Imagine my delight when the postman delivered me a package recently, and I opened it up to find this gorgeous drawstring bag inside, a gift from an acquaintance who thought I could appreciate it. And she was right! I oohed and aahed with admiration as I examined it every from angle, resisting the temptation to unpick the beautiful red lining and peek at the underside.
This type of bag, called a kinchaku in Japanese, was—and still is--used to carry around valuables or personal effects. Although an accessory for Japanese-style clothing, and probably not as common as it once used to be now that Western dress is the norm, it is nevertheless, far from having fallen out of use. I often see the elderly ladies in my neighborhood out for a daily walk clutching their kinchaku. And schoolchildren keep stationery, or implements for school lunches in these bags, though they are far more likely to be decorated with cute characters than sashiko. At summer festivals kinchaku are a common accessory for traditional festival wear, in fact I have a fancy red one to go with my yukata (cotton summer kimono).
Naturally cloth kinchaku are ideal for sashiko, and the choice of pattern can indicate anything from seasonal themes to protection from evil spirits or wishes for a long life, or simply a something that catches the maker’s fancy!
I’m not sure what dictated the maker’s choice of patterns for my new kinchaku, but it is stitched with a selection of five hitomezashi patterns, typical of the Shonai region in Yamagata prefecture. These are: two types of jujizashi (cross stitch), yamagata (mountain form), sanju kakinohanazashi (triple persimmon flower stitch) and kuchizashi (mouth stitch). I love the way the blocks merge without any border between them. And I am awed by the quality of stitching, which is just incredible! Every stitch is so perfectly aligned and neat you would almost think it was done by machine, but of course that is impossible. Owning this bag will certainly be an inspiration to me to up my game. I am almost embarrassed to post the picture of the one and only kinchaku that I’ve ever made. I find it very useful for holding all the thread, needles and tools together for whatever sashiko project I have on the go, but it’s such a handy item I often divert it for other purposes as well, so making more is on my list of items to do.
In the meantime I have my lovely new kinchaku, but I don’t want to spoil it with knockabout use so I’m still deciding what to use it for. One thing I know; I will walk a little straighter when I carry this beautiful bag on me.
When I visited the Hida Sashiko exhibition last year I purchased a small book called Hida Sashiko no Techo (The Hida Sashiko Notebook, by Reiko Futatuya, first released in 1978, reprinted 2013, published by Hida Sashiko), as I always do whenever I come across a book about sashiko that’s not in my collection. Every book has its own appeal, and I never tire of looking through my collection and taking in the variety of sashiko styles and applications.
Anyway, by today’s standards this book is very simple; thirty three pages in mostly black and white, and basically just a reference for patterns, but in 1978 when it was first published I doubt there were many books about sashiko available, so I am sure it would have been a valuable resource. (Still is, actually. I found it referred to less than a year ago on this blog, which is written in Japanese, but the photographs are lovely.)
As with most such books there is a general description of sashiko’s roots in reusing and reinforcing cloth, but I liked the concrete examples given; for example stitching the tabi (socks) worn by the boatmen transporting lumber down the river to make the sole non-slip in the water; or stitching a chrysanthemum motif in the in the corner of a furoshiki (wrapping cloth) to prevent knots coming undone.
There’s a brief discussion of cloth (hemp, cotton and silk), thread and needles, and tools with the general advice of choosing the thread and needles to suit your purpose.
All in all there are twenty-eight designs introduced, which the author says are a sample of those most commonly used in Hida, and are a mixture of hitomezashi (one stitch), and moyozashi (pattern sashiko). Each design has a simple explanation of the name, composition and roots, and shows the dimensions on graph paper so that the patterns can be reproduced and adapted.
Most of the patterns were familiar, as I had seen them before in various forms in other sashiko books, but I did find a couple that were completely new to me.
One was Roku Yata goshi (Roku Yata lattice), so-called because it was used on the costume of a popular kabuki actor in the early 19th century when he played the role of a samurai called Roku Yata, and the pattern became hugely fashionable.
Another was Yoshiwara tsunagi, (linked Yoshiwara) a series of linked octagons, which I have seen printed on towels and clothing but never as sashiko. According to this book it is often used for actors and dancers stage costumes. Further research led me to discover that it was used on the curtains of teahouses in the red-light Yoshiwara district in Edo, hence the name Yoshiwara.
For some reason this design struck a chord in me; I love the suggestion of strength and complexity, in a compact simple line – and felt compelled to make something with it, so I stitched it onto the back of my jeans jacket. When Reiko Futatuya wrote that she hoped these patterns would be used for new fabrics and purposes, I don’t expect she imagined this!
When winter snows are deep and customers are few, then is the time for artisans to close up shop and take their wares on the road. Of course this may not be as necessary nowadays with online shopping, but one such travelling exhibition that regularly comes to the Yokose Gallery near me in winter, is Hida Sashiko from Takayama in Gifu prefecture.
Gifu prefecture is in central Japan, far from the northern Tohoku region where the so-called three main types of sashiko (Shonai, Tsugaru Kogin and Nanbu Hishizashi) are said to have originated. Whether sashiko started in one particular region and spread from there, or developed independently all over the country is not clear, but it is true that sashiko is found all over Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido.
Hida is both the name of a city and a region in Gifu, where sashiko is commonplace, so Hida sashiko could refer to sashiko of the region, but this exhibition was from the Hida Sashiko company based in Takayama city, Gifu. The family-owned company was originally established in 1975, however various disputes led to two members of the family setting up their own companies. Keiko Futatsuya established Sashi.Co which focuses on designing, clothing and sashiko supplies, while her son Atsushi Futatsuya runs Upcycle Stitches which offers sashiko supplies and workshops, and is generally spreading the word about sashiko in English. It’s fascinating to see the way this dynamic pair are adding new dimensions to the sashiko world, especially as the appeal of sashiko grows internationally.
Anyway, perhaps it was because of the cold wintry weather when I went to see the Hida Exhibition, that I only had eyes for flowers and cherry blossoms. To be sure there were many bags, cloths, and coats with exquisitely stitched hitomezashi (one stitch sashiko) and moyozashi (pattern sashiko) designs, but seeing the cherry blossoms incorporated into wall hangings made me feel as joyful as any flower-viewing party, and after feasting my eyes I went home smiling.
With thoughts of spring at the end of a long winter, I picked out Sashiko no Zakka (Sashiko Everyday Items, by Hideko Onazaki, (Tatsumi Publishing 2010 - Amazon Japan affiliate link) from my collection, looking for inspiration to decorate my daughter’s new denim skirt. The reason this particular book sprang to mind was because I knew it was arranged around seasonal themes. Each one of the four chapters is devoted to a different season, and features a wide variety of practical everyday items to make, in particularly cheerful, fun and colourful designs.
Opening to the spring page, I saw an adorable combination design of cherry blossom and basket weave in white stitching on blue fabric that set my heart singing. The mini work jackets featuring this design on the next page are almost too cute to be true, and I almost wished I still had babies I could make one for. The jackets stitched in orange and yellow hemp leaf, red cherry blossom and basket weave, blue linked weights, and white net-enclosed flower designs, were all equally sweet. Other items in the spring section were bags, card cases and phone cases, featuring flower and butterfly patterns.
The summer chapter has a tablecloth, hanging curtain, cushion covers and more bags. (In fact the variety of bags in this book is a feature. I counted four different types.) In addition to the traditional Bishamon sashiko patterns, the items in this chapter feature freestyle patterns in fitting with the summer theme, of fish, waves, umbrellas and sea creatures.
The autumn chapter has patterns for bags, pouches, pen and card cases in more subdued autumn tones. A densely stitched circle of hitomezashi hemp leaf pattern combined with a free style rabbit that decorates a handy all-purpose pouch particularly caught my eye. It’s a lovely image of a rabbit staring at a large autumn moon, and something I’d like to make in future.
Ironically, I found the inspiration for my daughter’s skirt in the winter chapter, on a stole stitched with roses. Fun sashiko Christmas cards and a snowflake patterned stole are also in this chapter.
I like the fact that the instructions for making each item are on the following page, so one is not forever flipping between the back and front of the book to find the right page. The sashiko pattern templates, however, are all together at the back. Not to scale, obviously, as that would not be practical in a book this size, but there are also no grids or dimensions given that would make them easy to reproduce on graph paper. I enlarged the rose design on a photocopier and used transfer paper to print it on the skirt. In the course of stitching the design rubbed off so I kept retracing with my Karisma Fabric pen.
As with most sashiko books there are pages devoted to very basic instruction on transferring patterns and stitching. You would also need prior sewing knowledge and experience to actually make the items. It’s not a book for beginners to learn sashiko from, but if like me you are simply looking for some quick inspiration, it’s a wonderful resource!
If you want to know more about the power of sashiko, here’s a story for you. It’s about a place called Otsuchi, and sashiko changing the lives of people who had literally lost everything.
Otsuchi (pop. approx. 12,000) is a town on the coast of Iwate prefecture, which was devastated by the tsunami in 2011. One young volunteer from Tokyo who went there, Kazuya Yoshino, saw people living in evacuation centres, having lost their livelihoods, and realized that there was a need for new forms of income, but it had to be something people could do in the crowded confines of evacuation centres.
He came up with the idea of sashiko and with four other volunteers, founded a group to make sashiko as an income-earning venture. The Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project was born on May 4, 2011, and on June 5 the first sashiko meeting was held at the Otsuchi Central Community Hall. The volunteers scouted materials for the sashiko stitchers, arranged teaching sessions, and found outlets to sell the finished items.
More and more people of all ages joined the project, from teenagers to octogenarians, and even some men too. By August 2011 the number of members had grown to 60 and the group had reached its limits as a voluntary organization, at which point an NPO called Terra Renaissance officially took over its management. Terra Renaissance aims to transform it into a self-sustaining business within ten years, by developing a line-up of products, honing skills, and increasing sales outlets.
Mother and son, Keiko and Atsushi Futatsuya, are also key figures in supporting the Otsuchi Sashiko project, assisting with the supply of materials, expertise and guidance. The two are from a sashiko family business in Takayama, Gifu prefecture (central Japan), which is home to another type of regional sashiko known as Hida sashiko. Atsushi is the third generation in a sashiko family and knows only too well how difficult it is to run a sustainable sashiko business. He heard about the Otsuchi project and first made contact in June 2011, went there in November to see for himself, then returned in February 2012 for two months to assist with training and management. Atsushi and Keiko also conceived the Otsuchi Sashiko Hundred Bag Project to help develop product quality, skill and business sustainability.
I’m sure there must be many other people whose efforts and contributions have kept this project going. What I’m telling you here is only a small part that I’ve gleaned from blogs and websites.
The project went from strength to strength and currently has approximately thirty stitchers, ranging in age from 20 to 80. One example of its success in developing consistent high quality products is its relationship with Muji, the renowned quality home goods retailer. Muji has been selling selected products from the project since 2013.
I’m sure that we will hear more about the successes of Otsuchi Sashiko as time goes by. I also have a feeling that we are witnessing history in the making, the birth of a new regional sashiko: Otsuchi Sashiko.
Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project online store. Though the site is in Japanese, you can still see the lineup of beautiful items.
Follow the project here on Instagram .
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
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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