Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Japanese Sashiko Textiles

Sashiko_Collins_GalleryBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Japanese Sashiko Textiles

Collins Gallery, Glasgow
27 February – 10 April, 2010
Plymouth Gallery, Plymouth
31 July – 26 September, 2010

Examples of textiles worn as workers clothing are unusual for good reason. One explanation is that only recently have these textiles enjoyed recognition for their social and cultural importance. The second reason is even more pragmatic: many were used and reused until there was nothing left to collect. Based on research by textile artist Michele Walker, this comprehensive exhibition charts the Japanese stitch technique of sashiko practiced in Japan through the 1950s in working class communities. The term translates as “little stitches” and was used to increase the durability of the fabric and provide an integrated approach to patching and repair. Over seventy examples are brought together for this exhibition and are significant for a number of reasons – the first is the simple fact that these textiles have survived at all.

Indigo, which was believed to provide physical protection to those who wore it, dominates the palette of textiles on display. This, combined with the belief that the stitch patterns offer spiritual protection to their wearers, imbues these garments with responsibilities that go beyond the pedestrian concerns of warmth and modesty. One focus of Walker’s extensive research is the rural island of Sado. The region’s geographic isolation helped keep the technique in use through the 1970s and Walker’s 2004 trip to the island allowed precious oral history to be recorded from elderly members of the community. In a recent interview with Hamabe Sugi, an elderly woman employed in post war road construction, Walker asks where her sashiko clothing is today: “She pointed to the garbage bin”. To interpret this as simply a shame for textile history is, in part, to miss the point. As the exhibition texts explain, sumptuary laws restricted labourers to wearing cotton and, for many in Japan, sashiko was discarded following World War II because of its association with the poverty few wanted to live through again. To discard the garment suggests not only a worn out material, but also the possibility of progress in the wearer’s life.

Contemporary work is also included: woven cloth that mimics a stitched surface and a mosaic of embroidered off cuts both by NUNO and a series of commissioned garments, including stitched cotton boots, by Miyoko Tokunaga. But comparison to recent movements such as slow fashion would be a mistake. “Although sashiko is now popular in the contemporary craft world, this exhibition concentrates on the customs and lives of the people who made and wore these clothes out of necessity,” notes the exhibition. Two examples of this necessity are particularly moving. Heavily stitched cloth fire fighters uniforms (used until World War II) were soaked in water before battling the frequent blazes wood structured communities suffered. But I found the most moving display of this excellent exhibition to be two stitched fabric air raid hoods on loan from Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum originally found near ground zero of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima. They are two textiles that offer a harrowing reminder of the impossible expectations we have – at times – asked of cloth.

Embroidery Magazine (July/August 2010: 54-55)