January 14, 2023

Japanese Mending

I mentioned mending on my winter project list. It's an ongoing job (our lifestyle is hard on clothes), and a good task for when the weather is too cold or rainy to do outside things. It has a utilitarian nature and so tends to be tedious, but I prefer the mindset of longevity through repair rather than buy, buy, buy. Plus, I like hand sewing.

When I discovered "visible mending," I was delighted to realize I can put a creative twist on a mundane chore, because it transforms a potentially boring task into something fun and interesting. Like when I mended my barn gloves, I used variegated embroidery thread and enjoyed the plaid-like patterns it made. Another example, when I hang laundry on the line to dry, I like to hang items in a color pattern, like a rainbow. The challenge is, can I do it? I try, for no other reason than it amuses me during an otherwise tedious job.

Two of the visible mending techniques I've discovered in exploring YouTube videos are boro and sashiko. These Japanese techniques are currently very popular with the needlework crowd, so if you're a stitcher, you're probably familiar with them. As a longtime embroiderer and patchwork quilter, they appeal to me immensely. I was curious to understand them better and started exploring videos. 

The best of these videos are by Atsushi Futatsuya. He is a native Japanese from a sashiko family, who lives and teaches sashiko in New York. He's the most authoritative source I've found. He has a YouTube channel, 刺し子 物語 & Sashiko Story, and website, Upcycle Stitches

From Atsushi's "Sashiko Story" video series, I learned not only about the tools and techniques of boro and sashiko, but was also introduced to the Japanese cultural significance and identity of these skills. 

Public domain image of late 19th century child's boro sleeping mat

Everything that follows below are the beginnings of my understanding.

Here's a close-up of the above

Boro could be translated as "tatters" and describes the overall patchwork look of boro textile repair.

Another close-up

Sashiko means "little stabs," which describes the running stitch used to hold the layers of fabric together. Originally, the stitching served to strengthen and reinforce the fabric (like quilting). 

And another

Fast forward to today, and we see boro and sashiko are still mending techniques that have became more focused on the decorative aspect. They have become an art form in their own right. 

Even so, the precise origin of these crafts is vague, so there is a lot of speculation and opinion out there. Most sources agree it likely developed in rural Japan, at a time when fabric was expensive to buy.  That meant fabric was scarce and valuable. It was used and reused out of necessity. 

This kind of necessity is foreign to us moderns because fabric and clothing are now cheap and readily available. I buy almost all of Dan's and my clothing off the dollar rack at thrift stores. Much of it is never or barely worn! I buy a lot of fabrics at thrift stores too, and because these are so abundant and so cheap, it almost seems to make mending and clothing repair obsolete. Just cut up the old stuff for rags and use them instead of paper towels. 

From many of the videos I've watched, however, I'm seeing a shift of motive toward environmental responsibility. The clothing industry is excessively wasteful and fueled by fads. Mending, repairing, re-using, and repurposing are ways the consumer can make a difference. And if the process can be creative and fun, so much the better! Hence the popularity of visible mending. 

Besides the cultural importance, what distinguishes sashiko from other forms of needlework?

  • Patterns are built with running stitches, which are stacked on the needle before pulling it through the fabric.
  • Traditionally, special needles, thread, and thimbles are used.
    • Sashiko thread is spun to make it sturdier for repair and longer-wearing than embroidery thread.
    • Needles are sharps and long enough to pick up several stitches before pulling through the fabric.
    • Needle eyes are narrow but long enough to accommodate multi-strand thread.
    • Thimble is a ring aka palm thimble. It's worn like a ring with a metal plate or leather flap on the palm side of the hand. It's used to push the needle through the many layers of fabric.
  • Traditional color is indigo blue, although nowadays, anything goes. 


Okay, so now that I have my notes and links where I can find them again, I'll close this post with a link to what I've been working on → Winter Mending Project: Barn Jacket.


daisy g said...

Wow! You are the creative one! I never thought of hanging my clothes on the line in that manner, but I will think of it every time I hang from now on! ;0D

Some of the Japanese stitching videos I've watched are fascinating. Glad you found something to keep your hands busy during cold and rainy days.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh - As I recall, in Liza Dalby's book Kimono: Fashioning Clothing, she talks about the marvel of patchwork of Japanese peasant clothing, how in the early and mid-20th century one could still find clothing that was a patchwork collection of different cotton garments. In one description of finding such a garment, the discoverer writes of the sheer tenacity that is demonstrated by the garment as the life was literally wrung out of every possible scrap.

I have a plethora of clothes gathered over the years, mostly sporting t-shirts from events. I could and certainly should reduce what I have, but it is a narrow band between getting rid of not enough and getting rid of so much that I have to buy more.

Florida Farm Girl said...

Atsushi Futatsuya is one of the lecturers and teachers at the Quilt Con modern quilt show coming up at the end of February in Atlanta. Right now I don't have any plans to attend but who knows what will happen by then. I've got a wall hanging quilt that I want to try the big stitch quilting on.

Ed said...

My mom was a big believer in patching clothes. It amuses me to look at old pictures that we intentionally posed for and our clothes are full of patches and rips. My wife would be mortified if I were to do the same thing today. But for the reasons you mentioned, we really should do more than we do.

Boud said...

I love decorative repair, and I've done quite a bit of it. Now, when I see a hole develop, I think hm, what flower shall I embroider there?

Sashiko is a lovely artform, as art as well as functional.

Leigh said...

Daisy, ha! There have to be ways to make boring jobs more interesting. :) I've seen some amazingly creative Japanese videos on textile repair and clothing repurposing. There's an invisible repair technique that I'd like to try, although I don't think I have the patience for it. But it is amazing.

TB, sounds like my kind of book. I'm assuming she's talking about boro, which is indeed amazing. There's a traveling boro exhibit that makes it to various art museums. I've only seen pictures.

Ah yes, that illusive narrow band between too much and not enough. I'm not sure if there is ever a satisfactory balance.

Sue, wow, I would go just to hear him speak! And I've not heard of big stitch quilting, so I'm intrigued. My great-grandmother hand quilted at ten stitches per inch; something I've never been able to duplicate. Big stitches sound more like my style, lol.

Ed, isn't it interesting how people have such different perceptions of patching and mending. I think perception is changing because of landfill awareness and the creativity of visible mending, particularly sashiko. Some of the work is absolutely stunning.

Boud, I'm with you. And discovering all these videos on YouTube has been a fascinating way to spend my time! So many ideas to try. :)

Nancy In Boise said...

Thanks for sharing all that information! I discovered this a year or two ago and it's fascinating. I started using it too patch some of the elbows of my favorite flannel blouses

Leigh said...

Nancy, it certainly tidies up a patch!

Rain said...

Good for you Leigh for learning these techniques. You are so right that the clothing industry (as most industries today) are terribly wasteful. I think companies assume that most people would rather toss out and replace than to take the time and skill to repair, it's our disposable society and I can't stand it!

Leigh said...

Rain, I'm with you! The consumer mindset is obsolete, but sadly, I don't think many people are interested in changing.

Fundy Blue said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Leigh! It speaks to my frugal Maritimes background. Both of my grandmothers were into mending clothes, as well as my mother and great aunts on both sides of my family. Like you, I prefer "the mindset of longevity through repair rather than buy, buy, buy." Disposable fashion is very costly environmentally, and it's one area where I feel I can truly make better decisions in my life to lesson my environmental impact. Thanks for sharing this!

Leigh said...

Fundy, thank you for your encouraging comment! I love that mending has been a family tradition. Such a good thing to pass on. Disposable fashion is such a waste of resources. I'm glad more people are sticking to a sensible wardrobe.