FO: A sashiko adventure

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I grew up in a suburb of Chicago that was mostly white and mostly Jewish. Even though I’m a nissei (second-generation Japanese), I’m not culturally Japanese by any stretch. I say this only to explain why, when the Surviving Tsunami Waves exhibit came to Rochester, it wasn’t exactly on my radar.

However, the event was partly sponsored by Mayo, and so a number of items were on display in the atrium right next to where I work. I passed by one afternoon, glimpsed some handstitched garments (ooh, textiles), and wandered down to check it out.

It’s painful to think about the people who lost so much in the Japanese tsunami that hit the Tohoku region in 2011. In addition to losing loved ones, homes, and possessions, many women in that area also lost their livelihoods that were based on the sea – gathering seaweed from rocks, harvesting sea urchins, that sort of thing.

The Senninbari Project came about to give these women a new source of income and to reestablish their sense of community and identity. The founders of this project are Tsuyo Onodera, a kimono maker and instructor for 50 years (analogous to a European couturier), and her daughter, Maki Aizawa; they went to the shelters and taught embroidery and sewing. The women displaced by the tsunami learned these handstitching skills and now collaborate to create handmade, traditional garments. I think the hope is that they will form a sewing collective (?). Their goals bear some similarity to Alabama Chanin.


Family crests of survivors


Is it wrong that this reminds me of a bowl of ramen?

In any case, the exhibit that I saw featured kimonos, quilts, and wall hangings. I went home, googled some more, and read that they were offering a 3-hr workshop on sashiko embroidery. I knew nothing about this type of stitchery, but hey, what a great chance to learn, right?

The master kimono maker herself was our instructor for the night! That was a nice surprise. We were all given a kit to make a “fukin” (btw, pronounced more like “foo-keen” than like a curse word), which is essentially a dishcloth. The cloth is printed with water-soluble ink.

The fabric is folded in half, roughly basted (as in stitches 1″ long). Sashiko is a plain old running stitch, nothing fancy or difficult. In (Western) hooped embroidery, the fabric is held taut and the needle is pushed down or pulled up perpendicular to the plane of the fabric. However, in sashiko embroidery, one hand holds the needle mostly parallel to the plane of the fabric as the other hand “wags” the fabric up and down over the point of the needle to form the stitching line. The fabric has to be smoothed out very frequently to avoid gathering.

The thread is knotted only at one end. We were taught to slither the needle in between the folded layers to hide the knot at the beginning of each length of thread, but at the end of the thread, we were to duplicate stitch over previously embroidered areas and then just snip the thread at the surface of the fabric, no knots.

The patterns are usually quite geometric. The traditional way of embroidering is to do all of the horizontal lines first, then the vertical lines, then diagonal lines 1 way, then diagonals the other, and then fill in whatever remains, including the border. Some duplicate stitching is inevitable.

The class itself was slightly chaotic because the teacher spoke no English and her daughter, the translator, was often preoccupied by her toddler son (who was having a nighttime fussy period). But we managed to get through it. Two other Japanese women were at the workshop, so among the 3 of us, we were able to decipher the teacher’s instructions and help some of the other students. (I can understand some Japanese but cannot really speak it.)

You can see me stitching away at the workshop. I was sitting next to a gal with a great sense of humor, and we joked about whether we would have the nerve to actually scrub our kitchens with hand-embroidered towels. We laughed even harder when the teacher remarked that we should be able to finish one of these cloths within a few hours. In fact, it took the better part of a week to get mine done.


Holding up >2 hrs’ work

When it was finished, I pressed it carefully, took a few photos, and then wondered if I should save it.


This is the “asa no ha” (hemp leaf) pattern.

Then I reminded myself that I vastly preferred keeping useful stuff (as opposed to strictly decorative stuff), so I briskly got it wet and scrubbed my kitchen table. It felt great.


In its native habitat

My parents see my Instagram feed and knew I had taken the class. My mom dug through her closets and sent me a surprise gift. This is a fukin that was embroidered by her cousin some 20 years earlier. My mom could not bring herself to use it. Now it is mine, and it is in as pristine a condition as it was when my mother received it. Isn’t that something?

I bought a couple more preprinted washcloths, plus a set of needles
and thimble that are specifically for sashiko. I have at least 2 more washcloths in my future!

7 thoughts on “FO: A sashiko adventure

  1. I love it! Beautiful textiles – both yours and the exhibit. Do you have a family crest to embroider?

  2. I live in the Tokyo area and have wondered if I wanted to try another hobby. I may have to buy a couple of kits to bring home this summer to try.

  3. Back in the 90s I had a subscription to one of those book club thingies where you get 5 books for a dollar and then they sent you all these points and discounts and 3-for-1 deals and you ended up just getting tons and tons of books you would never have bought otherwise and one of the many books I picked up was a book on sashiko. I’ve always wanted to make some time to try it but I was never particularly good at doing careful even hand-stitching so it just hasn’t happened.

    Your finished piece is a stunner and the photos from the exhibit are so great. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I have been interested in learning this Sashiko stitching for so long but never actually bought anything because I can’t make up my mind what I want. I’ve been looking in Pinterest at some of the beautiful quilt like blankets and just pieces of fabric with so many designs done with this stitching. Just beautiful! I hope to get going on this soon!

  5. Hi ! I would like to contact you by email concerning your estonian start stitch chart. I’d like to show you the pattern I’m writing around it at the moment. How do I do? Cheers, Anne

  6. Been intending to comment on this post for a while!! The exhibit photos are so lovely, such an amazing amount of work.

    I think it’s great that you are using what you made. That way you get to enjoy it on a regular basis!

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