Slow Stitch: Sashiko, Boro, and Beautiful Mending
January is ‘Make Do and Mend’ month, this post focuses on the traditional mending techniques of Sashiko and Boro. As well as looking at Claire Wellesley-Smith’s recent book covering just these subjects, and many more, Slow Stitch.
[This post contains an affiliate link, which means that if you click through and buy the product I will receive a small amount in return at no extra expense to yourself. All opinions, however, are my own and I will only ever recommend products that I have happily used myself]
With the new year always comes protestations of new ideals and values with which we aspire to live by. As I try to live a little more creatively and incorporate that in a more meaningful way into my daily life the notion of ‘Make Do and Mend’ seemed like an appropriate mantra to adopt.
Not only do I have an intense reluctance to throw away items of clothing that, for myriad reasons, I have attached an unquantifiable value to (see my other recent post on this subject here), but also there is a desire not to be constantly swept up in the increasingly incessant trend of mass consumption and the inevitable waste it causes. As a family member put it recently: ‘I want to tread a little more softly on the Earth’.
How fortunate we are, then, that we have the privilege to be able to make this decision. To have the choice of a less consumer driven life and to actively work against being so wasteful is a modern luxury, and many of the techniques that you can find and utilise on your own mending journey are long established textile traditions.
Sashiko, for example, is a technique that dates back to ancient Japan. The word itself translates to ‘little stabs’ and refers to the repeated running stitch work of the tradition. Today you may find many examples of Sashiko stitching and patterns and marvel at the elegant geometric aesthetic of the repeated patterns created. However, this type of stitching also served a functional purpose and originated as a method of mending.
Known as a ‘folk textile’, because of its roots with the working classes of Japan, Sashiko was used to mend and reinforce garments to extend their life and get the most use from them. Make do and mend as a necessity. Yet, with Sashiko, mending is not something to be concealed. It is turned into its own art form which is perhaps the reason for its longevity.
Another traditional Japanese technique, Boro, originated as a consequence of harsh socio-economic conditions. In an environment where every scrap of cloth and thread was a precious entity, the poor manual labourers of Japan developed a technique that, similar to patch-working traditions, utilised every piece of cloth into a collaged whole.
Traditional items have a distinctive indigo hue, and create a narrative of the history of the piece. Sashiko stitching was often incorporated into such pieces as additional remnants of cloth were added to patch holes or change the function of the item. This was a technique that often had its own negative social connotations, due to class hierarchies, however, it has recently seen a resurgence in interest from many textile artists.
This technique flourishing out of necessity has been the inspiration for the movement that Claire Wellesley-Smith calls ‘Slow Stitch’ in her book of the same name. She notes the ways in which these forms of textile practice can be utilised today, and have been by many artists, for varying purposes.
One aspect that she emphasises in the book is the notion of sustainability. A concept that I discussed earlier, in our relatively affluent circumstances it seems odd to some that reusing cloth and items of clothing should be something to aspire to. As the Japanese people who experienced the negative impacts of social hierarchy when developing Boro, we live in a world that wants to dictate the notion of frequent consumption and obsolescence.
There is no doubt that the rebellious streak in me finds this an appealing aspect of such textile techniques. The thought that they can be used as a tacit rejection of consumerist society. Then there is also the added bonus that they allow you to create something wholly new and unique out of an old garment. But there is another aspect to this resurgence in hand-stitching techniques that is also of note.
I am reminded of an intensely stressful year. I had decided to undertake a PGCE, and, despite advice to the contrary, thought that holding down a part-time job while embarking on a full-time post-graduate course with work placements was nothing I couldn’t handle. I made it through, in spite of a few bouts of exhaustion, but another thing that got me through was stitching.
As noted in Slow Stitch, the process of hand-stitching can have some real benefits from the perspective of mental well-being. I remember being implicitly frustrated with an assignment I was having to complete. So, I stepped away and picked up the new patchwork project that I had recently started. The rhythmic process of stitching brought the world, and the work, back into focus, and I felt a calm ambience wash over me. It is a process that echoes many of the current ideas related to mindfulness and how focusing on a physical act can relieve mental stress and anxiety.
After being to a recent book talk by the wonderful Ruby Wax where she explained the effects of the mindfulness technique it makes sense. The process of mindfulness relies on you focusing your attention on a physical act; she described taking a breath and noticing the feel of your feet on the floor. But stitching can have the same effect. You become so absorbed in the rhythmic motion of the needle, the appropriate tension of the thread, and the texture of the cloth between your fingers.
These two ideas, sustainability and contemplative process, are at the heart of Wellesley-Smith’s book which also presents a number of techniques and practical advice to get started (get a copy here [affiliate link]). Creative outputs, then, can have a much deeper impact than the act of creating in itself. Which is by no means limited to stitching and textiles. Drawing, painting, ceramics, and many other medias involve a physical manipulation that can have a positive mental effect.
The beauty of such traditional stitching, however, is that on the one hand you can create a more sustainable footprint upon the planet, while also giving yourself the mental space to recharge.