The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
the quilt scout goes global:
If as a high schooler in American History class you grumbled about having to learn all those pesky dates and names of important people, know that you got off easy. To look at the history of Japan through the lens of textiles — or any lens, for that matter — is to apprehend a history that includes things like dynasties and emperors, and way, way more dates, given that Japan has been around approximately one fafillion years longer than our United States.
But you don’t have to go back all the way to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (that would be 700-200 B.C.) to appreciate the history and the artistry behind Japanese quilts, good news for both you and me. Lucky for us, many of the techniques used so very long ago in Japanese quilts are techniques Japanese quilters use today. You might have used some of these techniques, yourself. If you’ve ever tried your hand at Sashiko stitching, you’ve been influenced by a Japanese quilt tradition.
The term sashiko literally translates to “little stab” or “little pierce”; those of us who have stabbed a finger with a long, thick Sashiko needle can appreciate this term for that reason.
The name actually comes from the need to take strong, long, stitches when making or repairing garments. The Sashiko stitch method is traced back to the 1600s, and comes in two flavors, if you will. Moyōzashi, a running stitch that forms a pattern, forms patterns that are achingly Japanese, i.e., lovely waves, mountains, cypress leaves, and flowers. Hitomezashi is the other style of traditional Sashiko where the stitches are taken in more of a grid-style layout. Classic Sashiko is usually white thread on indigo cloth — boro cloth is a popular choice and has been for thousands of years — but there are variations.
A classic Sashiko-stitched quilt, made by volunteers, exhibited in the Textile Museum of Canada in 2012. Image: Wikipedia.
There’s far more to Japanese quilts than just Sashiko, but I give the history on it to put things in perspective. Because though such techniques are still used today, there was a Japanese quilt explosion in the mid-1970s and when that explosion happened, old methods of coverlet making were disrupted in a remarkable — and remarkably swift — way.
Nothing is ever quite so simple, but it’s fair to say that Japanese folks who were moved to start playing with patchwork in the last quarter of the 20th century were inspired by the quilt revival happening in America. When the Shiseido company mounted an exhibition of American quilts in Tokyo in 1975, the Japanese people were introduced to American quilt styles. If they didn’t happen to see that show, it didn’t matter: With all the shows and markets and shops and magazines going on over here, it was inevitable that word would get out. What they saw in American quilt styles, they loved.
Though quilter’s cotton was more plentiful in the States, Japanese quilters sourced what they could and dove into the process of making very American-looking work. Straight out of the gate, Japanese quiltmakers established themselves as being very, very good at quilts. Impeccable workmanship was the standard; one wonders if anyone let a less-than-perfect quilt see the light of day. In those early years, many quilters were making faithful reproductions of the traditional American quilts they saw in magazines and newspapers.
Right: Me and the legendary Shizuko Kuroha at the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln. If you look up one Japanese quilter right now, look up Shizuko-san. Image: Author’s own.
But there were mavericks and innovators who were pushing the envelope, combining those traditional Japanese techniques (like Sashiko!) with the newfound American-style patchwork and appliqué with which they were so enamored. This hybrid experimentation resulted in quilts that I personally find breathtaking. The complexity of the piecing — often almost infinitesimally small — and the way the makers seem to be born with the ability to understand and manipulate color, tone, and volume result in quilts that are utterly, beautifully Japanese.
The quilts that come out of Japan today are no different, and these masterpieces can be seen without going all the way to Tokyo, though plenty of Japanese fan-girl quilters have made the trip to the largest quilt show in the world, the Tokyo International Quilt Festival, held every year in January. If you can’t get there, the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, is showing work from the 13th Annual Quilt Nihon contest in October, and the International Quilt Study Center and Museum has a collection rich in Japanese quilts and frequently exhibits work absolutely worth a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Left: Big crowds at the 2013 Tokyo Quilt Festival. Image: Wikipedia.
The trip to Japan concludes my world quilt exploration, at least for now. A trip to England this summer may result in some Scout-on-the-ground field reporting, as long as I am finished eating all the scones with all the clotted cream.
Happy globe-trotting, quilters. Let’s cover the earth — in quilts.