Japanese Sashiko Embroidery: Whimsical Running Stitches

Sashiko embroidery is a simple and elegant art of stitching, with functionality that comes from its origins of mending in beautiful ways. It is a simple way to begin embroidering but can take years to master. Full of meaning, the stitches are simple and easy to work, producing a beautiful and consistent finished product with deceptive strength. Read more to learn about the history of Japanese Sashiko embroidery, and give your clothes a new life!

Where Did Sashiko Embroidery Come From?

Sashiko embroidery (pronounced almost like “Sash-ko, the ‘i’ is almost silent), dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867)in Japan, and means “little stabs”.  During this time period, Japan had closed its borders, and the laws governing the people were quite strict and repressive. Laws against clothing in bright colors or with large embroidery designs kept the classes of society firmly established, and restricting beautiful clothing designs to the aristocracy was an obvious way to ensure that no one attempted to rise beyond their station!

Industrialized fabric wouldn’t reach Japan until around the late 1800s. Everything was done by hand: spinning, weaving and dying. Cloth was a precious commodity that represented hours of work, and every part of it was used. Even after industrialization, the fabric produced was too expensive for most people to afford. Cotton was not available in much of Japan due to climate restrictions.

The fabric left to the masses was hemp fabric, often dyed indigo blue.

The plant was common and created a wearable and long-lasting blue color. The fabric was different than what we use today – much looser weave, and stitched into layers, created a thicker, more useful fabric. Boro, or “tattered rags”, was a mending technique which combined different bits of fabric into one using neat sashiko stitches, which covered holes and reinforced clothing for longer use.

This extended the lifespan of clothing and household goods. When the fabric wore out, it would be stitched into working wear, which would reinforce those garments, making them warmer and stronger. The oldest garment would be closest to the skin, and it would wear through the other layers. After work clothing was worn out, it could be either stitched into others or made into bags or aprons. Finally, one last life could be found after those wore out – cleaning cloths, known as zokin.

Early Sashiko stitches would have been just simple running stitches to ensure that the fabric held together, but humans can’t help but create beauty! The warp and weft lines of the fabric provided guides to evolving geometric designs, and the different patterns of sashiko stitching evolved, where other designs were restricted. The simple blue and white of a repressed peasantry gave way to beautiful and functional designs that captivate artists today.

What Makes Sashiko Unique?

Sashiko embroidery uses one stitch: the running stitch! It’s such a simple craft, yet the beauty lies in the straightness and evenness of the stitches. Sashiko uses a specific needle, a sashiko needle, which is quite long (2 in!), very sharp, and very rigid. This needle helps give the distinct stitches their uniformity.

The thread used in sashiko is strong cotton, white or offwhite, and NOT stranded like embroidery thread. It is also matte. The entire thread is used, and its twist is much tighter than embroidery thread. Perle cotton or embroidery thread could be used for sashiko embroidery, but the look will be slightly different.

The design of sashiko is unique! Every woman stitched differently, so while there are some standard designs available to learn with, you can create masterpieces of your own. I would recommend The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook if you’re interested in trying some patterns. The most helpful part of written patterns is the priority of stitching to get the right look. You can find the book on Amazon by clicking the title – for less than $20!

How Has Sashiko Embroidery Evolved?

Sashiko’s entire story is an evolution, from mending in a time where clothing HAD to be made functional repeatedly, to decorating fast fashion and luxury designs in the modern world. Much of our modern art designs are incorporated from previous folk traditions, and sashiko is a prime example. 

From straight running stitches to the complex geometric patterns of today, sashiko tells beautiful stories. One familiar pattern to many is “shippou”, or “linked seven treasures”. Another beautiful pattern is the hexagonal “Kaku Kikko”, which resembles honeycomb with tiny flowers. Patterns and sashiko traditions evolved organically – some suggest by trade, or independently, but all of the traditions evolved as a useful way to keep warm, reuse garments, and make something beautiful.

The slow fashion movement against our current consumer-driven economy is attempting to make repaired clothing more socially acceptable in the West, and encourage the use of products over longer periods of time. Sashiko blends well into this modern world, encouraging re-use and artistic expression to create something new out of something old.

How Can I Use It?

 

If you’re looking to make your clothing beautiful, while reinforcing the life of the fabric – sashiko is for you. Starting with a grid, create a repeated pattern of your own, or just use straight running stitches in a beautiful thread to give new life to your clothing. You 

can find and transfer patterns online by printing them out and using carbon paper onto the fabric or draw your own.

Repairing clothing is such a foreign concept to the current Western world, and the fabric is so inexpensive compared to the hours and days of work required to make it before industrialization. Sashiko is now more of a decorative than functional craft, but it is also useful.

If you’d rather not wear it – then frame it! Sashiko is a beautiful, neat, tidy way to create order in your space, and looks beautiful on a wall or tapestry.

 

 

Running Stitch Reinforcement – Beauty and Functionality

Honoring the history of our modern designs honors those who created them out of necessity. Sashiko was born out of need and in a time of repression but is newly revived as a beautiful art form. Challenge yourself to repair or decorate a piece of clothing using this timeless art form, and be proud that you have learned a skill and contributed to the longevity of your wardrobe.

Remember the usefulness of sashiko and the re-use of fabric through its lifespan. Think carefully about how you use the items in your life, and let it challenge you to be thoughtful in consumption. Tell me about what you thought about repurposing or reusing in the comments below, and let’s inspire each other to be more thoughtful about our use!

6 thoughts on “Japanese Sashiko Embroidery: Whimsical Running Stitches

  1. What an interesting article. I have used a running stitch in my everyday mending and sewing projects, but I never knew it could be turned in an art form. The examples in the pictures are beautiful.

    The history of sashiko is heartbreaking. We have become such a throwaway society, that it is mind-blowing to think that the people of Japan used to sew layer upon layer and wore clothing until they could only be used as cleaning cloths.

    Thank you for posting this article.

    1. It’s such a huge reminder of our consumption, isn’t it! I was so inspired as I was writing this, and reading more of the history – I already tried to Marie Kondo my closet, and now I feel like I should really be more conscientious about how I purchase AND use items. Thank you for stopping by, and for your thoughtful comment!

  2. The stitching is beautiful and I love the background you give on how it came to be. I’m going to check out the other the rest of your site bc I love stuff like this. I mostly crochet, but I do embroidery from time to time.

    I’m going to have to share your site with my crafting group, if you don’t mind.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and for sharing with your group! I’d love to hear if they have experience in other crafts, too. I find that my interest is always piqued when something has such a good story behind it, and I’m glad you found it enjoyable! If you have other questions or comments, be sure to let me know! 😀

  3. I love the information especially the background on how sashiko came about. I love Japanese culture and this was something I never knew about. Great article and pictures.

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