A Brief History of Sashiko: Ancient Tradition, Modern Art

slow living stitching Jan 15, 2024
a hana fukin, or tea towel, with sashiko stitching on it lays flat on a table, surrounded by various mending and stitching notions as well as two fluffy great cat paws in the upper right.

With many people searching for simplicity and finding their way to the slow living movement, it really comes as no surprise that sashiko has found its way to the mainstream over the last few years. Having spent time in Japan and studying under Japanese mentors, I am delighted to see this craft gaining traction in the West, as people begin to recognize sashiko's meditative, repetitive motions as a way of finding peaceful moments in the day-to-day. I do think it's important to recognize the cultural significance of sashiko and its origins in old Japan, so I wanted to share a brief history with you today!

If you'd like to read more about slow living, check out my blog post about the art of slowing down >>

Born of Necessity

To get to the beginning of sashiko, we need to go back to the Edo era in Japan, which took place from 1603-1868. The ruling classes in Japan in this period wanted to make sure that class divisions were obvious from looking at someone, so there were many rules put in place about what the working classes were allowed to wear and what was reserved for the ruling classes. This meant that finer fabrics and vibrant colours were worn by those from the upper classes of society, whilst the working classes were left with hemp, ramie (a flowering plant in the nettle family native to eastern Asia) and more recently cotton, often dyed with indigo.

Making cloth was labour intensive, and resources were often hard to come by. This made every scrap of fabric precious, and rather than throwing away clothing, people would repair it by adding a patch with a simple and secure running stitch.

My studio jeans, patched more than 25 times with sashiko stitching (I've actually lost count how many times they've been mended)

Patterns and Designs

Although sashiko is made up only of running stitch, it did not take the women of ancient Japan long to begin adding their own artistic flair to their repairs, resulting in many of the stitch patterns we know and love today. The motifs they created sometimes were representative of the stories of their lives, while many others were representations of things found in nature, like the Nowaki (Blowing Grasses) or Seigaiha (Blue Ocean Waves) patterns.

Some patterns were even used as talismans, meant to bring protection when worn - for example, fishermen might wear the Takonomakura (Five Pointed Cross) pattern to protect themselves from shipwrecks. The patterns all have names and backstories rooted in history.

Sashiko patterns can be categorised into 2 distinct styles of stitches: Hitomezashi, or one-stitch, and Moyozashi, or patterned stitch.

Hitomezashi is typically used for straight lines and angular shapes, where stitches meet or cross:

Moyozashi uses curves to form patterns that never overlap or cross:

Sashiko Today

After seeing a brief dip in popularity in the mid 1900s, with materials and resources becoming easier to acquire, sashiko is back and big! In spite of the rise of fast fashion and no real "need" to repair, the Western world has eagerly adopted this art for a number of reasons.

First, overproduction and fast fashion itself has been a catalyst for some. With people and planet being exploited all the way down the supply chain, repair, and especially visible repair, has become a quietly rebellious way of saying "no" to the system.

Secondly, there is the simple beauty of it. The designs and motifs are beautiful to look at, and often appear complicated and intricate, despite being made up of only running stitch. This makes sashiko a very rewarding craft for the stitcher!

Finally, the rise of the slow living movement has prompted a variety of other "slow" movements, including slow stitching. People are hunting for a way to quiet their busy minds, reduce stress, and get back to the simple things - and they are finding solace in the active meditation of hand stitching and sashiko.

Have you begun to dive into the vast, rich world of sashiko? If you're looking for a place to start, you can get the Ultimate Sashiko Guide to Getting Started for free here.



Hi, I'm Kate!

I am a strong believer in starting where you are and using what you have, wherever and whatever that may be.

Everyone should get to experience the joy of connecting to others through learning, experimenting, and creating.

Creativity doesn’t have to be expensive or wasteful. Whether we’re using natural materials, reusing materials, or shopping our own stashes first, creating mindfully goes beyond being present in the moment - it extends to being mindful of our environment and the other communities around us, too.