Artist wearing one-of-a-kind Shawl
handstitched with traditional sashiko embroidery

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Innovation in Sashiko
by Lucy Arai, 1994

When I was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and American father, I inherited a bicultural legacy that paved the way for my nontraditional practice of sashiko. March 3, the day on which I was born, is called Girl's Day in Japan. On this day, dolls of the Empress and Emperor of Heian Japan (794-1185) are displayed along with their full court, honoring the legacy all girls inherit from their mothers and grandmothers. In Aomori Prefecture, it was the tradition of sashiko that women passed on to their daughters. The year I turned sixteen, I went to Tokyo to live with my mother's brother. There I learned sashiko, not from my aunt or grandmother, but from my uncle, a collector of Japanese needlework techniques. His unconventional hobby became the catalyst for the later innovations in my work that combine the two cultures of my parents.

Since I did not speak Japanese and my uncle did not speak English, sashiko was our medium of communication. My lessons were probably much like those of the young girls of the Aomori prefecture. I imitated my uncle's sewing, trying to copy the patterns as he did them. The result of those efforts was my first garment, a short jacket called a hanten. Over the next twenty years, sashiko became a part of my daily life, and experience confirmed what my uncle was trying to impress on my awkward hands - practice does bring consistent tension and straight, even stitches.

Detail of Shawl

Even more exciting has been the gradual evolution of this stitchery tradition into new applications. My sashiko garments have ventured beyond the traditional hanten and utilitarian clothing and developed into contemporary garments of my own design. The "shrawl," half shawl and half shrug (shawl with sleeves) incorporates traditional sashiko patterns in all-cotton chambray fabric and sashiko thread. This piece playfully highlights the versatility of the sashiko embroidery technique.

The strength of the grid-based designs led me to experiment with sashiko to quilt window screening between two layers of Japanese paper. I wanted to create a membrane that would be large, resilient, and strong. The forms grew into large, gracefully curving translucent membranes of stitched paper that could withstand the weight of rocks.

Japanese art and design have a history of evolution through gradual refinement of spontaneous developments. This is also true of sashiko, as is evident in the designs of textile artists who borrow sashiko patterns for woven and painted kimono and obi in silk and wool. One of the best examples is the winner of the 1993 Grand Prix Kimono award, Mr. Yoshiike of Yonezawa, Japan. His black silk kimono is entirely embellished with more than eighty different patterns in multicolored silk threads, sewn by six women over a period of one year.

Sashiko is a stitchery technique that was developed to strengthen, reinforce, and quilt fabric for daily use. It is a tradition that strengthens, reinforces, and quilts lives and cultures, always offering new possibilities.

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All text and artwork are Lucy Arai.