A Bit of Sashiko History

By Susan Fletcher
A Bit of Sashiko History

Wonder about the fabric sashiko was originally stitched on,
and how the designs were transferred to the cloth?

Sashiko stitching, as many of you know, is usually dated back to the Edo period in Japan (1603 to 1867) This was an era when Japan closed her borders to foreign travel, trade, and ideas. Laws for Japanese citizens were repressive and detailed.

The ones we are interested in here are the laws forbidding commoners from wearing silk, bright colors, and large designs. These laws were called sumptuary laws and were designed to keep class lines clear. One way a wealthy business man could ease the transition up the class ladder would be to wear fabrics and fashion similar, or the same as, the aristocratic class and by doing so, sort of blend in. The ruling aristocracy of Edo Japan were having none of it! They were determined to maintain clear class divisions.

So the commoner classes were left to use hemp fabric woven by women on home looms (cottage industries) and dyed blue with the common indigo plant which produces blue color.

The fabric itself would have been a looser weave than any we usually have available today, and much easier to stitch together in layers. Hemp is a coarse fibre and the hand woven warp and weft would have been easy to see and use for a guide line when quilting layers of it together to make it warmer for clothing, and thicker for bedding. The early sashiko stitching seems to have been predominately long straight lines stitched close together to get the job done.

But you know the human impulse for creativity and beauty. It is natural that the plain sashiko stitching lines evolved into designs, still geometric, and still using the woven fabric warp and weft lines for stitching guides, but decorative as well as functional.

So the answer to how were the designs transferred to the fabric, then, is that there was no need to transfer them. Instead you used the warp and weft lines, practice and skill. The more skilled you were, the better your designs turned out!

Historians suggest that the repressiveness of the Edo period gave rise to some beautiful inventions in art (I think because although it was repressive it was also a period without wars). Decorative sashiko stitching designs can be counted as one of these. Forbidden the textile dying and painting techniques of the upper class, and being restricted to mainly blue and white, sashiko evolved into the timeless designs we are still so captured by.

Talk to you next time,

Happy Stitching