What is Sashiko? Discovering Japanese Stitching

It might be a famous form of Japanese embroidery, but this decorative art has oh so practical origins. So, what is sashiko? We’ve got the facts you need to know.

10 July 2024

With its delicate patterns of white stitching on indigo fabric, it’s hard to believe that sashiko, or sashi ko, grew from a need to make do and mend. And yet, that’s exactly how it started; as a way to create thick, durable clothing for farmers and fishermen in Edo-era rural Japan.

Indeed, sashiko stitching, pretty as it looks with its repeating patterns, was intended first and foremost to join together textile layers. Since its inception however, it’s taken on cultural significance, becoming part of the beautiful tradition of Japanese embroidery. Meanwhile, its decorative aspects have attracted attention worldwide.

But precisely what is sashiko? How does it work in practice? Let’s follow the thread and find out.

The Origins of Sashiko Stitching

Sashiko Japanese embroidery (Credit: A.Greeg via Getty Images)

Epitomised by simple, elegant stitching patterns of white thread on indigo blue fabric, it’s hard to believe that sashiko was created for anything but its beauty. In fact, since the Edo period, and probably earlier, sashiko was developed for the most practical of purposes. Specifically, it grew in rural areas as a way to mend and reinforce clothing for challenging work environments, such as those of farmers, and fishermen, especially during punishing winters.

Over time, sashiko stitching has transcended its utilitarian beginnings, evolving into an art form with complex patterns and designs that are admired today for their beauty and craftsmanship. Nevertheless, its original characteristics have been passed down through the generations. And that’s the next area of exploration, in answering the question: “what is sashiko.”

What is Sashiko?

Sashiko running stitch (Credit: Dangben via Getty Images)

In the simplest terms, sashiko is a traditional Japanese stitching craft sometimes referred to as sashiko embroidery for its similarity to it. The characteristics of sashiko reflect its practical origins and include:

  • Layering: Sashiko involves stitching layers of fabric one atop another. Not only does it make garments more durable, but the pockets of air around the stitching provide warmth.
  • White on Indigo: Traditional sashiko was usually done using white thread on indigo-dyed fabric, which was largely all that was available to rural communities at the time.
  • Simplicity: Unlike other forms of embroidery, sashiko stitching typically involves straight lines and simple shapes. The traditional form of sashiko uses a running stitch, which is the simplest of straight line stitches.
  • Little Stabs: In order to pierce so many layers, sashiko stitching needs an extra bit of push. In fact, its name roughly translates as “little stabs.”
  • Patterns: While the stitches themselves are basic, they’re formed into repeating patterns. Common motifs include waves, mountains, and even traditional Japanese symbols such as cherry blossoms and bamboo.
  • Precision: The beauty of sashiko embroidery lies, at least in part, in the precision and uniformity of the stitches, which can transform a plain piece of fabric into a work of art.

Sashiko in Modern Times

Sashiko embroidery on denim (Credit: retrofutur via Getty Images)

Today, sashiko embroidery has found a place in contemporary fashion and interior design. Its minimalist aesthetic appeals to modern sensibilities, while its rich history adds a layer of cultural depth. From clothing to home decor, sashiko stitching is used to create items that are both beautiful and functional.

How to Start Sashiko

Sashiko fabric and thread (Credit: MaxCab via Getty Images)

For those interested in learning how to start sashiko, it’s important to begin with the basics. Traditional sashiko stitching involves a few key materials: a piece of fabric, cotton thread, a needle, and a thimble. Beginners can start with simple patterns such as straight lines or grids before moving on to more complex designs.

The Tools of Sashiko Embroidery

Preparing for sashiko (Credit: MaxCab via Getty Images)

Sashiko tools are an excellent reflection of how it differs from other types of embroidery.

  • Sashiko Needle: Longer and thicker than regular embroidery needles, designed to hold several stitches at once and sharp enough to push through layers.
  • Thimble: Often worn on the palm, essential for pushing the needle through the fabric.
  • Thread Clippers: Small, sharp scissors for cutting thread cleanly.
  • Ruler and Marking Tools: For drawing straight lines and patterns on the fabric.
  • Fabric Marker or Chalk: Used to transfer patterns onto the fabric before stitching.

Materials for Sashiko

Indigo fabric (Credit: imnoom via Getty Images)

The materials used in sashiko stitching are chosen for their durability and aesthetic appeal, creating the characteristic look of this craft.

  • Indigo-Dyed Cotton Fabric: Traditional and commonly used for its deep blue colour and sturdy texture.
  • White Cotton Thread: Thicker than typical embroidery thread and loosely twisted, creating a prominent stitch on the fabric.

Sashiko Stitching Techniques

Sashiko stitching (Credit: SMedia via Getty Images)

While traditional sashiko stitching mainly involved the simple running stitch, modern interpretations have expanded to include a variety of stitches.

  • Running Stitch: The foundation of Sashiko, characterised by even, straight stitches.
  • Backstitch: Adds strength and detail to patterns, used for outlining designs.
  • Herringbone Stitch: Creates a zigzag pattern, adding texture and visual interest.
  • Cross Stitch: Forms intersecting lines, used for filling patterns or creating motifs.

These additional stitches allow for greater creativity and complexity in sashiko embroidery, expanding its artistic possibilities.

Sashiko Embroidery Patterns

Classic Japanese asanoha pattern (Credit: Apicha Thumvisead via Getty Images)

In answering “what is sashiko,” it’s impossible to overlook the variety of patterns that define this art form. Some of the most beloved designs include:

  • Asanoha (hemp leaf): Symbolising growth and good health.
  • Seigaiha (blue ocean waves): Representing waves of fortune and the sea.
  • Kikkō (tortoise shell): Signifying longevity and stability.

These patterns, among many others, not only add visual interest but also carry cultural significance, reflecting the Japanese appreciation for nature and symbolism.

Steps in Sashiko Stitching

Traditional Japanese sashiko pattern (Credit: Lora-Sutyagina via Getty Images)

Beginning sashiko embroidery involves several key steps, from preparing the fabric to completing the stitch patterns. What follows is a very basic overview of how to start sashiko.

  • Choosing or Creating a Design: There are specific sashiko fabrics with designs pre-printed in temporary ink, although some prefer to mark up their own via removable pen or transfer paper.
  • Starting to Stitch: The needle is threaded with the Sashiko thread, which is knotted on one end.
  • Stitching the Pattern: This should be done following the marked design, focusing on creating even stitches. The running stitch is typically used, moving the needle in and out of the fabric in a straight line.
  • Completing the Stitch: It’s finished off by tying off the thread on the fabric’s backside, ensuring the knots are secure and tidy.

Sashiko: All Stitched Up

Japanese sashiko (Credit: MaxCab via Getty Images)

And so, from understanding what is sashiko and its functional roots to how to start sashiko, we’ve explored both the practical and decorative benefits of this traditional needlework craft.


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