Japan’s sashiko embroidery and the global visible mending movement

sashiko embroidery

It might not be very apt yet to say that fast fashion is ceasing to exist in the present but the newer and wider perspective of life on earth that has dawned upon the human race in more recent times means that indeed choices of fashion will tend to dwell more along the lines of a style that also has sustainability as its strongpoint. This new movement that have therefore lately begun to be doing the fashion rounds does not however always have to depend on innovation and the emerging sprawls of technological advancements to spin a difference. Several traditional techniques of the trade, native in nature, local in leanings and indeed much steeped in the pursuits of sustainability exist still that can set the groundwork for the fastness of fashion to gradually lose its footing to the lasting essence of it. One such particular manifestation of a rather historical, and not necessarily very technical manner of prolonging the extents to which a piece of clothing can afford to hold intact its threads and spins is a Japanese craft of petite prettiness.

Embroidery that doesn’t just work out beauty across clothes but also breathes a new lease of life in them, such is the fascination held by this certain work of the stitch that goes by the name sashiko. In its almost folk art status, this Japanese form of embroidery took shape through history entailing to the Edo period when it emerged as a purely utilitarian necessity of strengthening the homespun clothes of those times and indeed of extending the longevity of them, working them out in tatters and patches even when they had considerably fallen apart in the weave of them. In piecing together worn out clothes to make for newer pieces that would see a new lease of life continuing to be of service for another period of time, this form of embroidery relied on something as basic as the technique of simple running stitches for working out a rather durable item. In fact it is this basis of its working mechanism of rather plain preferences that lends this striking assertion of the embroidery craft its name. Literally meaning ‘little stabs’ that which refers indeed to the plain running stich employed by the embroidery to produce its cute little repetitive geometric patterns, sashiko can be aptly described as ‘functional embroidery’ that which enhances the aesthetic of the fabric while rendering it durable through means of repairs and reinforcements.

Whether it be reinforcing already patched clothing around their points of wear or in attaching patches to clothing to make them stronger, or even to layer thin fabrics to make them warmer, this utterly functional necessity that the workings of the sashiko adhered to however could also be as easily diversified to make it cater to exclusively to pursuits of beauty. As a form of embroidery itself, the art of sashiko ends up lending greater substance to the textile worked upon even as it can be used also for purely decorative purposes that today makes for a splash across a wide range of objects of everyday use. A crucial component of the mending technique that finds expression across Japanese textile in a wide variety of ways and is so commonplace a practice in mending and patching that rests in its own identity of boro, sashiko today is considered a beautiful surface embellishment for fabrics.

The sashiko art indeed has evolved over the years to be a very impressive exploration of creating intriguing patterns of fashionable flair, emerging by the Meiji period of rule in Japan of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries to be well established enough to become a winter activity in northern farming communities of the country. Its essence as a folk art that saw it originating among the peasant classes makes sashiko embroidery rather unique from the other more flamboyant expressions of the Japanese tradition while catering also to the status of cloth as an expensive commodity back then, thereby ensuring the extended use of this all essential good of life as far as possible. Notably therefore, emerging as a mode of functional embroidery meant that the sashiko came to encompass its still distinctive appearance of the white-on-blue, as the abundance of indigo dyed blue cloth and the cheapness of white cotton thread in Japanese history allowed this form of the decoration to take its hued identity as. This very prominent assertion of the white on blue work is what marks the sashiko even in the present times, though the use of red thread to work out the stitches for decoration can also be sometimes encountered. The soft and strong, tightly twisted heavyweight matte cotton thread makes indeed for a striking pattern to be worked out on the backdrop of the stark harshness of the indigo colored fabric, even as a variation of colors both in terms of the thread and the cloth are gradually beginning to mark the expanses of this utterly artistic exploration of embroidery.

A whole lot of different motifs and designs can be worked out on fabrics using the sashiko embroidery, that are both symbolic and representative in their essence as well as remarkable in their beauty. Many of the sashiko patterns though were derived from Chinese designs but the Japanese art indeed has quite a few designs attributable exclusively to it. Most popular would be the kogin- zashi technique that appears as diamond patterned designs across horizontal rows and that today manifests through three variations of it, namely nishi-kogin, higashi-kogin, and mishima-kogin. Also significant is the shippo- tsunagi or the seven treasures geometric pattern featuring four ellipses in a circle that which is believed to symbolise endless peace and happiness. Rooted mostly in nature, sashiko patterns can incorporate therefore mountains and waves and fish scales, persimmon leaves and bamboo and pampas grass and such other features that are worked in continuous lines. Sashiko patterns though can be worked out in myriad ways to create a range of designs, of a distinct two types. The moyozashi style uses running stiches to create linear designs while the hitomezashi technique produces designs that are resultant of numerous single stitches aligned along a grid. Also commonly encountered can be the kogin style that while hails from the sashiko traditions is somewhat different in being rather a counted thread technique. Stitched from side to side, the long stitches of the kogin does indeed encompass perfectly the essence of the sashiko as it ends up lending almost three times more thickness to the fabric thus upping its quotient of the warmth. Apart from these, sashiko can also manifest in such patterns that appear as straight lines crossing each other, a design that is worked out as shonai sashiko. And if the sashiko diverges from its white on blue essence to instead embody beauty as a blue on blue aesthetic through the use of indigo dyed threads, the style is known as kakurezashi that yields a rather subtle but dramatic still ‘hidden sashiko’ effect, something exemplified by the very name of the style through which it manifests.

The appeal of the sashiko asserts still through its play of the intricacies of its design and the timelessness of its versatility but what has made this Japanese folk art of continuity through centuries also a global phenomenon beyond its distinctive flow of the color coded, all over pattern is its as intricate ties to the visible mending movement. As a resider in sustainability, the sashiko embroidery is as intricately linked to the quiet global movement set to change the notions associated with fashion for the better. In fact, the main technique employed to drive the visible mending movement to its ultimate goal of eking out a few more additional lives from the expanses of clothing through means extremely fashionable as well is this form of embroidery that has forever stayed true to its premises of being a true harbinger of sustainability. But it isn’t just about adding value to clothing in the form of longevity. As essential to this movement of sustainable means are certain human values that play to the tunes of the emotional apart from submitting to the visages of practicability. Also intertwined therefore with visible mending and sashiko is another facet of life that which attaches value to clothes as a part of the personal and adorned therefore by feels that speak of attachment and reminds of comfort, but most importantly reminds us all to see the beauty in things that are not as ‘perfect’ as they once used to be. Another unexpected aspect of the human need that the movement fits in perfectly with is the need for unwinding, through its basis as a handiwork that demands the absolute attention of the mender. And across this mode of the functional, it perhaps is only apt that the sashiko art is the medium through which this particularly mindful movement of the times is gaining expression, emerging from the trenches of a Japanese identity that has always sought out the perfection in imperfection and convincingly added value to the valueless.