Stitching Japan’s history: sashiko

Detail of C19 work coat, © Embroiderers Guild, thanks to

Detail of C19 work coat, © Embroiderers Guild, thanks to

On Tuesday evening I went to a remarkable lecture at the London headquarters of the Japan Foundation. It was given by a textile artist named Michele Walker, who spent three years from 2003-6 researching sashiko quilting in Japan on an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship, and has been involved in documenting, organising and presenting what she found ever since.

She is currently putting together an exhibition of 75-100 garments, plus video footage transferred from archive film, and photographs by Takeji Iwamiya, who died in 1989 after documenting many aspects of Japan’s vanishing rural culture. The exhibition opens on 10 October 2009 at York Art Gallery, then moves on to Glasgow and other cities around the U.K. Japanese Sashiko Textiles is Walker’s second exhibition devoted to sashiko and its makers. She presented Stitching for Survival at the University of Brighton Gallery in 2007.

Sashiko is a traditional art that was originally used to anchor layers of fabric firmly together for warmth and strength. It was worn mainly in farming and fishing communities, and a combination of poverty and low status meant that it was always stitched on cheap, locally produced cloth – cotton in warmer areas, hemp where it was too cold to grow cotton. It was generally worked in white thread on blue, usually indigo, the only colour available to most poor people. There were regional variations, and sashiko had its moments of glory in the heavy firemen’s coats with their ornate inner linings which could be seen in every Japanese town until after World War II. But for the most part, sashiko consists of small white stitches on plain blue cloth.

The variations on this basic theme are truly remarkable. Some motifs had talismanic significance, their shape and position meant to protect the wearer in specific ways. Motifs were handed down in regions and families, but every crafter had her own way of working and varied the style to suit herself and her needs. The garments were so strong that they could be patched and mended many times before being so outworn that they had to be recycled into futon covers, cushions or rags. Some of the examples Walker showed us were feather-soft from many years of use, patched in browns and greys that had faded until they were hardly distinguishable from the original blue cloth, now also faded. These relics of past lives in a vanished world were profoundly touching, the last faint echoes of a way of  life now almost forgotten.

The most remarkable thing about the talk, and Walker’s research, was the fact that her discoveries came in the nick of time. Walker wanted to document the skills and practices of working-class women who made sashiko as workwear for themselves and the farmers and fishermen  of rural Japan.  When she began her Fellowship in 2003, even authorities in Japan told her that sashiko was a dead art, no longer made except as a hobby, and the rural women who made sashiko as part of their daily lives early in the 20th century were all dead. Half way through her three year fellowship, she still hadn’t tracked down a single woman who had made sashiko for everyday wear. The pieces she had seen were in museums or private collections, divorced from their context, the makers’ names unrecorded and unknown.

Then, by pure chance, a colleague in Japan suggested she go to Sado island. There, in small communities that are still remote from the mainland, she found a handful of women in their late eighties and nineties who had been taught how to sew sashiko by their mothers and aunts, and had stitched it for their families in the old way when they were young brides and mothers. Many of them still had examples of their work. Some even wore sashiko still, though mixed with modern mass-produced clothes.

These women, born between the First and Second World Wars, while mainland urban Japan was growing more prosperous, lived lives of grinding poverty and hardship. They didn’t stitch for art’s sake, but because unless they made their family’s clothes they would go without. Their sewing was done at home, by lamplight – the island didn’t even get an electricity supply until the 1930s, and not everyone could afford to have it installed.

Many of the women were employed in the construction industry. The wooded mountains were rich in huge cedars, used to make frames for buildings, but they were too steep to get horses or mules up the paths and down again laden with cedar logs. Women, on the other hand, could get up and down the precipitous slopes with three-and-a-half metre logs strapped on their backs. They even designed special sashiko work coats with extra-strong padded areas where the bindings for the logs would rub against their chests and shoulders.

Walker showed photographs of groups of young women walking down mountain roads, each carrying a log almost twice her own height on her back, or sitting down at the roadside to rest, smiling and chattering. When she asked one of the survivors of the group why they looked so happy, the ninety-five-year-old confided that when they were at work, they were free to be themselves, talk and laugh as they pleased. In their patriarchal society, it was almost the only time they could be truly free, away from the demands and restrictions of family life and household duties.

Even now, when Sado Island has cars and TV, and clothes and necessities can be bought at the store, some of these very old women still live as closely as they can to the old traditions. The same ninety-five-year-old gets up at 5.30 every morning, takes her barrowload of farm tools, and walks up the hill to the patch of land where she still grows her own food. She is entirely self-sufficient in food, trading surpluses for what she can’t grow. She has never left Sado, but now she’s coming under pressure from her son to join him and his family in Tokyo. Walker thinks she’ll eventually give in – she was reared in the old ways, where women’s lives were ruled first by their fathers, then their husbands, and finally by their sons.

All the works Walker displayed were beautiful and interesting, but what really moved me were her stories of these women and their lost world, and her obvious affection and admiration for them. She arrived in Sado just in time to catch a glimpse of the context in which these works were made, and bring it to the West. The lives of ordinary women often go unrecorded; to share a little of Walker’s journey of discovery gave me a new insight into a part of Japan I hadn’t previously known.

Go and see the exhibition this winter. After all, how often do you get the chance to visit a lost world? And check out the Japan Foundation website for more free events exploring all areas of Japanese culture.

3 thoughts on “Stitching Japan’s history: sashiko

  1. Pingback: Indian Handicrafts » Stitching Japan’s history: sashiko

  2. I really enjoy Sashiko as a stitch form interesting to read of Michelle’s research, and I hope to get to the exhibition

  3. Fascinating!

    I am the author of two books on sashiko in English (& other languages) – visit for more info. As Michele was starting her work on sashiko in 2003, she visited an exhibition at the first Festival of Quilts at the NEC, Birmingham, by a group of sashiko stitchers from Yuza-machi, Yamagata-ken, where sashiko is now alive and well (I co-curated the exhibition). In the mid 1970s, local sashiko stitchers like Tetsue Ikeda ran courses at the local community centre in Yuza to make sure the craft didn’t die out, and contemporary sashiko is used for hardwearing items relevant to modern life, as well as being combined with patchwork, quilting and embroidery for contemporary artwork. In contrast, life in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture has always been more prosperous than in many other parts of Japan, especially Sadoshima.

    A couple of huge differences between the firemen’s coats & farm stitched sashiko – the ornate designs inside firemen’s jackets are borne on the fabric, not the stitching, plus these were commerically stitched garments, unlike farming wear, which were usually stitched by the farmer’s wife.

    Also a note about women’s lives being ruled by their fathers, then husbands, then sons – the idea of living independently, as we would take for the norm in the West, is regarded with horror by my older Japanese friends, for whom an existence without the close support of family would be a terrifying experience!

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