’s not possible, I still get a lot of enjoyment from simply looking at photographs of beautiful sashiko stitching, and in that respect this book is very satisfying. It could easily be a coffee table book as the photography is lovely. The sashiko handiwork is displayed on mostly dark wood or light backgrounds, in tasteful minimalist settings with only an iron teapot or cane basket as an accent, and the overall effect is traditional yet modern, an accurate reflection of the sashiko items themselves: conventional but with an elegant, contemporary touch. For example, the white hanafukin with a cross flower stitch in charcoal grey, and one red flower in the corner. Or the chic tissue box cover with nagare hishizashi stitched in white on pale grey cotton. One reason I like this book is that it retains an emphasis on the traditional blue and white combination, while offering an updated version with subtle variations on that theme.
As with many sashiko books it follows a standard format of introducing a number of sample pieces (in this case twenty), then providing samplers of the stitches, basic instructions on how to do sashiko (with explanations about cloth, thread, equipment, drafting, stitching and making two easy pieces), and instructions for making up each individual item. The stitches are introduced in four categories; straight line patterns such as tobi asanoha (scattered hemp leaf), curved line patterns such as fundo tsunagi (linked weights), hitomezashi such as kaki no hana (persimmon flower), and Shonai sashiko such as ganzezashi (sea urchin stitch).
The last, ganzezashi, is one of my most favourite stitches. It could have something to do with the fact that sea urchin is my favourite sushi topping… but I also love the convergence of concentric lines that scream out to me sashiko! Stitched in white on blue cloth, this hanafukin is totally mesmerizing. Next to making it myself, a photograph is the next best thing.
Where has the time gone? While sashiko is never far from my mind, in this busy modern life it takes some planning to get me sitting in front of the computer long enough to actually write about it.
One tidbit of sashiko related news I wanted to tell you about was the announcement of the uniform for the Japanese soccer team in next year’s World Cup… featuring sashiko in the design. Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary since Japan first qualified to compete in the World Cup, so the concept is that sashiko will be the thread that connects up history. Isn’t that a nice idea!
Speaking of sashiko connecting people, you may remember I previously wrote about visiting a tiny backstreet bar in Tokyo where the owner showed me hanafukin made by her 94-year-old mother-in-law (turns out it was mother-in-law, not mother). Well, the other day when I paid another visit I had a wonderful surprise; apparently the mother-in-law was so thrilled to hear about my visit, she sent me a little gift, two hanafukin that she had made. I was moved to tears, as never in my life did I expect to receive a hanafukin from my own mother, let alone anyone else’s! Another lovely surprise was that she had left me some other hanafukin to look at, one of which happened to be exactly the same pattern as the piece I was carrying around with me to work on, and my topic for today kaki no hana (persimmon flower).
This stitch is one kind of hitomezashi (one stitch sashiko), which you may recall I wrote before was traditionally often used for practical purposes, such as clothing or reinforcing material, because of the strength that the dense stitching imparts. Hitomezashi is typical of Shonai sashiko, one of the three major styles of sashiko. The Shonai region is Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan, a mountainous region, cold in winter, that faces the Japan Sea. The story goes that ships carried out regional products such as safflower and rice, and made the return journey with their holds filled with cotton and old clothing from the warmer regions they visited where cotton grew. Women would get busy stitching the cloth to make jackets, footwear and other useful items.
Compared to moyozashi (pattern stitches), I find hitomezashi easy in the sense that you don’t have to think about the length of your stitches or making them fit them the pattern, because each stitch is simply one side of a square in the grid. The only tricky thing is that you have to get the order of stitching right, if you don’t the pattern won’t appear. Transferring the pattern is simple too; just draw or trace a grid onto the fabric and off you go. The recommended size of the squares on the grid is 5mm, but they can be up to a centimeter. Any longer and the stitching will stick up or catch. Here’s some examples of kaki no hana stitching I found in my collection of sashiko books that may inspire you!
(*Amazon Japan affiliate links included)
Above two images from Tohoku no Sashiko (Sashiko from the Tohoku region), Nihon Vogue-sha, 2016
Kawaii Hari Shigoto: Sashiko no Tezukurikomono (Charming Needlework: Small Handmade Sashiko Items), Boutique-sha, 2017
Sashiko no Teshigoto (Sashikoto Handiwork), Nihon Bungeisha, 2017
Last week my sashiko group participated in an annual exhibition held in the local Station Gallery. A train station might seem an unlikely location for a gallery, but actually it makes sense, as it’s the most central place in town and gets a lot of potential viewers passing by. Which happily was the case this time.
For the exhibition I decided to make another framed piece of sashiko to add to a series I started last year. This year I chose to stitch the pattern icho tsunagi, which means linked ginko leaves. As time was running short, I cheated by blowing up the pattern on a photocopier instead of enlarging the proportions on graph paper (shhh…don’t tell Sensei!). Then I cut and taped the paper pieces together to fit the cloth dimensions, taped chaco paper (transfer paper for tracing designs onto fabric) to the back of this pattern and traced over the design with a ballpoint pen to imprint it on the fabric. The autumn ginko leaves are gorgeous at this time of year and I wanted to reflect that by using thread in autumn colours of green and yellow, but unfortunately the result wasn’t as vivid as I hoped, so I ended up putting in one orange leaf for some contrast variation. Anyway, I was pleased with the result, and best of all Sensei praised my corner stitches. Phew! I didn’t want to let the side down…
My fellow sashikoists all contributed their work from the past year and it was so exciting to see the inventive and wonderful pieces they’ve done all gathered in the one place. A real Aladdin”s cave! I had intended to describe these for you here, but realized I couldn’t possibly do them justice, so I’ll keep that for some later posts.
The most thrilling exhibits, however, were the two wall hangings that were on display for the first time. Take a look at the amazing work below!
These were the result of a joint project we’ve been working on all year, stitching squares fifteen by fifteen centimetres in length with whatever patterns we liked. When the time was up we gathered up all the squares and put them together to see what size hanging was possible. It turned out we had enough for two. Sensei gave no stipulations whatsoever as to what patterns we should stitch, but the overall balance seemed to be just right, and a lovely sampler of all the different styles of stitches; the densely stitched hitomezashi (single stitch), kyokusen moyozashi (curved line patterns), chokusen moyozashi (straight line patterns) and jiyuzashi (free stitching). I could look at these all day in wonder and never tire. What a gorgeous illustration of the beauty of sashiko!
When I started doing sashiko it wasn’t long before I learned the word fukin. All the books and kits seemed to feature fukin, which was obviously a square cloth approximately thirty something centimetres in size, stitched with a variety of patterns. For a long time I was so absorbed in grappling with the stitching and patterns it didn’t occur to me to wonder exactly what fukin were. But then it struck me: What the heck are they? I didn’t see them available ready-made in shops, or having any specific function in contemporary Japanese daily life.
Now I can tell you what I’ve learned about fukin since then. Although there are regional variations in patterns and function, fukin had many uses in the days before towels became widespread, both practical and decorative. For example, they were used as placemats for the individual tray tables that people ate from in the days before sitting around a table to eat became the custom from around the 1920s onwards. They were also used to cover teacups, cooking implements, or as a simple decorative mat.
Hanafukin (literally ‘flower cloth’), as the fukin stitched on bleached cotton are called, were part of women’s lives in many ways. Daughters in samurai families learned to sew them to acquire such desirable mental attributes as perseverance and patience, whereas girls in farming families, learned to make them out of necessity, and at night, when all the other chores were done, women would sit around and do the sewing together. If a woman became widowed, other people might commission her to make hanafukin as a way of discreetly giving financial support.
Mothers sewed hanafukin for their daughters to take when they went as a bride to live in another family. I suspect this is how the word hanafukin originated, since the word for bride is hana yome. From the time her daughter was born, a mother would begin to make hanafukin stitched with various patterns representing good wishes for health, happiness, and different auspicious occasions and seasonal events. Stitching that was decorative in purpose was known as moyozashi (pattern sashiko), whereas stitching that was designed for practical purposes was known as jizashi (‘ground’ sashiko). Jizashi stitching, which is as resilient as it is beautiful, was used for mending clothes, reinforcing cloth to make it warmer, or making covers or pockets for tools. A new bride would use the hanafukin her mother had given her as a model for each sewing task she needed to perform. In this way hanafukin were a practical sign of a mother’s love for her daughter.
A few hours after writing the above, I found myself in a tiny backstreet bar in Tokyo drinking shochu spirits in hot tea and, as often happens with me, not surprisingly, sashiko came up in the conversation.
When I mentioned hanafukin, the bar owner immediately brought out two to show me that she had received from her own mother. I was thrilled to see these well-used and loved hanafukin, which made me feel like going straight home and getting started on stitching for my own daughter!
I am indebted to Hiroko Kondo’s book Akita ni tsutawaru oiwai no hari shigoto: Yomeiri dogu no hanafukin (Traditional congratulatory needlework in Akita: Hanafukin, a bride’s trousseau), Kurashi no techosha, 2013 - Amazon Japan affiliate link here. It is a wonderful reference and the patterns in this book are stunning, I will introduce it in more detail at a later date.
As I mentioned in my last post, my teacher, Nakazaki Sensei, studied under Eiko Yoshida (1922-2002) who played a major part in reviving traditional sashiko and creating the sashiko boom in modern Japan. Nowadays Eiko Sensei’s students and followers are led by Kumiko Yoshida. Kumiko Sensei and her students cooperated with the publication of a book released by Shufu to Seikatsu Sha in June of this year, Sashiko no fukin: dento moyo to hokuo moyo (Sashiko Fukin: Traditional Patterns and Northern European Patterns - Amazon Japan affiliate link) Nakazaki Sensei stitched three of the fukin that appear in this book.
As is obvious from the title the book features fukin stitched on cloth squares of 33cm and 34cm. Sashiko books commonly feature fukin, and I have to admit for a long time I wondered what on earth they were. That’s a topic I’d like to explore in more detail in another post soon, but for now let’s say that fukin are basically square cloths that serve decorative and practical purposes. This book shows fifteen fukin stitched with traditional sashiko patterns and fifteen stitched with Northern European motifs.
What sets my heart beating when I leaf through the pages is the glorious use of colour; sky blue and lemon yellow on white, pink on olive, grey on red, yellow on green, etcetera etcetera, plus the obligatory white on blue. Though I do love the traditional blue and white, I find the use of colour in contemporary sashiko really exciting. It allows so much potential for artistic expression, and thinking about possible colour combinations of pieces is one of the most enjoyable aspects of sashiko for me.
The other thing I find striking about this book is how well these Northern European motifs adapt to sashiko, whether in freestyle form, such as the cloths featuring food and vegetable designs, or as repeated patterns like the trees or butterflies. It’s another marvellous illustration of the adaptability and infinite potential of sashiko.
The contents of the book include a one-page photograph of each fukin, basic instructions for sashiko, instructions for reproducing and stitching the traditional patterns, and diagrams for reproducing the Northern European motifs. Of the traditional patterns, the hanazashi (flower) particularly caught my eye with its colourful combination of orange, yellow, pink and red threads that very aptly suggest a bright patch of flowers, and makes a nice contrast with the Northern European flower motif of three different wildflowers. Once you start thinking of ordinary everyday things around you in terms of patterns and colours, there’s no end of inspiration for sashiko!
I belong to a group of ten that meets once a month. Our teacher is Ms Chiyoko Nakazaki, who we call Nakazaki Sensei, as you do in Japanese. I know that in some classes the teacher provides the pattern, cloth and thread all cut up and ready to stitch, so that everybody does exactly the same thing, but Nakazaki Sensei’s approach is different. She encourages us all to find our own style and express our individuality through sashiko. However, she always stresses that in order to do this you must know the basics.
Each month she gives us one or two different sashiko patterns to study. During the lesson we copy these onto graph paper, then mark up the fabric and begin stitching if time allows. We are free to choose how we want to apply the pattern. Sometimes Sensei gives us a pattern for a bag, tissue box cover or something similar to follow and make up ourselves, or we can choose to do a simple fukin cloth, or use something ready-made. Sewing is my weak point, therefore whenever possible I like to find ready-made items so I can spend more time stitching and less time fussing around with a sewing machine.
According to Sensei, sashiko is all about mathematics, and if you can get the pattern right on paper first, you can apply it to anything. I’ve found that drawing patterns onto graph paper over and over really gives insight into how they are formed, which makes it easier to create variations, or adjust the proportions.
While working on drawing up patterns during the lesson we show each other the pieces we’ve made up since the previous month, look at examples of Sensei’s own work that she brings in for us to see, and exchange information about sashiko topics in general. At the end of the two-hour lesson, we finish up with a cup of tea and something sweet (always a delicious treat) and chat for a while. Once a year our group exhibits in a local art exhibition, and last year we also held a solo group exhibition for the first time.
Sensei herself studied under the now deceased Eiko Yoshida, a major influence in modern sashiko and author of many books whom I’ll write about in another post. Eiko Sensei’s students and followers are now led by her inheritor, Kumiko Yoshida, and in my next post I’ll introduce a recently published book featuring their work.
Thank you for all your kind comments so far. I enjoy reading them!
Hello, welcome to my blog.
Let’s get this introductory stuff out of the way so we can get down to talking about the fun stuff as soon as possible!
I was born in Australia and now reside long-term in Japan, working as a Japanese to English translator. And I'm a sashiko fanatic! I do sashiko because I love the patterns and learning about their history, thinking about colour combinations for fabric and thread, drawing up designs on graph paper and stitching them on the cloth. It’s like meditation, and better than resorting to any chemical option in my opinion. Nothing makes me more relaxed than when I’m stitching, or feel so satisfied as when I end up with a finished piece I can show off to my family and friends. If you’re reading this I’m sure you understand what I mean! I can’t sew and am really not very handy with doing craft projects generally, but I love sashiko, and I figure that if I can do it, anybody can.
Several decades ago when I first came to Japan, it wasn’t very visible. I saw kits and was curious about this craft, but found very few books about it in Japanese let alone English. It’s a different story now, of course; sashiko is popular around the world (though many Japanese people can’t quite believe that!), the word is even recognized in English and there is a lot more literature available than there used to be. In fact, I think one of the best sashiko resource books available in any language is written in English not Japanese! The book I’m referring to Susan Briscoe’s The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook. But comparatively speaking, literature on sashiko still occupies only a small area of bookshelf space in the bookshops here, and Western-style stitching is more popular than sashiko. So it’s still not mainstream.
I did kit pieces over the years to learn the stitches, but it was only after a life-changing illness a few years ago that I became seriously hooked and started drawing up designs myself. Nowadays I belong to a group and learn from a teacher. I’m still no expert at stitching, but I’m an addict, and my life is richer because of sashiko. My language skills give me access to all kinds of experiences in the sashiko world in Japan; meeting people, seeing exhibitions, and learning from books. This is the kind of thing that I’d like to share with you here in this blog: information about the contemporary sashiko scene in Japan that would be difficult to know about otherwise because of the language barrier.
I hope you’ll join me on my adventures!
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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