Japanese Inspiration Makes an American Quilt

kasuri-flatMy mind often wanders as I quilt, inspired by the history of a quilt block or the associations I have with the fabric prints. A good quilt has me thinking of all kinds of things, and the Kasuri quilt certainly did that.

So these are the things I think about, as I sew the Japanese-inspired Kasuri quilt: the loveliness of imperfection, beauty borne from hard necessities, and the colors of a blended heritage.

That’s a lot of weighty reflection, for one little patchwork quilt to carry. But that’s OK. Patchwork is a hardworking art, and is up to the challenge.

Wabi-Sabi

The Kasuri quilt is exactly the type of quilt I love best: classic, uncomplicated patchwork that lets the rich fabrics shine.

I like how design catches my quilter’s urge for symmetry. At first, the scrappy layout looks non-regular. The placement of the bright red and not-quite-matching blue prints seem random, as if they were sewn on piecemeal, as scraps of fabric presented themselves.

(I love a good scrap quilt.)

A closer look proves that there is some method to the scrappiness, but it took a moment for my symmetry-loving quilter’s eye to find it.

And the unusual “imperfection” of the design makes it interesting. What springs to mind—especially given the Japanese-inspired prints and colors of the fabric—is “wabi-sabi.” Call it a philosophy or a style, the essential idea behind wabi-sabi is finding beauty in simplicity and imperfection.

The “wabi” can be translated as simplicity, and “sabi” as the beauty of age or weathering. Wabi-sabi is often associated with a rustic look, with evidence of the maker’s hand or of long use: the crack in the glaze, the green patina of weathered copper, the scarred texture of rough-hewn wood flooring.

It reminds me of the “humility block,” said to be deliberately imperfect patchwork, sewn into a quilt to remind us all that the maker is human, and only God can create something perfect. Some say the humility block is a myth, and that the term is just a way to fancy up a plain mistake. My guess is that those “some” are correct, because I claim an awful lot of “humility blocks” in my own work. (Ahem.)

But I’ve grown to love those mistakes, in my own quilts and in others’. It makes a quilt uneven, imperfect, and personal. In short, they make a quilt beautiful. In a wabi-sabi kind of way.

Kasuri

Kasuri Cropped CottonMuch of the “imperfection” comes from the fabrics themselves. The very name of the quilt and fabric collection—Kasuri—is in reference to kasuri fabrics. These fabrics are primarily indigo-colored cottons, with resist-dyed threads woven to create an often blurry or feathered-looking pattern. In the mid-18th century, as cotton production increased, the production of kasuri fabrics spread across Japan.

Not all the prints in this collection are specifically kasuri, but if you look closely, you’ll see that they are definitely inspired by iconic Japanese hand-crafts, from weaving, to resist-dyeing, to stitching (sashiko).

Sashiko

Of all those iconic Japanese arts, sashiko personally interests me the most. A sashiko (“stabbing”) stitch is a pattern of running stitches, usually white thread against indigo fabric. Sashiko designs have a lovely geometry. Some are identifiable as sashiko patterns at a glance, like the six-pointed diamond-based star in one of the blue prints in this quilt.

Traditionally, the design is marked on the cloth, following a gridded arrangement, and then stitched in waves, using a very long, very rigid needle (there are sashiko-specific needles, but a darning needle will work in a pinch). The stitches, with their regular lengths and even gaps, never overlap.

Sashiko is a folk art, coming from the farming and fishing communities of Japan during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). Because resources were thin in these working communities, even scraps of cloth had value, and were pressed into service. Layers of old clothing were often quilted together using this fabulous sashiko stitch.

Using what fabric and scraps were on hand to make warm, sturdy clothing was a necessity. The strength of the sashiko stitch would also be necessary, with the geometric gridding adding required durability.

And out of necessity came beauty. Those carefully plotted shapes, the occasional curve, the sweetly stitched patterns would be a labor of love, a joyful celebration in scraps.

What patchwork quilter doesn’t respond to that?

Aizome

Kasuri Cropped AizomeThe iconic indigo and white of these rustic Japanese textile arts, like kasuri and sashiko, is not accidental. During the Edo period, the ruling class imposed sumptuary laws, which mandated what people of various classes could and couldn’t wear, down to the color of fabric.

Indigo was one of the few “bright” colors allowed to the working classes. “Aizome,” or indigo-dyed, fabrics were therefore extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that to this day you will often hear it referred to as “Japan blue.”

Nisei

In addition to the aizome fabrics, the colors in this collection give me a lot to think about, how the tan fabric looks like parchment, and how the crisp white sets off the other, more organic-looking colors.

It’s the rich red, combined with the lovely blues and whites, that strikes a patriotic, American note for me. Maybe that’s something I see due to Fons & Porter’s close connection to the Quilts of Valor Foundation, because we often think about veterans and their service in connection to quilts.

Because of the heavily Japanese inspiration of these prints, it had me thinking specifically of the all Japanese-American regiment that served during World War II.

While Japanese-American families were rounded up and imprisoned in internment camps, many of their sons joined the American military to fight. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised entirely of Nisei (second-generation, American-born Japanese), served in North Africa and Western Europe, including the Vosges Mountains. This unit was one of the first to encounter a German concentration camp, liberating more than 3,000 people in one of Dachau’s sub-camps. It’s also the most decorated combat unit of its size in American history.
In fact, the 100th battalion, a unit within the 442nd, earned the unofficial nickname of “The Purple Heart Battalion” during their Italian campaigns.

It’s possible that the rich red is a traditional Japanese dye, but what I saw led me to other reflections, particularly on the blended heritage that makes up the patchwork of America.

So these are the things I think about, as I sew the Kasuri quilt. You would think a quilt like this would be heavier, for the weight of those reflections.

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