Sashiko: A Japanese Embroidery Technique

A week ago, at the very end of my week off, I found myself awake at a very unlikely and unfriendly hour with a spell of insomnia. I ended up browsing the internet and somehow navigated to various sites researching the techniques and history of a Japanese embroidery craft known as Sashiko.

Sashiko (pronounced with a short i, as in ‘hip’) is a technique that builds lines of simple running stitches placed at even intervals to form geometric patterns or images. The technique originated as a means to strengthen weakening areas of peasant clothing as a form of darning, and the word Sashiko itself mens ‘little stabs’, representative of the small darting stitches that punctuate the surface of the fabric. The utilitarian uses of the technique later evolved into a finer decorative craft used to form pleasing patterns.

I decided that I’d like to try some Sashiko stitching of my own so ordered a printed Sashiko base fabric from Australia. Through some magic, the kit arrived in my mailbox only four days later, so after work we dashed to the nearest craft store to buy some thread and needles appropriate for the embroidery work and started the meditative stitching.

Traditional Sashiko designs are usually worked by first completing the outside border stitches and then working in defined directional steps. The instructional steps sheet that came with the sampler I purchased advised that once the border stitches were complete that the diagonal rows should be worked first one way and then the other, working from corner to corner (at least, I believe that this is what the instructions advised, as they were in Japanese).

The long, evenly spaced rows of running stitch that make up Sashiko embroidery are worked using a special Sashiko needle, a very long (5-7cm) needle that can hold a lot of stitches along its length. A good but comfortable number of passes through the fabric are built up on the needle before the thread is drawn through to create a line of running stitches. This not only helps the work pass at a reasonable speed but also helps the lines of stitches remain straight as the needle is passed in and out of the fabric weave in parallel rows.

I decided to work the design in an indigo cotton size 5 perlé thread with the colour chosen as most examples of Sashiko work that I found appeared to be white or cream thread on Indigo cloth, or vice versa, with the former arrangement being the most popular. Unfortunately it appears to be far easier to find white background fabric samplers than those in Indigo, though I’d like to try a few different patterns and colour variations if I were to do any more Sashiko stitching, which I do hope to explore further.

As the lines of stitches build, the rhythm becomes meditative and calming, until you reach the shortening rows of the diminishing diagonals that suggest some kind of goal once you can fit an entire row of stitches onto the needle in a single pass. This heralds a sprint finish for the section and the promise that the geometry will build to reveal some new shapes as a new direction makes itself apparent, before this gently settles into yet more meditative stitching.

I’m on the cross diagonal rows now, and every line of stitches changes the dynamics of the piece of fabric, as lines make their way for a wave of little boxes, which will in turn make their way for yet more complexity of shape as new stitches are added and built.

I hope to find some more time this week to work on my Sashiko stitching, and I shall let my mind wander into the possibilities of what I can make with the sampler, once complete.

7 thoughts on “Sashiko: A Japanese Embroidery Technique

  1. Wow! do you mind sharing where you bought the kit (I’m in Australia)? That would make a nice cushion. How do you manage the ends of the threads?
    Lisa

    1. Not at all. I actually bought it from eBay, the seller ID is diy.lovers – there are probably a few more on there, too. The samplers are manufactured by Olympus, and there seem to be a number of available outlets.

    2. The ends are started and woven in at the back – you actually stitch through two layers of fabric, so the ends of the darker thread do not show through – you have to leave a little ‘slack’ at turning points to stop any puckering as you stitch without a hoop. I’ll try to do a second post as I progress to cover these few points.

  2. Looks looks really cool! I don’t know much about traditional embroidery, but this looks more enjoyable than a lot of in-and-out, but maybe that’s the knitter in me. 😉 (sjn821 on Rav)

  3. I’m fascinated to see what you do with this, as I have a piece that I finished ages ago & never did anything with. Looks like a similar size too…

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