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.
Following a tip I’d received about a sashiko shop, I recently went insearch of it in the backstreets of Ueno one rainy afternoon. As I stood outside staring through the window, a straight-backed elderly lady came to the door. “May I come in and look,” I asked. “Well I’m usually closed on Monday but please do,” she graciously replied.
It was only when I stepped through the door that I realised this wasn’t a shop at all, it was a workshop. Every available surface surrounding the table in the centre was covered with baskets, drawers and boxes from which scraps of cloth of every size and colour spilled out.
“I love fabric,” said Hisaoka-san, for that was her name. In the course of our conversation it became clear she wasn’t just saying this. She meant it from the heart and it shaped the way she lived. With no introductions, explanation, and barely any prompting on my part, she somehow understood I was there to hear about sashiko and immediately launched into telling me all about her ideas and methods.
She pointed out a beautiful noren (curtain), made from blue and white panels of fabric taken from discarded shop samples of yukata (cotton summer kimono), and likened what she did with cloth to Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s use of broken plates. An irregular shaped sashiko-stitched mat under my teacup had been made from leftover scraps of a suit she had made.
Hisaoka-sensei was born and raised in Tokyo. She never learned to sew, sashiko was just something that she had always done since she was a child, to save and reuse cloth. She used the phrase onkochishin many times to describe her philosophy. It means looking to the past and using old things to make something new or inform the future. People like old things, she told me, because they can get a sense of time from them, and time is something you cannot buy. The shop where she holds her sashiko classes is old. Fifteen years ago when her previous premise was knocked down to build condominiums she searched hard for another old building to house the classes she has been teaching for thirty years.
In her youth, however, she had done another kind of work, I’m not sure what exactly, but it was related to making designs. That explains to a certain degree perhaps, her unique method of making sashiko designs. She showed me a bolt of cloth she was in the process of hand printing with an elongated nowaki (autumn grass) pattern for her students to stitch. She uses shoji (paper screen door) paper to first draw the design on before transferring it to the cloth. The hand drawn nowaki were evenly spaced overall in the grid, but all slightly different and the overall effect was totally charming. She also hand dyes the thread, as part of her credo of doing everything herself from start to finish.
I was astonished when she took me to a corner of the room and started pulling out reams and reams of designs stuffed into a cardboard box. I’ve never seen shoji paper used in this way before but have to say how impressed I am with its strength, flexibility, and durability. I had also never imagined that shoji paper could be used for dressmaking, but Hisaoka-sensei showed me the sheets on which she had drawn the sashiko patterns for a suit she had been commissioned to design and stitch. Apparently it is now being sewn up at a department store.
Like most sashiko teachers I’ve met, Hisaoka-sensei said that there are no rules in sashiko. What that means in my experience, however, is there are rules, related to the basic technique of how you hold the needle and method of stitching, and it’s only once you have control over that aspect that you are free. In Hisaoka-sensei’s case, it’s the order of stitching she is particular about. “You need to stitch the pattern in the right order,” she told me. Asanoha (hemp leaf) is one to be particularly careful about. She herself had learned what that right order was from experience. By stitching and unpicking, stitching and unpicking over and over again, she had discovered it. You cannot succeed unless you fail, she said.
What this all tells me is that there is an aesthetic that defines sashiko. No matter how easy, free-handed or versatile it is, it is not simply decorative running stitch, and there is a discernable essence that marks a piece of stitching as authentically sashiko. I call it perfect imperfection.
Another nugget of wisdom she imparted is that many people can talk about a particular skill, but few can really do it well. To be able to do something well you need to practice it for ten years. By that standard I still have another five years to go with sashiko!
This was a very special encounter. I had arrived unannounced, yet been greeted with gracious hospitality and gifted the gleanings of wisdom earned over a lifetime of experience. We parted with a promise that I would visit again one day—this time with prior notice—to view the store of finished sashiko pieces in the upstairs room. I can’t wait!
Sashiko and firefighting would seem to be an unlikely combination, but sashiko has in fact been important to firefighters for centuries. The connection goes back to when the first firefighting squads were formed in 17th century Edo, as Tokyo was called back then.
Once Edo became the administrative seat of government under the shogunate it grew from a village into one of the largest cities in the world at the time, full of highly flammable wooden buildings. Widespread destruction caused by frequent fires eventually led to the systematic introduction of firefighting squads.
Firefighters required suitably fireproof clothing, and while leather was a suitable material it was not available to all, thus sashiko-reinforced coats and headgear came to be used. Sashiko enabled the fabric to absorb and hold large amounts of water that aided in fireproofing firefighting gear that continued to be used until the early 1950s.
In January I saw some marvelous examples of firefighters' outfits at a sashiko exhibition in the Kita-Kamakura Kominka Musuem, all of which come from the museum’s own collection.
This was my favourite. A coat from the Meiji era (1868-1912) with a map of the globe as a design. How interesting to see the concept of the earth from this time when Japan was just opening up to the world after a long period of seclusion.
The character in the flag says san, meaning three, which is possibly the number of this group. Firefighting groups were numbered and had their own uniforms. I suspect this flag is what was known as the matoi. The person holding the matoi was supposed to rush to the area try to find a high place to wave the flag so as to attract attention for people in the area to come and assist.
This coat dates to sometime between the Edo (1603-1867) to Meiji (1868-1912) era, and has a definite smoke-blackened look!
Headgear used sometime in the Edo (1603-1867) to Meiji (1868-1912) era.
Here’s another coat dating from the Edo to Meiji period. The swirling black smoke appears to be part of the design.
These are some more examples of headgear.
This hanten dates from sometime between the Taisho (1912-26) and Showa (1926-89) eras. The characters on the back say Fujieda, which I presume is the name of the city. The frontal characters translate as Fire Squad Member Shingawa-cho (probably a district of Fujieda).
Greetings for 2019 fellow sashikoists! This is just a short post to say hello before January gets away from me.
In the Chinese zodiac calendar it is the Year of the Boar, and I am seeing reminders of this everywhere in daily life, on calendars, New Year cards, at the local shrines and temples. People are believed to take on the character of the animal of their birth year, which is supposed to be a special one when it comes around. Boars are said to be sincere, hardworking, have a healthy ego, and make confident and reliable leaders. With two boars in my immediate family, I can say there is some truth in that!
In Hideko Onazaki’s book Sashiko no Zakka (Sashiko Everyday Items, Tatsumi Publishing 2010), I found instructions for making coasters stitched with the characters for all twelve zodiac animals. (See more on this book here in one of my earlier posts, Seasonal Inspiration)
Below is the character for boar. For those of you already familiar with sashiko techniques, who are able to decipher diagrams and know how to sew up the pieces, why not try making a coaster?
An ideal size when completed is 13 cm by 13 cm. Enlarge the design, transfer to the cloth and stitch the sashiko through one layer. Then apply adhesive backing, fold over right side in and sew up the borders (leaving a gap to turn right side out again). Sew up the gap and you’re done. Good luck! I’d be thrilled to hear from anyone who tries it.
Wishing you all the best in your adventures with sashiko this year.
Autumn is now well and truly here, and in Japan this season is traditionally a time for cultural activities, such as
reading and of course sashiko! If you’re in Japan over the next few months, here are a few exhibition dates for the diary.
*This post has been updated on 13 November to include the following new event.
Yuza and Shonai Sashiko
Part I Oct 16 2018 ~ Feb 24 2019
Part II Mar 1 2019 ~ Jun 30 2019
9:30-4:30 (closed Monday)
Tel. 0234-75-3145 (Aoyama House)
Tel. 0234-72-5892 (Inquiries, Yuza Board of Education)
Aotsuka 155, Hiko, Yuza-machi, Akumi-gun, 999-8438, Yamagata
An exhibition featuring historical garments from Yuza made with sashiko in the Shonai region. Shonai sashiko stands alongside koginzashi and Nanbu hishizashi as one of three major styles of sashiko from Northern Japan.
Genken Arts Club & Friends Exhibition
Sun. Nov. 11 ~ Sat. Nov. 17, 2018
(Finishes 15:00 on the 17th)
Tokai Station Gallery, 2F Tokai Station (on the Joban line)
My sashiko group is participating in this. You can see the joint
snowflake pattern wall hangings we’ve been working this year as well as individual pieces.
Thurs. Nov. 1 2018 ~ Sun. Jan. 6 2019
(closed Dec. 31 and Jan. 1) Time: 10:00~16:30
Kitakamakura Kominka Museum
Tel. 0467 25 5641
This exhibition affords a wonderful opportunity to see the work of
artists and groups from Tohoku in different styles and regions, all
in the one place. It features the work of Kiyoko Endo (from Yonezawa, Yamagata prefecture), the Nanbu Hishizashi Research Group
(Aomori prefecture), Hirata Sashiko Group (Shonai sashiko from
Sakata city in Yamagata prefecture) and Hirosaki Kogin Kenkyujo
(Hirosaki, Aomori prefecture).
Sashiko and Bandori Exhibition
Aug. 8 ~ Nov. 18
Matusyama Bunka Denshokan,
Sakata city, Yamagata prefecture
This exhibition features the bandori (a back pad used for carrying things) and other everyday items of sashiko used by fishermen and farmers in the Tohoku region. Work by modern day Shonai sashikoists, Yuichi Onodera and Emi Sato is also on display.
Currently open until March 31 2019 (closed Mondays)
2-3-24 Asakusa, Taito-ku Tokyo
Tel. 03 5806 1181
An exhibition of boro from the collection of Chuzaburo Tanaka. In these humble items of clothing clothing and bedding you can see the origins of sashiko, and how it was used to stitch pieces of cloth together to preserve and reuse.
Nanbu Hishizashi Exhibition
From Jan 29 to Mar 31 2019 (closed Mondays)
2-3-24 Asakusa, Taito-ku Tokyo
Tel. 03 5806 1181
This is a companion exhibition to the Tsugaru Koginzashi I saw here earlier this year, which was also from the collection of Chuzaburo Tanaka. Nanbu hishizashi, like Tsugaru koginzashi, originated in Aomori prefecture, but whereas Tsugaru koginzashi is blue and white, Nanbu hishizashi is colourful.
It seems I am not the first translator to become obsessed with sashiko! The other day I had the great pleasure of viewing an exhibition of work by Hiroko Ogawa and her students from the Mito NHK Bunka Center Class. The eighty-year old Ogawa-sensei has combined her long career as a sashiko artist and teacher with one as a dialogue translator for dubbed films. In fact she has worked on a number of very famous ones, such as “A Streetcar named Desire,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Pretty Woman” and “Silence of the Lambs” to name just a few.
Ogawa-sensei was born in Kisofukushima-machi, a small town in mountainous Nagano prefecture. She learned sashiko as a child from her grandmother, and many other patterns and techniques from her mother who did Japanese embroidery. However, it was while living in Los Angeles from 1979 to 1989 working as a translator that she began to exhibit her own work and teach sashiko. She has since participated in numerous exhibitions both in the US and Japan, and won an award in the US. After returning to Japan she moved to Nasu in Tochigi prefecture, where she still lives today while exhibiting and teaching classes in Mito and Utsunomiya.
Ogawa-sensei’s wall-hanging, below, dominated the exhibition. It is composed of eighty different panels of family crests (kamon), and she made the entire piece herself, stitching all the panels and sewing it together. The reverse side is also beautifully finished.
My friend, Katsuko Funada, a student of Ogawa-sensei, made this piece called Mangekyo (kaleidoscope), which is a hall mat, though much too beautiful to step on of course! The overall kikko (tortoiseshell, or hexagon) design is composed of 19 small hexagons stitched with a kikko variation and sewn together quilting style.
Another kikko hanging that caught my eye was this Arare kikko to asa no ha (hailstone tortoiseshell and hemp) wall-hanging below, stitched by Toshiko Kato. The densely stitched hemp leaf alternating with the more open spaces of the arare kikko is an eye-arresting combination. One feature of Ogawa-sensei’s work (and even though they are stitched by her students, all the designs in this exhibition are hers) that I noticed is the detail with which they are finished. For example the ends of the rods used to hang the pieces, are coated with sheets of paper used for calligraphy, with poems or songs written on them.
Below is a kiku (chyrsanthemum) design wall-hanging stitched by Kazue Yoshida.
And finally, geta (clogs) stitched by Mariko Kannai.
There were many other exquisite pieces of work, far too many for me to show you here. This exhibition has already finished, but do keep an eye out for the work of Hiroko Ogawa. You won’t find her on a web page, but she does have exhibitions regularly in Tokyo and other parts of Japan.
After my recent visit to the Kogin sashiko exhibition in Asakusa, I decided to take a closer look at books about koginsashi. To tell the truth I haven’t paid them close attention before now as I don’t do koginsashi, myself, but my interest was piqued.
I started wondering why the type of sashiko that I do and kogin are so radically different. So I turned to my sashiko bible (Sashiko no Kenkyu, Kikue Tokunaga), where I learned that kogin techniques developed as a method of using thick thread to close up the gaps in coarsely woven hemp, the only type of fabric available, whereas sashiko developed from the need to stitch rags together and make layers from them, then stitch over to hold them in place. Hence the kinds of patterns that evolved as a result of these two differences are markedly distinct. Koginsashi patterns are always composed of straight lines because the stitching follows the weave of the fabric, and though there are many patterns they are all uniform. The sashiko patterns that evolved in the Yamagata and Akita area, however, did not have such constraints, patterns have curved lines, and there tended to be more variations and original designs.
Here are some of the other books I looked at (with Amazon Japan affiliate links provided):
Tsugaru koginsashi: Giho to zuanshu (Tsugaru Koginzashi; Techniques and Patterns), supervised by the Hirosaki Kogin Research Institute, published by Seibundo Seikosha, 2013
This is a comprehensive book, as you would expect from one supervised by the Hirosaki Kogin Research Institute. It has extensive information on the history, differences between different types of kogin, and clear instruction on the basic method and patterns for reference, including large photo examples. The best part about this book is the beautiful full-page photographs that show close ups of designs and patterns or sections of kimono and everyday work wear. While it’s not the type of book one would go to for craft projects, I feel sure that anyone with a basic knowledge of kogin would get much out of studying the beautiful photographs.
Koginsashi no komonotachi (Small koginsashi items), Hisako Kamata,
Kawade Shobo, 2010
The author Hisako Kamata was born in Aomori prefecture, the home of Tsugaru kogin, which is traditionally blue and white, but in this book she introduces a fresh perspective through the use of colour. She shows how to make useful items for daily life such as a cushion, pencil case, coasters, and purses.
I was very taken with a cushion in different shades of green. You can see some of the examples by using the “Look Inside” function on the Amazon site. The one review on the Amazon site gives the book high praise and says that basic techniques are explained in detail through photographs that make it suitable for beginners or anyone who is not expert at sewing.
Koginsashi no hon (The Koginsashi Book), Bunka 2009
This book came about as a the result of a collaboration by Yoko Tsukamatsu, who has a tote bag business and Rika Fukuda, a sweets researcher with an interest in folk arts. Together they established the Nunogeiten Project (Fabric art exhibition), and hold exhibitions of fabric items based mainly around koginsashi. Like many books this one introduces basic techniques and several patterns, but what really sets it apart is the stylishness. The bags and purses and buttons that it shows how to make are commonly found in other books, but the ideas for ways to incorporate kogin sashi into clothing, are wonderfully fresh and stylish. I would love a koginsashi patch on the bottom of my pants as shown in here! The book gets rave reviews on Amazon, and I can see why.
Finally, one interesting site that I happened across is kogin.net., which has various nuggets of information about courses, books, events, etc. It’s fascinating to see how koginsashi design has been incorporated into modern life in different ways, and on this beautifully laid-out site, even if you cannot read the Japanese the visuals are a feast for the eyes.
Recently I saw an wonderful exhibition of Tsugaru koginzashi kimono from Aomori prefecture at the Amuse Musuem in Asakusa, Tokyo. This museum is where textiles from the collection of Chuzaburo Tanaka (1933-2013) are housed.
Tanaka was a folklorist researcher from Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost prefecture of Japan where the distinctive form of kogin sashiko was born. For close on fifty years he researched the life and customs of ordinary people, visiting villages and remote areas to research and talk to elders, and in the course of this he amassed a huge collection of items that told about life in the past. The collection contains 786 items of sashiko clothing that are designated as Important Tangible Folk Cultural Properties by the Japanese government. Thirty-three of these are currently on display in this exhibition of Tsugaru koginzashi.
The climate of Aomori is extremely cold, too cold for growing cotton, which is why the common people grew hemp to weave into fabric for making clothing. Everything in fact, from underwear to babies’ nappies and futons, had to be made from hemp. The Tsugaru and Nanbu clans that ruled Aomori forbade common people from using silk or cotton—expensive items that had to be shipped in from other regions—and what’s more forbade them from using more than one layer of fabric to make their clothes. Hence this technique of densely stitched sashiko was born of the necessity to make what little cloth they had at their disposal, as strong and warm as possible.
The major difference between Tsugaru kogin sashiko made in the Tsugaru domain (the Japan Sea coast side) and Nanbu Hishizashi from the Nanbu domain (on the Pacific coast side) is the use of colour. When a railway was extended to the Nanbu area in the late 19th century, coloured thread was brought into the area, and its use permitted by the feudal lord. In the Tsugaru domain, however, the lord was a lot stricter and the use of coloured thread was forbidden. This exhibition displays the blue and white sashiko from the Tsugaru region, but from January 29 next year there will be an exhibition of colorful Nanbu sashiko. This Tsugaru exhibition is open until September 9th.
What a contrast these kimono are to our current era of fast clothing! As I walked around looking at each one, I was overcome by the thought of how much time went into making them, and how they were treasured—and still are—for years and even decades after being made.
The sleeves on this piece, which was made sometime after WWII, are tapered for ease of movement. This was the only kimono to be stitched with kogin sashiko on the upper part, and hitomezashi (one stitch sashiko) to strengthen the fabric on the lower section.
This kimono was worn by a woman from a farming family from Hirosaki. Longer in length than daily working wear, it was made for use on special occasions. The stitching almost looks like lace!
These kimono were originally stitched with white thread which was then dyed blue.
Tsugaru sashiko apparently has more than 200 geometrical patterns. I haven’t done kogin sashiko myself so I’m not familiar with the names of the patterns, but you can see from these photographs how intricate and varied they are. If you happen to be in Asakusa, Tokyo before September 9th, I do recommend this exhibition!.
Can you see the connection between this piece of sashiko and soccer? Read on and discover more.
Sometimes I think that sashiko has rewired my brain, because I can’t help noticing patterns in everyday objects all around me, and seeing them in terms of sashiko. During the world cup soccer it was not only the Samurai Blue uniforms that caught my eye, but the soccer balls too. Did you know that a soccer ball is made up of 20 white hexagons and 12 black pentagons?
When I see hexagons I think of kikko (tortoiseshell) and its many variations. The hexagon is called this in Japanese because of its resemblance to the shell of a tortoise, which since ancient times has signified longevity and the wish for immortality, hence it use as an auspicious symbol and use in sending wishes for long life and congratulations.
Recently I’ve been doing some research on the origins of hanafukin from a book called “Folk Clothing Culture: Sashiko Research” (by Kiku Tokunaga). It was published in 1989 and is out of print, so I was thrilled to discover it through an online second-hand bookshop, and now think of it as my sashiko bible. From this book I discovered that the earliest known use of the word hanafukin was for the cloths made by the wives of pioneer settler samurai from the Uesugi clan, which moved to Yonezawa, in Yamagata northern Japan in the seventeenth century.
These cloths were placed near wells or rivers where people washed their clogs, and also in the entrance to houses for guests to wipe their feet on. The hanafukin placed in the front entrance of each house functioned as the “face” of that house to visitors and were stitched with a variety of patterns that were also supposed to represent clan beliefs, and serve as a reminder to the farmer soldiers coming back from their work in the fields of their samurai status.
Hanafukin were larger than ordinary cleaning cloths, and required a lot more stitching. One technique was to divide the area into split sections that were then filled various patterns, but the shape most frequently used to divide up the sections was – you guessed it…hexagons!
There’s a whole lot more to be said about the significance of the different patterns stitched inside these hexagons, but I’ll leave that for another time. For the moment let’s just say that I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the amazing history behind the humble hanafukin.
Recently I was moved to stitch a tortoiseshell hanafukin myself, with the arare kikko ‘hailstone tortoiseshell’ pattern. In this variation there are two hexagon patterns, one twice the size of the other, which overlap to produce a ‘hailstone’ effect.
The photograph at the top of this page is a small cloth I stitched with tsuno kikko, which means ‘horned tortoiseshell,’ but I do think that’s a misleading name, because to me these look more like flowers than horns!
Here’s another cloth I stitched which I have on display in my front entrance hall. This is mukai kikko, the alternate or facing tortoiseshell.
When flicking through my collection of sashiko books I also found these lovely coasters with kikko, juji kikko (cross tortoiseshell) and tsuno kikko. Perhaps the coasters of today are what hanafukin once used to be to farmer samurai households.
This is from the book Hajimete no sashiko: shimpuru na harimega utsukushii fukuromono to komono (Sashiko for beginners: Bags and small items with beautiful simple stitching), (Nihon Vogue, 2012 - Amazon affiliate link)
Once you become aware of kikko, you’ll get like me and start seeing it in everything from paving stones to soccer balls!
Dear sashikoists and regular readers of this blog. Apologies for my sudden disappearance, but recently I found myself having to put in long, intense hours at the computer in my regular day job as a literary translator, and couldn’t bear to look at it much otherwise. But of course I kept stitching, and once again sashiko helped me get through a difficult period. I’ll tell you more about the projects I’ve been working on in posts to come, but for now I simply want to talk about what jolted me out of my slump – which was soccer.
An unlikely topic for this blog, especially as soccer doesn’t actually interest me very much, but there is one compelling reason I’m not averse to watching the Japanese soccer team in action at the World Cup in Russia, and that is their uniforms! Every time I glimpse the broken parallel lines of the sashiko design on the players' shirts, my heart skips a beat. Regular readers may recall that I mentioned the announcement of this design for the team's new uniform in a post last November.
Deep indigo blue has a long tradition and history in Japan, but the reason for its use in the design concept of these shirts, is because 15th and 16th century samurai commanders used to wear kimono of this shade under their armour, hence the idea of its use as a 'winning colour' for the base colour design of the uniform. Add to this the sashiko pattern, which represents connecting up the threads of history to mark the twentieth anniversary since Japan first debuted in the French World Cup in 1998, and you have a winning combination.
The strategy certainly worked, because on Wednesday June 20, the Japanese team made history by winning their first match in the tournament, beating the favourite in their group, Colombia, by 2 to 1. It was also the first time an Asian team had defeated a South American team in the men’s World Cup. In this case a win for the Japanese soccer is also a win for Watts Sashiko, because it has inspired me to get writing again.
So I’ll keep this short and sweet for now, but I promise to be back again soon!
I love sashiko. I love its simplicity and complexity, I love looking at it, doing it, reading about it, and talking about it.
Sign up for the newsletter: