We are in love with traditional needle craft. When creative hand stitching is used to mend and reinforce well-loved hand-dyed hand-sewn fabrics… well, *double swoon*. The history, the inventiveness, the meditative quality of Kantha quilts and Sashiko embellishment tugs our heart strings. It has enriched our Pinterest addictions, lead to beautiful mending for our children’s clothes, and even inspired designs for baby wraps and baby carriers.
Sashiko is said to have been born out of ancient rural Japan, likely in the 17th Century in response to an imperial decree that the clothes of the “peasant” classes could only be blue or gray, the stitching no longer than a grain of rice, stripes no thicker than a piece of straw. The Sashiko technique was first employed by women from farming and fishing families to extend the life of worn fabrics, mend, and winterize clothing, and embellish everyday items. This was their “winter work”, much like the women of colonial U.S. would spin, knit and quilt during the cold winter months.
Sashiko, pronounced “sash (i) ko” with the “i” almost silent, means “little stabs”. Traditionally, there are two styles of Sashiko. The moyozashi style creates patterns out of long lines of tiny stitches that never touch. This is the “running stitch” which we feature in our Running Stitch Boba Baby Carrier 4G and our Boba Wrap Kantha (though the Seville Boba Wrap is also a bit similar to this stitch, though inspired elsewhere). Hitomezashi is the second style, which means “one stitch”. This is the one we see in all sorts of patterns like the coin stitch, rice flower stitch, woven bamboo and the persimmon stitch. We’ve featured the persimmon stitch (kaki no hana en Japanese) in our Persimmon Sashiko Boba Wrap.
When mending with Sashiko, a quilting technique is employed, called “boro”. Boro uses scraps of cloth to reinforce and make clothing stronger and warmer. Since fabric was expensive and so scarce for the working classes, even small scraps were valuable and all clothing was mended to be used as long as possible. Worn-out everyday clothes, such as kimonos and pants (having also been mended themselves previously), would be used in layers to quilt work clothing, essentially “bulking it up” for warmth and strength. When the work clothing was truly worn out and beyond mending, it would be recycled into other household items like aprons or bags, and eventually those into cleaning rags.
This boro sashiko quilting technique is much like Kantha, a centuries-old art tradition thought to have originate with the Buddha and his followers, but attributed to Odisha and West Bengal of India, and Bangladesh. Kantha embroidery, like Sashiko, employes small straight stitches to quilt together layers of old saris. The stitches are running stitches but often create elaborate multi-colored motifs. The results are beautiful one-of-a-kind kaleidoscope-like bed cushions and quilts often passed down for generations.
Though born out of necessity in poor areas of north eastern India as a way to keep warm and reuse scarce fabric, the craft evolved into a treasured handicraft made with pride and is used in modern Indian fashion. Women even sign their creations. There is a wide variety of Kantha styles and textiles. It is popular among tourists to West Bengal and worldwide, and often provides much needed work to women in impoverished areas.
It is inspiring to recall just how creative we are as a species. If necessity is the mother of invention, and creativity is an irrepressible need, then certainly Sashiko and Kantha are glorious expressions of both. In academic circles, it’s called “creative limitation” and is known to birth incredibly beautiful art.