Date of this Version
From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).
The term sashiko refers to the stitching of one or more layers of cloth with a simple running stitch and can also apply to the completed fabric. Sashiko is the noun of the verb sasu, meaning to pierce. Sashiko probably was initially a way to recycle or extend the life of cloth. Among the textiles in the Shoso-in, the Imperial Repository built circa 752 to preserve thousands of objects of art and other belongings of the Emperor Shomu, is an 8th Century "distant mountain" pattern monk's robe covered with a purple silk running stitch. This running stitch is superfluous to the actual structure of the robe. This is a development of an earlier ritual robe, evolved to the point where the stitches have lost their original function to strengthen and attach the patches of cloth, but retained to give the appearance of the original "robe of rags." This is the oldest example of sashiko extant in Japan. There is a gap in recorded history from this point until the 17th Century when other sashiko are mentioned.
Sashiko was done throughout Japan, primarily by women. It is not known to have been done commercially with the possible exception of some of the firemen clothing. Often it was done by and for people who were too poor to buy new cloth. Sashiko developed from necessity rather than as a luxury, so the art of sashiko wasn't highly competitive, with some exceptions. That is, the product was not regarded as a statement of fashion. Originally a practical technique for making cloth thicker, warmer, and more durable, sashiko can also be purely decorative. Clothing that has been over stitched is not only very strong, but warm. Therefore, it was reasonable to reinforce the cloth by stitching before the cloth wore out. Presently it is done on new cloth, for garments and textiles to be sold in folk craft shops.
Typically, sashiko stitching is done with white cotton thread on an indigo-dyed fabric. Most sashiko uses one strand of thread through the needle, doubled so that both strands account for the stitch although it can be done with a single strand. The length of the stitch varies with the number of layers being stitched together. Keeping the stitches even in length, as well as straight, requires skill and practise. There are approximately five to ten stitches per inch (five to ten stitches per 2.5 cm.) with certain districts noted for having particularly fine stitching. Sashiko was done on balanced weave textiles, that is the warp and weft are the same thickness and weight of thread. Although the ground fabric threads were not usually counted, the stitches were. Within a pattern, per line, the same number and length of stitch is held constant and is consistent (from point A to B are always x number of stitches and the length of each stitch is held constant). Many patterns consist of straight lines that intersect at right angles, so counting the stitches made the patterns quite exact. At the point of intersection either the stitching threads cross creating a pattern, or the absence of the threads create a pattern such as a star or the center of a flower. Sashiko can be either a single repeating pattern or a combination of several patterns on one fabric.