The Japanese Art of Sashiko Stitching

Riding the tide of the indigo trend, Japanese antique boro cloths have become increasing popular in design. Rustic and textured, these patchwork textiles lend not some color to a room, but also a sense of history and a touch of the handmade.

But have you ever really paid attention to the sashiko stitching on these cloths? I hadn’t until recently when I purchased a vintage Japanese zokin, a clothing fabric scrap repurposed with long, contrast stitching to create a dust rag. (It was too pretty for dusting; I’ve added mine to my prized pot holder collection.) Then I noticed the same stitching on a friend’s jeans. And suddenly this striking embroidery seemed to be everywhere. I had to find out more.

Above L: Sashiko stitching on an antique boro cloth. Above R: A stack of vintage quilts and boros from Sri, a showroom in Brooklyn that specializes in Japanese and Indian textiles.

What is sashiko?

Sashiko is a type of running stitch developed in rural Japan centuries ago, when, rather than buy new, the wives and daughters of Japanese farmers and fishermen would mend and patch worn clothing and other textiles. Made using a thick, embroidery-like thread, sashiko stitches are plainly visible and often form a regular pattern. Originally a rough, freeform stitch, sashiko evolved into increasingly elaborate geometric designs used for decoration.

Above: A boro cloth with sashiko stitching in Lotta Agaton's Stockholm living room.

What’s the difference between sashiko and boro?

People often fail to distinguish between sashiko and boro, which is understandable because they go hand in hand. Both are mending techniques—boro, meaning “rags” or “tattered cloth,” refers to textiles that have been patched many times—see Design Sleuth: The Japanese Boro. Sashiko, meaning “little stabs,” is a long, prominent stitch often used on boro. 

(By the way, if you’re wondering why boro is almost always indigo, it’s because Edo-era laws restricted the working classes from wearing bright clothes. For these rural citizens, indigo dye was both hard wearing and said to repell insects. You can read more about the history of sashiko and boro at Studio Aika.)

Above: Elizabeth Leslie sells a wide assortment of sashiko-stitched boro at her Japan-based online shop Nature Collect and her Etsy store, Mujo. This Antique Boro Textile is $270.

Above: A vintage sake bag with sashiko-stitched patches that I bought it to use as a pillowcase. Similar Boro Sake Bags are available through Etsy seller Indigo Blue Japan for $39 each.

Above: Vintage zokin are often used these days as table mats and wall hangings. The Zokin Dust Cloth shown here is available at Mujo for $22. Based in Yokohama, Japan, the Etsy shop Fabric Life is also an excellent source for zokin cloths.

Above: This Cotton Kotatsugake from Sri, made to cover a brazier-heated table, is embellished with a complex sashiko pattern. Inquire about availability ad price.

Above: UK artisan Sarah Matthews often uses sashiko stitching in her handmade pillows, which she sells at Elizabeth Leslie’s shop Nature Collect and her own Etsy shop, Ethical Life. Made from vintage fabric, her Sashiko-Stitched Indigo Cushion is available on Etsy for $88.

Above L and R: Sasaski Yohinten uses sashiko and boro techniques to revived vintage garments from Europe. I’m trying hard to resist her Vintage Czech Military Apron in indigo ($77) and Boro-Patched Jute Bag Apron ($101).

Can I learn to do sashiko myself?

Absolutely— I’ve recently taken up the technique myself to breath new life into ripped jeans and to patch an ancient pair of lace pillow cases made by my grandmother. Purl Soho has several sashiko DIYs that tell you all you need to get going.

Above: Fashion your own Reversible Sashiko Placemats with a tutorial from Purl Soho’s Purl Bee.

N.B. Looking to infuse your home with more Japanese arts? See:

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