“Sashiko” is translated from the Japanese as “little stabs,” and refers to a traditional form of needlework often used for decorative mending. The technique gained emerged within Japanese peasant classes in the mid-1800’s as a way to increase the longevity of the heavily-used hemp and cotton garments they relied on. Running stitches were used to decorate as well as reinforce layers of fabric, most of which were cut from older garments or scraps and reused in a quilting technique called boro, or “tattered rags;” at least one example of which is now a necessary staple in every Styleforum member’s closet
Sashiko fabric, however, is a much more recent development (and is the product, almost universally, of mechanical looms). It refers to a tightly-woven cotton fabric reinforced with a equally tight running stitch of embroidery-weight thread that imitates traditional sashiko needlework.
The weaving technique ensures that objects made from sashiko fabric will be able to take a beating – both literal and figurative. Sashiko gi are the traditional garb for aikido, judo and kendo practitioners, and act as an added layer of (light) protection for the wearer. Although many garments used for gi are bleached and left white, sashiko fabrics are also commonly dyed in indigo. Folk wisdom holds that naturally-derived indigo is an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agent (and that it keeps snakes away). I’ve yet to see clinical proof, but being covered in blue dye can’t hurt. Right?
Although they come in various weights, most sashiko fabrics are heavy and utilitarian, and its use in contemporary garments generally reflects that fact. Outerwear and the occasional heavy pant are where you’ll most often find it, and a handful of companies offer street clothing made from the hard-wearing fabric.
It’s a characterful fabric to be sure. Not only is the texture very distinctive, but the fade patterns (oh, yes – we must talk about those) result in beautiful contrast after some heavy wear. But more than that, one of the things that I like the most about the sashiko chesterfield I own (it’s from Blue Blue Japan) is that it’s a good stand-in for a leather jacket. Like a hide, it’s tough at first, but with use will soften up and mold to your body. It’s not as restrictive, either, which depending on who you are I suppose could be either a good or a bad thing. Plus, you can wash sashiko garments in cold water the way you would a pair of denim. Here’s how mine looks after a couple of years of wear:
Speaking of Blue Blue Japan, they’re a favorite of the Styleforum editorial team (and carried at affiliate No Man Walks Alone), and they offer several sashiko garments, including chesterfields and a great hunting jacket for this season (you can read about our visit to their showroom here). So does Gaijin Made, another Seilin brand. Kapital makes a range of sashiko-reinforced denim that they refer to as the “Century” line. Luxire, another Styleforum affiliate, now offers a sashiko jacket as well. Newer brands, such as Nine Lives, attempt to marry American heritage with Japanese workwear traditions, which results in clothing such as a sashiko-gusseted yak leather rider’s jacket.
The point is that, if you’re interested in giving sashiko a shot, there’s probably a piece of clothing out there that will appeal to you, whether it’s one of Blue Blue Japan’s more elegant pieces, or a rock ‘n roll indigo leather from Nine Lives.
One final note is that most sashiko garments, by virtue of the fabric weight and thickness, are relatively heavy and structured. They’re also often backed with another layer of cotton canvas, so don’t expect a great deal of “drape.” Instead, you get some nice creasing effects that really come to life as you wear the garment in. Do note that the weight of these fabrics varies depending on what the maker has in mind, so I recommend inquiring with a retailer before you buy. For example, Blue Blue Japan is offering a lighter-weight sashiko fabric this year that appears as a beautiful women’s robe-style overcoat, and some of Gaijin Made’s outerwear is designed to be lightweight.
Regardless of the garment, sashiko fabric is made to last. It’s abrasion-resistant, and despite being a cotton weave it’s tight and thick enough to use as a winter layer in many climates, especially when worn on top of a heavy knit. If you’d like to make a sashiko garment part of your wardrobe – and I recommend it – expect it to last a long time. And wear it hard, because that’s the point.