Sashiko stitching is an art form that evolved from a simple need.
Sashiko began in the North during the Edo period (1603-1868) and moved south along traditional trade routes. The plain running stitch of thick cotton thread makes striking geometric designs on the fabric, and allowed working people to have warm, decorative clothing that was within the confines of the law.
As chilled as it makes us to even imagine, 17th century Northern Japanese farmers somehow worked outside in clothing woven just from hemp or linen, fabric that offered just barely enough protection from the fierce winter cold.
Industrial fabric production didn’t come to Japan until the late 19th century and then, it was too expensive for most people to afford. Cotton doesn’t grow in northern climes. Even if the farmers and fishermen’s families of Northern Japan could afford to use silk, it was illegal for citizens of those classes to wear it, as it was also forbidden for them to use bright colors or vibrant patterns.
With fabric so dear and rare, each piece was carefully saved. Mending pieces of hemp fabric, traditionally dyed with indigo, allowed wives and daughters to stitch warmer pieces of clothing, adding layers from old scraps and cleverly incorporating a quilting style of piece-work that made for a more durable, more thermal, and ultimately — more beautiful items of clothing.
As the centuries progressed and cotton became more available, it was swapped for hemp and sashiko styles became more artistic and purposeful, with an aim beyond merely keeping the wearer warm.
Strengthening and adding bulk to fabric, quality sashiko stitchery eventually became a measure of suitability for young women hoping to marry, as sashiko-stitched kimonos were part of a traditional dowry.
Today, sashiko stitchery adds a gorgeous note to handmade textiles and remains a beautiful way to mend such indigo as blue jeans or other clothes that deserve to be mended and amended, their beauty retained and appended.