by Jennifer Chen-su Huang
Textile traditions frequently share commonalities across cultures. The resourceful piecing together of scrap fabrics, also known as quilting and embroidery, is practiced throughout the world, and often visual and aesthetic affinities emerge in disparate places. Two very beautiful and similar embroidery styles involving the running stitch developed from necessity in different parts of Asia. In South Asia, in the Bengali region of the Indian subcontinent, Kantha embroidery originated, and in northern Japan, the Sashiko form of functional embroidery was born; Kantha and Sashiko both involve sewing together discarded rags and scraps to create unique and useful textiles.
Old cotton or silk garments or saris were layered on top of one another and sewn together using the running stitch to create kantha saris, or when layered and sewn in bulk, they became thick kantha quilts and cushions. These throws were often presented as wedding gifts and gifts for mothers. While the entire cloth is usually covered with running stitches, sometimes the artisan would embroider motifs of flowers, animals, birds, or geometric shapes. This practice dates back over five hundred years.
Similarly in northern Japan, the practice of mending and repurposing scrap fabric, also known as Boro, rose to popularity among the peasant class during the Edo Period (1603-1836), when laws restricted the lower classes from wearing silk or bright colors and printed patterns. Cloth, particularly cotton, was especially precious because it was difficult to grow in northern Japan, where winters were quite cold. Thus, peasants would piece together their indigo-dyed hemp and sometimes cotton scraps via an embroidery technique called Sashiko, meaning “little stabs.”
Like in Kantha, the running stitch was used most commonly in Sashiko textiles. It wasn’t until trading became more expansive in the twentieth century when cotton cloth and thread became more accessible that the stitching also became more decorative, taking the form of geometric patterns influenced by nature, like the persimmon flower (Kakinohanazashi) or hydrangea (ajisai) stitch.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a community of quilters have been reworking their scrap fabrics into stylized quilts since the early 1800s. Over the years, a notable bold geometric style emerged in their works and by the 1960s, their quilts began garnering international attention. In this rural African-American community, this art form emerged from necessity, just as it did for the makers of Kantha and Sashiko textiles. By patching together scrap textiles, they were able to warm their families.
For all three cultures, the reuse of old clothing ensured that each crafted textile was laden with memory and family history. A grandmother’s threadbare sari, kimono, orT-tshirt could be found again in a blanket that would in turn one day become the scraps of a new textile. Family history could be charted through the scraps that were savored and stitched together for a new generation to then pass on.