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Sashiko: A Simple, Practical, and Beautiful Craft Gaining Global Fans

Earlier this year, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum's "Kimono: A Modern History" exhibition had the chance to witness a stunning example of Japanese craftsmanship. Dating back to the late 1800s, during the Meiji period, a fisherman's jacket, or donza, featured indigo-dyed sleeves and tunic elegantly embroidered with white geometric patterns using sashiko, a technique of simple stitching used to reinforce or patch textiles—or, as in this jacket's case, to stitch layers of fabric together in a technique known as boro. What set this piece apart was the fact that before sewing, threads were dyed with small geometric patterns.

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If you were to remove this luxurious accessory, its creators would be surprised to see it hanging on the wall of one of the world's most prestigious museums. Sashiko emerged out of necessity, particularly in impoverished rural areas during the Edo period. "Cotton came late to northern Japan," explains writer-craftsman and designer Katie Treggiden. "So, the only way people could get it was in tiny scraps of fabric that were either handed down or bought from traders in the south. Sashiko—literally 'little stabs'—was a way of bringing all those little pieces together into something warm," using a quilted fabric known as boro.

Katie Treggiden is among the invited participants in this year's Design for Planet festival, along with Madlen Mitchell of the British slow fashion brand Toast, who are strong advocates for clothing repair and visible mending. The festival will take place at the University of East Anglia's Enterprise Centre, one of the world's most environmentally friendly buildings, from October 17th to 18th, under the theme "Collaborate," aimed at mobilizing the UK design community to address the dual climate and ecological crises. Today, guests will hear from leading experts in sustainable development and design on a wide range of topics, from food systems to fashion, innovative materials to future mobility needs.

Sashiko is very beginner-friendly, so it's a skill you can learn at a seminar, says Hannah Porter.

Perhaps it's not surprising that sashiko has become a widespread trend in the West—it's easy to do, beautiful, and practical. Today, this rich aesthetic of patchwork samples in hundreds of shades of indigo, meticulously sewn with white stitches, can be found—like the Metropolitan's donza—in art galleries, showcased in small artisan workshops, and in thousands of TikTok and Instagram posts.

SASHIKO TIPS:

  • Sashiko thread comes in various thicknesses: bleached or unbleached, as well as red and blue colors. Use thread slightly thicker than the fabric you're sewing onto.
  • Make sure the fabric you're repairing is of the same weight or even slightly lighter than the fabric you're patching it with. "You don't want it to chafe or feel stiff," says Jessica Smolders Cohen.
  • Sashiko needles are longer for a reason—to allow for making multiple stitches at once.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Howick Craft Museum are among the British venues that have recently hosted sashiko masterclasses. Participants of last year's Great British Sewing Bee competition were challenged to repurpose denim pieces using sashiko, and Rob Jones of Romor Designs was one of those whose sashiko and boro works were featured in the 2022 semifinals. Jones now conducts workshops in London and online. In the U.S., Atsushi Futatsuya of Upcycle Stitches offers personal sashiko masterclasses. In the fashion world, the luxury Japanese brand Kenzo extensively uses this technique, bringing hoodies and sweatshirts to life with sashiko, even in the lining of its Target parka.