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.
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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