Japan rose to the top of my travel list after I couldn’t help but feel the stereotypical envy of a friend’s Facebook photos, taken while sitting in a hot spring looking out over beautiful green mountains. I want to go to there.
But recently I’ve become totally enamored of Japanese traditional arts, which seem to perfectly marry beauty and practicality regardless of the medium.
It was the beauty aspect that inspired me to sign up for a Sashiko embroidery class at the Textile Arts Center here in New York. Sashiko is a traditional Japanese embroidery, and its geometric and linear patterns are beautiful yet misleading in their complexity. The trick is that for even the most detailed design, the maker can find the longest linear route for her stitches and rarely begin a new thread.
By the end of the three-hour class, I had half of a potholder embroidered. And a few weeks later, I had a completed potholder with a very obvious untied stitch that I am convinced will fall out if someone was to even breathe on it.
But while my beginner’s potholder might be fragile, the real beauty of Sashiko is that it was meant to be tough. The style of embroidery began as a way to mend and reinforce elbows and knees and other clothing spots prone to uneven wear. But like all Japanese arts, someone along the line realized that it might as well be beautiful too, and Sashiko is a perfect example of combining utility and beauty. As the craft matured, it evolved from just a mending technique into its own art form.
One of the most popular uses of Sashiko is to repair worn knees in denim. Instead of trying to hide the mending process to make them look brand new again, the jeans evolve into something new that shows both their age and their rebirth. It is not unlike the Japanese art of Kintsugi, when broken pottery is pieced back together with gold. The repaired item becomes more valuable than when it was brand new.
Mending can be an art. It can tell the stories of a garment’s life. It can increase value, even if often just emotionally. It can turn something that even we did not appreciate into something treasured. And perhaps it can even help us see the “flaws” of our clothing as exactly why we love them most.
Images: [left] My potholder!; [right] Sashiko embroidery on denim via SarahDivi.com, found via Pinterest