In this mini episode, Isabella discusses the Japanese stitching traditions of sashiko and boro. Each mini episode focuses on a single needlework technique from each continent, with this week's continent being Asia.
Images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website, sewwhatpodcast.com, and a Patreon, patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast.
What’s up stitches! You’re here on episode 11 of season 3 of Sew What? with me, Isabella Rosner. This is the third mini episode of the season and, as you perhaps remember, each mini episode focuses on a needlework tradition from a different country. The first two mini episodes covered Europe and the Americas, and this episode focuses on Asia. We’ll be looking at two related but also separate stitching techniques from Japan, sashiko and boro. Exciting!! Are you excited? I am.
Are you ALSO excited about the social media shpiel? I bet you are!! Images and sources for this episode are on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @sewwhatpodcast and on our website, sewwhatpodcast.com.
Okay, let’s get into it, and let’s start with sashiko. Sashiko is a type of traditional Japanese embroidery, used both to decorate cloth/clothing and to reinforce it, so basically it’s both an embroidery style and a visible darning technique. I’ll call it darning embroidery. Sashiko almost always involves white thread stitched on an indigo-dyed blue cloth. This is not an absolute rule or anything, that’s just how it’s been historically and how it largely is today. I will first start with sashiko’s history before getting into colour and pattern.
So, Sashiko originated in rural northern Japan and moved south along trade routes. The word “sashiko” translates to “little stabs.” It’s not known exactly when it developed, but it probably started during the Edo period, which ran from 1603 to 1868. By the Meiji Era, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, sashiko was a well-established textile tradition. Sashiko is considered a “folk textile” because it was the purview of the peasant classes. Its purely useful origins contrast with some of Japan’s other textile traditions, like fine silk fabric production. Sashiko was first used by working class farmers and fishermen. The women of these farming and fishing families extended the lives of worn fabrics by mending, layering, and stitching them together. Worn out clothes were pieced together with simple running stitches, making them sturdier and warmer. According to the trusty sashiko Wikipedia page, “Sashiko was commonly used to reinforce already-patched clothing around points of wear, but would also be used to attach patches to clothing, making the fabric ultimately stronger. It would also be used to layer thin fabrics to create warmth, and, in the case of some garments such as the coats of firemen (hikeshibanten), to create a thick and absorbent material that would be soaked in water before carrying out duties as a fireman.”
It’s clear that sashiko was historically useful because it breathed new life into old fabric, but the preservation of worn fabric was even more important because industrialised fabric production didn’t reach Japan until the 1870s. Up until then, cloth was a treasured commodity. Cotton, linen and hemp were spun, woven, and dyed by hand. Silk and cotton were expensive and were reserved for the upper classes, and hemp, which was what ordinary people wore, tore easily. Cloth was a precious resource that represented huge amounts of time and labour, spinning, weaving, and dyeing. Even after mechanized mills were built near Osaka, the fabric produced there was too expensive for many people to afford, so they continued to weave their own fabrics. Sashiko started off as a purely necessary way to preserve precious cloth. As time went on though, sashiko became a way to mend, darn, layer, AND decorate textiles.
Even when fabric production became mechanised in the 19th century, sashiko stuck around. By that point, some were using it as a form of decoration, while others continued to use it for practical purposes.
There are many different types of sashiko embroidery. There’s moyozashi, which involves using running stitches to create linear designs. Hitomezashi involves patterns that are revealed from gridlike stitching, which look a bit like weaving. Kogin, which means small cloth, is a form of sashiko specifically from the Tsugaru district of Honshu and Shonai sashiko is from the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture. Aaaaand, if the sashiko uses indigo-dyed threads instead of white ones, it’s called kakurezashi. Clearly, there’s a lot going on.
Sashiko typically involves white thread on an indigo-dyed ground. Fashion librarian Kat Siddle has a really good article about sashiko on seamwork.com and I want to share what she writes about the white-indigo combo, as it’s clear and informative. She writes, “For much of Japan’s history, fabric was made from linen or hemp. Cotton farming began in about 1600. While cotton fabric was softer on the skin than hand-woven hemp, it was also difficult to dye—unless you used indigo. Families would weave their own fabric at home, and send it (along with their boro textiles) to a local dyer.
But even if people could afford other fabrics, they weren’t necessarily allowed to wear them. During the Edo period (1603–1868), the ruling classes established complicated laws that governed dress and colors. These laws forbade the lower classes from wearing silk, bright colors, or large patterns. Ironically, these laws encouraged innovations in dyeing techniques, as people with means sought out alternatives to forbidden colors.”
And now that we’ve discussed colour, let’s discuss pattern. Some sashiko patterns come from Chinese designs, but loads were designed by native Japanese embroiderers. Sashiko designs come from things found in nature like plants, birds, animals, or weather patterns like clouds. Lots of traditional sashiko designs are geometric and symmetrical. You wanna know about some specific, enduring patterns? I bet you do! Here are four: there’s nowaki grasses, which looks like layers of windblown grass and which likely developed from coastal fishing communities. According to Indigo Niche, which is a Japanese textile and quilting supplier, nowaki grasses “depicts the shape of dune grasses in a strong sea breeze, and represents both resilience, and the fortified strength of one’s roots.” Then there’s the asanoha pattern, which involves a motif of a hemp or flax leaf. It’s often used in Buddhist scrollwork to represent radiating light or the soul’s inner light. Traditionally, Japanese newborns were swaddled in fabric featuring the Asanoha design, as a blessing for the child to grow strong and healthy. There’s also the Seigaiha pattern, which translates to Blue Sea Waves and which dates back to the 6th century. Seigaiha was used as a talisman, representing “waves” of good luck. And the last one I’ll talk about is the Shippo-Tsunagi pattern, which translates to Seven Treasures and which combines four elipses in a circle. According to Indigo Niche, “The word Shippo is a reference to precious stones in Buddhism, and is partly a reference to the ‘shiny’ appearance of the circles’ interiors. You will often see this pattern combined with flowers in sashiko embroidery.
Because of the geometric flow effect of the intersecting circles, this pattern more than anything was used to symbolise endless peace and happiness, as well as a talisman for ‘infinite fertility and family prosperity’.”
And so, to conclude our time with sashiko, I will say that the technique’s emphasis on visible mending is not only rad, but is ALSO very relevant in this day and age, when we are rightly thinking lots about clothing renewal and rejuvenation. Sashiko is not only beautiful, it also breathes new life into old textiles and has set a historic precedent for the visible darning that is increasingly popular in the world of stitchers and beyond. How very cool it is that embroidery is used to bring together the old and make it new again. With sashiko, we renew, reuse, and recycle, but we also use tired fabrics as canvases on which to stitch new tales. And, because of the colour contrast between thread and fabric, those repairing stitches are themselves part of the story.
And with that I’ll move onto boro. Boro is the result of continuous repetition of sashiko. While sashiko can be a verb, like you’re doing sashiko, boro is a noun. Its original Japanese definition is a piece of torn and dirty fabric. Basically, sashiko is stitching and boro is the putting together, the patchworking, of scraps. Most people agree Boro started toward the end of the Edo period, in the middle of the 19th century, and that it was commonly used for about a century before Japan’s poorer classes saw an increase in material wealth during the Meiji period and after World War II.
A very nice summary of boro comes from the Boro Wikipedia article. It reads, “Boro (ぼろ) are a class of Japanese textiles that have been mended or patched together. The term is derived from the Japanese term "boroboro", meaning something tattered or repaired. The term 'boro' typically refers to cotton, linen and hemp materials, mostly hand-woven by peasant farmers, that have been stitched or re-woven together to create an often many-layered material used for warm, practical clothing. Historically, it was more economical to grow, spin, dye, weave and make one's own clothing over buying new garments, and equally as economical to re-use old, worn-out clothing as fabric for new garments; warmer fibres such as cotton were also less commonly available, leading to the development of layering as a necessity in the creation of lower-class clothing Boro textiles are typically dyed with indigo dyestuff, historically having been the cheapest and easiest-to-grow dyestuff available to the lower classes. Many examples of boro feature kasuri dyework, and most extant examples of boro today are antiques or modern reproductions made as a craft project, with the introduction of cheaper ready-to-wear clothing to early 20th century Japan rendering the creation of boro mostly unnecessary.”
There’s a lot to think about with boro but something that I love is the concept of finding the beauty in mending and respecting not only each piece of fabric, but the imperfections that come with them and the piecing together of them. Women creating boro would quilt two or three layers together, with the oldest cloth in the middle, where it could still be useful, but hidden. I find that really beautiful, that even though not every piece in the patchwork had enough life left in it to be visible, it was still an integral part of the overall object. Each bit of fibre, each stitch, is so important. What makes that even more surprisingly poignant to me is that boro garments were continually mended and passed down over generations. A boro object would become a literal map of a family’s journey, of their history and heritage. And with that, something broken becomes whole again. Cloth so loved, used for so long and so heavily, gets to live again, thanks to patchworking and the running stitches that bring those patched pieces together.
I’ve chosen to talk about sashiko and boro today not only because they both speak to the popularity of visible mending, patchworking, and more general clothing renewal, but also because they are literal representations of the power of stitch to provide strength, comfort, and stability. I think it’s also vital for me to talk about this stuff because it’s not often I get to talk about anyone other than the middle and upper classes on this podcast. Even though people not part of those classes obviously stitched all the time, most of their textiles don’t survive. So to get an opportunity to talk about those people whose labour is often forgotten about and whose work slips through the cracks of history is important. This work, this aesthetically pleasing form of mending and this patchwork of well worn and loved textile remnants, started with peasants, not the other way around. Their work shows us how to love fabric, how to treasure it, and how to ensure that even when it is old and tired, it is part of something special. And how lovely and wholesome is that? May we all live lives as loved and cherished as the fabric that is sashiko stitched into boro.
And on that note, I shall leave you for this week. Thank you for listening! I appreciate you being here to listen as I ramble about sashiko and boro. You’re all so great!
Now go out and stitch some stories and think about how “little stabs,” the English translation of sashiko, would make a great band name. Bye!