Upcycling is a term that you may hear being bandied about as a sustainable way to repurpose worn down clothing. In the west, companies like Patagonia and Arc’teryx have been leading the charge with the former’s ReCrafted project and the latter’s partnership with Nicole McLaughlin, both of which aim to inject new life into discarded clothing. Japan, on the other hand, has been practicing its own form of upcycling since the Edo period.
Likewise, “buying less by buying better” is by no means a revolutionary concept, but sadly the proliferation of fast fashion has created among casual shoppers an expectation of convenience and instant gratification that renders this philosophy increasingly difficult to follow. Despite this, a burgeoning interest in Japanese subcultures has propelled certain artforms to the forefront of social media—in no small part due to the popularization and mainstream acceptance of monozukuri, which translates to “manufacturing, craftsmanship, or making things by hand”. This phenomenon is relatively modern and has only been cultivated over the past 20 years or so. One such artform that has exploded is Sashiko, which in its simplest form describes a series of repeated running stitches that form a decorative pattern over (most commonly) clothing—typically in white thread over indigo dyed fabric.
The history of sashiko
The term sashiko roughly translates to “little stabs”, accurately describing this process of visible mending. Much like boro (continuous patchwork historically utilised by rural Japanese), the principles intrinsic in sashiko are to preserve and extend the life of precious textiles. Its beginnings are rooted in the eighteenth century where working class Japanese families would reinforce their clothing with intricate stitching patterns, thus adding durability and warmth. The most recognizable patterns are the ‘Seven Treasures of Buddha’, ‘Blue Ocean Wave’ and ‘Hemp Leaf’. Once seen as an indicator of poverty post-World War II, this technique has experienced newfound appreciation amongst craftspeople and Japanophiles.
Perhaps the most astonishing demonstration of function for sashiko is its use by firefighters of that period. Uniforms were constructed to be heavy duty, layering the entire garment in sashiko for maximum absorbency, which meant that the coat, when drenched, could carry as much as 70 pounds of water. Centuries before the introduction of modern fire-resistant technology, this simple yet ingenious method helped keep firefighters cool, and in many cases, alive.
Where to buy
Closer to its ancestral home, labels like FDMTL have consistently presented their reinterpretations of sashiko by applying the contrast stitching technique on everything from collaborative sneakers with Vans to down-filled kimono jackets. Young designers in Japan (and indeed abroad) are keeping the tradition alive through direct nods to the past. Whilst genuine articles of vintage sashiko can fetch eye-watering sums amongst collectors, having these clothes available in the market means that consumers can experience the look and feel of sashiko without having to part with a month’s rent.
Outside of Asia, the pattern (or a derivative thereof) can now be seen incorporated into even the most commercial of products, with sashiko-inspired motifs present in shoe brands running the gamut from Nike and the abovementioned Vans, all the way to the latest collaboration between Spanish luxury house Loewe and the Roger Federer-backed Swiss sportswear company, On.
Sashiko and sustainability
In what may be an evolution of the “buying less by buyer better” concept, “repair don’t replace” is an ideology embraced by enthusiasts like Pey, who runs the Instagram account SASHIKODENIM. On this page, the ancient technique can most commonly be seen applied to well-worn and faded denim. Pey is based in Amsterdam, home to indigo centric stores like Tenue de Nîmes and brands like Denham, and occasionally takes on denim repair requests that integrate a heavy dose of (no surprises) sashiko stitching.
A valid argument could be made for throwing out a tired pair of jeans that is dotted with punctures and frayed edges. However rugged a piece of clothing may be, the physical stresses of daily life will eventually take its toll on the warp and weft of the cloth. For many, this is not the point. Denim has a tendency to develop unique fades depending on habits of the user and molds to the body over time, which often requires a significant investment of time. To discard the pair once it becomes slightly ratty would be sacrilege. To that effect, customisation by way of sashiko would only enhance its uniqueness. If you have been contemplating giving your favorite pair of jeans a refresh, consider reaching out to a professional like Pey or, for the more adventurous, try it yourself.
All Images: Lennert Antonissen/Sashiko Denim
Writer | Alexander Esmail
A solicitor by day and round-the-clock enthusiast for obscure denim finds, music both new and old, and classic tailored clothing. Alex is native to Hong Kong but spent significant time in the UK, and can usually be found around the city glancing at beautiful items he doesn't need.