Why Sashiko Designs Don’t Bore Your Brain

By Susan Fletcher
Why Sashiko Designs Don’t Bore Your Brain

Why don’t we get tired of the traditional sashiko designs?

What makes them still ‘work’ for us even after looking at them for several years, as I have been doing?

They are, after all, pretty simple looking geometric designs.

Here is why I think our brains remain pleased and interested. I took the following passage from a book called Fractals, The Patterns of Chaos, Discovering a New Aesthetic of Art, Science and Nature by John Briggs. He writes:

“To make great artworks, artists must find ….just the right balance of harmony and dissonance to create tension and the illuminating ambiguities that can flow from it. That proper balance is the one that catches the brain’s processing by surprise and subverts habituation. It’s the balance that forces our brain to experience the words or forms or melodies as if for the first time, every time, no matter how many times we have encountered them before.”

What holds our interest in the traditional sashiko designs is the perfect balance between the strong geometric design, and the “wait, what’s this?” surprise of discovering that the design might not be the design, and yet still being sure it is. In other words, when we look at sashiko stitching we see a repetitive pattern and our brain enjoys that, but it doesn’t become habituated to the pattern (bored) because it is repeatedly engaged and stimulated by having something to figure out and finish.

Some sashiko designs are more strongly appealing that others, and this, I think, is created by the effect of the extra stimulation of the brain in figuring out which design to see. For example, in the design below, you may see the flowers, or you may see linked circles, or your brain may focus on the long oval lines.

 circles or ovals? sashiko design

In the Sayagata design below the brain switches back and forth, trying to decide whether the key fret goes to the left or the right. This would be tiring if the overall design were not so strong, but the definite white lines on the dark blue background assert a strong enough pattern that the brain is intrigued by the option of left or right.

sayagata sashiko design cushion

One more example. This design is a particularly complex one for all it’s apparent simplicity. I see hexagons, wreath like circles and triangles, and all of them please me enough that I want to see them, so my brain is kept entertained and interested moving from one to another. Once stitched, the strong fractured, white lines on a dark blue background will add another layer of interest, in the brain's need to connect the stitches into lines.

sashiko design

The technique for making sashiko stitches creates a balanced broken line: long stitch, short space, long stitch, short space. If you want to see how this also keeps the brain pleased and interested, try stitching some even stitches and spaces, some irregular stitches and spaces, and some good sashiko stitches where the stitches are 2/3 the length of the spaces between them. You will see that your brain finds the even stitching less engaging, and the irregular stitching intriguing only for a short time. The 2/3 , 1/3 patterning of the sashiko stitch lets the brain easily see and enjoy the design, but leaves it something to do to keep it engaged (it ‘fills’ in or ‘finishes’ the design)

There is one more element that lends to the enduring quality of sashiko design, or put the another way, that gives the brain enough to do while looking at the sashiko that it stays engaged and interested. It is the relationship between the stitching and the background. In some designs this may be one of the strongest dynamics of the design. Take the Diamond Waves design for example. Are the waves the white lines or the blue spaces between them? It doesn’t matter, but the design is more interesting because of the choice.

diamond waves sashiko design

Talk to you next time,