In the latest installment of our Designer D.I.Y. series, learn how to breathe new life into old clothes with a classic sashiko stitch.
What to do with a beloved jacket in which the elbows have gone or a shirt with frayed cuffs? The British designer Sir Paul Smith, known for his sharp suits and signature rainbow stripes and who is celebrating 50 years in fashion, thinks you should look to a sartorial solution passed down through multiple generations of Japanese laborers.
“In this day and age of excess and more, more, more, I am often reminded of my dear mom who always used to darn socks or elbow tears,” Mr. Smith said. “When I first started traveling to Japan in the 1980s, I learned about a traditional, functional type of embroidery — the sashiko stitch. Today it strikes me as a wonderful method that can be used for darning decoratively in the modern world.”
In his early trips to Japan, Mr. Smith bought many samples of indigo blue-dyed work wear with distinctive white stitching that had been worn by rice field laborers.
“The workers would repair their clothes using sashiko stitching over and over again to make clothes both stronger and warmer,” he said, adding that there were myriad different geometric sashiko embroidery styles.
Sashiko, which translates from Japanese into English as “little stabs,” emerged in Japan in the 17th century. Sometimes it involves putting two or more layers of cloth together and sewing with a running stitch to create small pockets of air, which trap warmth. Or you can simply create a weave that repairs a tear by doing stitches that sit very close together.
Prepare your garment and patch
Lay the garment flat on your working space. Place your patch of material on top of the tear. With scissors, cut the material to size if necessary, leaving a margin of at least 1.5 inches around the circumference of the tear, and then pin the patch into place.
Thread your needle and start stitching
Thread and knot your sashiko needle. Start to stitch along the first seam of your patch. Make sure that the knot is on the inside of the patch for the first stitch and that it goes through both the garment and transplant patch. According to Mr. Smith, the sashiko stitch itself can be a simple running stitch and can run horizontal or vertically.
Leave a slight gap (say, a quarter inch ) between the stitches to create a warp and a weft. Put as many stitches on your needle as you find comfortable, then gently pull the needle through the fabric, making sure it doesn’t pucker. Stop when you have finished the first row of stitches.
Repeat a second row (and a third, and a fourth and a fifth)
The exact pattern of the sashiko stitches is up to you. Many decorative stitching styles and geometric samples can be found online. In one simple possibility, the stitching runs in symmetrical woven rows across the entire patch.
Leaving a gap of about half an inch between each row, repeat Step 2 until the transplant patch is fully affixed onto the garment. Use a ruler, if helpful, to chart straight lines.
There is no such thing as right or wrong in Sashiko
Try to work as precisely and as evenly as you can, but remember, there is no specific rule as to how sashiko should look. Adjust the length of your stitching depending on the thickness of your materials. Denim, for example, requires bigger stitches. Cotton is an easier patch fabric for beginners.