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Sashiko Embroidery Wins New Fans Stitch by Stitch

This is the pre-printed kit that Doenias gives her students alongside the finished product.


Native New Yorker Judy Doenias had no idea of the new world she would find during a visit to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Florida.  Here this quiltmaker and designer first encountered the 350-year old Japanese decorative embroidery known as sashiko.  She relates her experience by saying, “It was a traditional design done in white stitching on plain indigo-dyed cloth, and I was immediately drawn to it.  I knew it was something I had to do!”

Sashiko was developed during the Edo Period (1603-1868) primarily in Japan’s northern regions, but it fell out of favor by the end of the era.  It has gone through various forms during its long history.  Sashiko was initially used to layer various fabrics together and to make coats for fisherman and firefighters, but currently it is used for items as diverse as wall hangings, bags, home goods and kimonos.  Traditionally it had a white and indigo color scheme, but these days you can find multi-colored thread and other backgrounds besides indigo.

Doenias fell in love with sashiko due to a chance encounter over a decade ago.


In terms of the technique itself, sashiko uses long, substantial needles with thick cotton thread to create geometric patterns against a solid, background fabric. It employs a running stitch which passes the needle over and under the fabric, in contrast to a stab stitch where the needle is “stabbed” into the front of the fabric, left there, and then pulled through from the other side.  In quilting the stitching goes through all the layers, but in sashiko it does not (You will often see quilts that incorporate sashiko in their top layer).  Another difference is that whereas in quilting the stitches and the spaces between them have to be the same size, in sashiko the stitches are larger and these spaces are smaller.

In sashiko, using a palm thimble you can bend the fabric over the needle
and just push it through with the thimble.

When Doenias returned to her workplace, The City Quilter, she introduced the idea of a sashiko class.  This was 13 years ago at around the time when the store opened, and the class is still going strong.  Doenias gives her students a pre-printed kit with a pattern on it, which shows you how to do the stitches.  Sashiko patterns always include the grid on which they are based, so you can figure out the stitching regardless of whether or not you can understand Japanese.  She also has them draft their own patterns in small sizes and then transfer them to fabric to practice stitching that way.  Some common sashiko designs include the “yabane” or arrow which resembles stairsteps, tortoise shells, hemp leaves, and other nature motifs and geometrical shapes.  It is something that strikes you as being inherently Japanese when you look at it.

“Sashiko leaves an impression, and students take to it right away,” Doenias explains.  “Some join because they like Japanese things, and others love sashiko for its serenity and simplicity.”  But this is not the only reason for its appeal.  According to Doenias, sashiko is something that anyone can do because you don’t need experience to be good at it.  She says, “Sashiko is a very simple sewing technique, but the results are beautiful.  After finishing the class, students always come back to show me the bags and pillows they have made.”  In Japan, some places like Takayama still specialize in sashiko, but it is somewhat of a dying art in its home country.  Thanks to the passion of teachers like Doenias, hopefully this important part of Japanese culture can be kept alive.

Traditionally sashiko had a white and indigo color scheme,
but currently you can find a variety of multi-colored thread.

—— Reported by Stacy Smith

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The City Quilter

Located in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, The City Quilter specializes in fabric for urban quilters and sewers, and offers more than 150 quilting and sewing classes.  Recently having expanded the space, they now carry about 4,000 bolts of fabric in the 4,000 square foot store.  The next Sashiko class will be offered on March 23 from 12-3pm and 5-8pm.  The class fee is $ 40.

133 W. 25th St., (bet. 6th & 7th Aves.)
New York, NY 10001
TEL: 212-807-0390 / www.cityquilter.com