Sashiko-Inspired Book Covers

Works by Cy Twombly, Cui FeiIndia Flint, and explorations by Velma Bolyard (Aug. 1 post) recently reminded me of sashiko (pronounced sash'ko), a kind of Japanese stitching. Sashiko ("little stabs" in Japanese) is mainly characterized by designs sewn with a running stitch in white thread on an indigo background. It began as a practical way to layer and reinforce the primarily hemp clothing of poor farmers and fisherfolk in the late 1800s, but is now used as decoration on cotton quilts and other textiles. It was also used to patch together any good pieces of material left from worn-out clothing and create new garments. I wondered how the stitching might look on book cloth and book covers, and also how I might recreate a pieced-together look. The traditional patterns are repetitive and regular. I chose to improvise for bookmaking since I have not studied the formal technique. The work presented here is inspired by (but in no way comparable to) the fine craft taught by sashiko masters (for sashiko instruction, see links to the how-to books, below).

I started with blue book cloth for one, and painted and layered Velin Arches paper with indigo, Prussian blue, black, and marine blue FW acrylic inks for the other (Daniel Smith, Inc. carries both the paper and the inks).

The following assumes you want to individually wrap two boards for a Coptic binding. For the book with painted paper covers I used boards that were 6 1/4" square (159 cm). For the book cloth covered book I used boards that were 4" x 6" (102 - 152 mm). Cut your paper or book cloth to approximately 1" - 1 1/2" (25-38 mm) wider and taller than your boards. Turn the paper or book cloth over and draw around the boards. Traditionally, you would mark out your pattern with a grid and evenly sized stitches before you sew. You can do this now, if you like.

Use a long bookbinding needle and start sewing with waxed linen thread from the wrong side. You can use a bone folder to press the end of the thread to the paper to hold it. (The example is shown with unwaxed thread.) If you want a straight line, take your needle in and out and in and out before you pull the thread through. If you are sewing curves, you will need to sew each stitch separately.

Wrap the boards as shown on page 209 of Making Handmade Books, including the end papers. Cut the endpapers 1/4" (6 mm) smaller than your boards so you will have a 1/8" (3 mm) margin, or see this post for wrapping boards and a binding that includes a book block. Glue tends to seep through the sewing holes, so I recommend placing waxed paper under the cover paper or book cloth to protect your work surface before you apply the glue to the back. Discard the waxed paper. Press the boards into place

sewn on paper
sewn on book cloth

Hiromi Paper sells book cloth that is reminiscent of indigo-dyed cloth or denim. Some styles to look at: 341-72-Mohair Deep Blue; 201S-65 Sumida-Ori Blue (which I believe is what I used for the example shown); 540-73 - SN Shantung Midnight Blue. Or you may wish to dye the cloth yourself and make your own book cloth with mulberry paper and wheat paste (see page 22 of Making Handmade Books, Backing Cloth). And, of course, no one says it has to be blue.

For correct technique and lovely authentic patterns, you might refer to the excellent reference and instructional book, Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook by Susan Briscoe. She gives history, traditional patterns, more modern ones, and projects that features sewing sashiko by hand. Briscoe's book has patterns grouped by style such as: diamond stars, waves, and steps and weaves, giving multiple variations and their Japanese names. The 18 main projects (with their variations) are nicely shown and include samplers, cards, coasters, table mats, cushions, tote bags, and curtains.

If you are interested in using a sewing machine rather than stitching by hand, Mary  S. Parker's book Sashiko: Easy & Elegant Designs for Decorative Japanese Machine Stitching is very useful. Parker has patterns grouped by how the designs are formed: continuous straight lines, continuous curves, straight lines with pivots, etc., also with their Japanese names included. This book has step-by-step instructions for 20 projects (the book jacket says 25), which are similar to Briscoe's, but also include gift wrap cloths, director's chairs, and quilts.

Both books show and depend on the use of grids, marking patterns, and finding efficient paths on which to sew. Whether or not you wish to pursue the craft of sashiko by hand or with a sewing machine, the patterns can inspire a variety of projects.

Here is a simple article and link to Sashiko supplies. And a very quick sampler video:


india flint said…
thank you for your kind mention. what i particularly love about combining paper and stitch is that the sense of touch is more fully engaged
together with all the other possibilities that the buildup of surfaces bring.
while in Goleta recently my friend and i spent a pleasant afternoon working through some of your folded book techniques [from Making Handmade Books], creating variations and then adding stitch and dye to them. it's a great book with well-written instructions [i have a copy here at home too]
Velma Bolyard said…
always happy to drop over and read your thorough instructions and tutorials. and thanks for the mention! the crossover, as india says, between cloth and paper and dye/patterning and books is rich, another ecotone to explore.
Alisa said…
You're welcome, India! And it has been interesting watching your process, Velma. Using natural materials to dye and stain cloth, and then sewing on it is so tempting…Always more to try!
Anonymous said…
I love the combination of embroidery and book, a place I have been stuck in for some time as I have been converting traditional blackwork embroider into exposed bindings. I am now thinking some of these patterns might also work. Thanks for another thoughtful and inspirational post. My well is certainly filled tonight. I agree that the tactile/hand qualities of sewing add such dimension, and also for me a sense of connecting to the past and the long line of women who as you point out embroidered as a way of making do.
Alisa said…
Someone asked in email about the purpose of the waxed paper. To clarify: you would use it to protect your work surface as you might use old magazines for scrap paper. The waxed paper is not attached to anything and not part of the project; it is thrown away after you apply glue to the back of your book cloth or paper.