From the Japanese sashi, ‘to stitch’ and ko, ‘small’, this is a 17thC Japanese hand sewing technique used for textile repairs and recycling best known for its geometric designs very often worked in worked in white or off white on indigo dyed cloth.
Sashiko is similar to the Indian kantha and french boutis a decorative quilting method securing layers of recycled fabrics with plain rows or a simple pattern of neat running stitches.
Undyed cotton or hemp threads are used for stitching the rows of straight lines, either following the grain or in meaningful, geometric patterns. These are similar to, and sometimes created from origami techniques–for instance, interlocking circles representing waves or fish scales are seen as symbols of good fortune; the ‘eyes’, open circles, which occur when stitches meet represent physical and spiritual strength.
In this way, sashiko textiles combine practicality (warmth and durability) with a spiritual dimension. It was traditionally sewn by women from the peasant and fishing communities for their own use, but also for firemen’s protective clothes. This is not as surprising as it might perhaps appear[ at first, as the layers of cloth held by this close stitchwork can be very solid and dense. Talismanic symbols were worked on the inside, and the garment liberally doused with water before they entered burning buildings.
Sashiko was also notably used for the Buddhist monk’s robe, the kesa, made of rags or parts of discarded garments; the act of sewing sashiko stitches, of turning something old into something new, was considered a meditative practice in itself.
When worn out, sashiko worked garments are themselves recycled,. They are cut into very fine strips and woven into new textile, sakiori , to extend their life cycle.