Sashiko (刺し子, meaning "little pokes" or "small piercing") is a form of functional embroidery that originated in Japan. It first was used around the Edo era as a way for farmers to mend their worn clothing. It is now popular as a decorative stitch in modern Sashiko quilts and Boro clothing.
Sashiko is just one technique of Japanese embroidery. Japanese embroidery or "nihon shishu", was practiced for centuries before Sashiko ever became popularized and it encompasses a lot more stitching techniques. Originally, Japanese Embroidery was only used for decorating religious ceremonial items and art. Over time, as shishu developed unique Japanese aesthetics, it began to be used for more artistic uses.
During the early Heian Period, Japanese embroidery was primarily used for decorating clothing & costumes for the Ladies of the Court. During these years, shishu was exclusive to the highest ranks of society, as they were the only ones who could afford such costly attire. However, during the Edo era as cotton began to be circulated around the country by seafaring traders, Sashiko became popularized by the lower class workers as a method for repairing worn garments.
Japanese Boro are a type of Japanese textiles that have been patched together. The term comes from the word "boroboro" which means that something is tattered or repaired. Today, Boro is used as a modern fashion statement, piecing together various articles of clothing (image). Traditionally, it was used to stay warm by weaving hemp together because cotton was a rarer commodity at the time. Hemp was more common due to the fact that cotton was a more tropical plant and couldn't be grown in the colder areas of the Tohoku region. With this being the case, Boro came to be known as clothing that was worn by peasants and farmers.
Today, Sashiko is primarily used for Japanese quilts or fashionable boro clothing by using a basic stitch to create a unique background with different geometric patterns. Modern sashiko adds a creative and decorative style to traditional mending and quilting. The designs for sashiko fabrics come from nature, like clouds, waves or flowers, and are seen as more of an artistic expression more than for practical use. Traditionally, it was used to reinforce or repair fabrics that have worn out or have tears. After repair, the piece would be stronger due to the sturdy nature of sashiko thread.
Blue indigo fabric is the most commonly used fabric for sashiko. Don't use true indigo-dyed fabric if you are going to combine it with appliqué as it may bleed when washed. There are reproduction indigo fabrics that are made of sturdy commercial cotton and are dye-fast. Some other fabrics used in Sashiko quilts are Hand-dyed Marble Fabric, Cyanotype (UV chemical photogram) and Shibori (Manual resist dyeing).
Sashiko thread is traditionally made from a loosely twisted lower thread count fabric like 100% matte cotton or linen. It is very strong and comes in fine, medium or thick weights. My favorite sashiko thread is Olympus, which is made in Japan and comes in a large variety of colors. Perle cotton #8 & #5, embroidery floss, crochet and silk are alternative threads. Experiment to find what works best for your project.
Sashiko or “little stabs” in Japanese, is a simple running stitch traditionally used to work intricate designs with white thread on indigo fabric. Sashiko has been a compelling and practical art form for centuries and was used to strengthen and sandwich layers of cloth for warmth in Northern Japan, called Boro.
During the 18th and 19th centuries cotton was a luxury afforded only to the nobility. The lower classes had homespun fibers that were more difficult to make into fabric and didn't last as well. By patching and stitching, the fabric could be strengthened and its life could be extended. During the Edo era there were also laws that restricted lower classes from wearing bright colors which is why the cloths are indigo blue and brown. Boro textiles are now highly sought after collectibles.
During these times pieces of cloth were re-purposed in various forms. Often starting off as a kimono then becoming every day clothing, a piece of sleepwear, a futon cover, a bag then finally a dusting cloth. Every scrap was used until it wore out.
Traditional sashiko designs abound. Kamon or family crests of natural objects such as cherry blossoms, water wheels, or cranes are stylized into dozens of variations. Geometric designs, all with ancient historical meaning are also well suited to sashiko.
Traditional geometric sashiko designs of basket weaves, fretwork, intersecting circles or curved waves are wonderful background fillers behind flowing natural shapes rendered in appliqué. Sashiko designs can also be used to sandwich quilts using quilting thread instead of Sashiko thread.
Today sashiko has evolved from a practical art form into decorative surface embellishment pulled through one layer only instead of a quilt sandwich. Sashiko can stand alone or dramatically complement pieced or appliqué quilts. The beauty of sashiko is in its simplicity. A humble running stitch can outline the most intricate design. I use traditional Japanese geometrics and Kamon in my quilts, but am continually discovering new twists to this old art form.
Sashiko lines can be stitched by machine but the continuous stitching line does not give the soft look of hand sashiko where stitches are spaced apart to show the background. If you are a machine quilter, I encourage you to try hand sashiko. You might be surprised how fast it goes and how calming it is to sit down and stitch a beautiful sashiko design.
Kamon crests such as the waves can be modified by adding hand or machine appliqué within the design. Complicated shapes can be filled in using fusible webbing and finished with decorative satin stitched machine appliqué that is then outlined in hand Sashiko.