Sashiko or “little stabs” in Japanese, is a simple running stitch traditionally used to work intricate designs with white thread on indigo fabric. Sashiko has been a compelling and practical art form for centuries and was used to strengthen and sandwich layers of cloth for warmth in Northern Japan, called Boro.
During the 18th and 19th centuries cotton was a luxury afforded only to the nobility. The lower classes had homespun fibers that were more difficult to make into fabric and didn't last as well. By patching and stitching, the fabric could be strengthened and its life could be extended. During the Edo era there were also laws that restricted lower classes from wearing bright colors which is why the cloths are indigo blue and brown. Boro textiles are now highly sought after collectibles.
During these times pieces of cloth were re-purposed in various forms. Often starting off as a kimono then becoming every day clothing, a piece of sleepwear, a futon cover, a bag then finally a dusting cloth. Every scrap was used until it wore out.
Traditional sashiko designs abound. Kamon or family crests of natural objects such as cherry blossoms, water wheels, or cranes are stylized into dozens of variations. Geometric designs, all with ancient historical meaning are also well suited to sashiko.
Traditional geometric sashiko designs of basket weaves, fretwork, intersecting circles or curved waves are wonderful background fillers behind flowing natural shapes rendered in appliqué. Sashiko designs can also be used to sandwich quilts using quilting thread instead of Sashiko thread.
Today sashiko has evolved from a practical art form into decorative surface embellishment pulled through one layer only instead of a quilt sandwich. Sashiko can stand alone or dramatically complement pieced or appliqué quilts. The beauty of sashiko is in its simplicity. A humble running stitch can outline the most intricate design. I use traditional Japanese geometrics and Kamon in my quilts, but am continually discovering new twists to this old art form.
Sashiko lines can be stitched by machine but the continuous stitching line does not give the soft look of hand sashiko where stitches are spaced apart to show the background. If you are a machine quilter, I encourage you to try hand sashiko. You might be surprised how fast it goes and how calming it is to sit down and stitch a beautiful sashiko design.
Kamon crests such as the waves can be modified by adding hand or machine appliqué within the design. Complicated shapes can be filled in using fusible webbing and finished with decorative satin stitched machine appliqué that is then outlined in hand Sashiko.
Sashiko requires very few supplies beyond a sharp needle with a big eye, thread, scissors, suitable fabric and perhaps a sturdy thimble. No hoop is required. Your sashiko project is easy to carry along and can be done anywhere, even in less than optimal light.
Japanese sashiko thread is made of loosely twisted long staple cotton. It is very strong and comes in many colors and fine medium and thick weight. My favorite is made in Japan by Olympus and comes in a huge array of colors in solids and varigated threads. It has a thick characteristic fussy quality found with traditional sashiko. Perle cotton #8 & #5, embroidery floss, crochet and silk are alternative threads. Experiment to find what works best for your project.
The right sashiko needle will make your stitching enjoyable and eliminate wear and tear on your hands. Unlike quilting thread, sashiko thread is thick and bulky so the needle has to pierce a hole in the fabric big enough to easily pull two thicknesses of thread and the eye of the needle through it. Experiment with needles and fabric. If the needle is too hard to pull, try another size.
Sashiko needles are very sharp, thick and strong and come in different lengths and thicknesses. Alternatively use embroidery or crewel needles. It is important to choose the needle with the right thickness and length for your project. For tightly woven fabrics use shorter and smaller needles. For looser weave fabrics, longer needles can be used to gather more stitches at a time. Thimbles are optional.
Fabrics for Sashiko
Sashiko traditionally was stitched on hand dyed indigo cotton, linen, hemp or other plant fibers. Don’t use true indigo dyed fabric if you are going to combine it with appliqué as it may bleed when washed. There are reproduction indigos and sturdy commercial cottons that are dye fast.