People often refer to Sashiko embroidery as Japanese embroidery. And while both terms have the word embroidery in them, as a native of Japan and instructor of traditional Sashiko design, I would like to take the time to explain the distinction between the two.
First of all, let’s look to Wikipedia for a definition of what embroidery is:
Embroidery is the art or handicraft of decorating fabric or other materials with needle and thread or yarn. A characteristic of embroidery is that the basic techniques or stitches of the earliest work — chain stitch, buttonhole or blanket stitch, running stitch, satin stitch, cross stitch — remain the fundamental techniques of hand embroidery today.
Sashiko embroidery is a very old and classical form of hand sewing using simple running stitches. The Japanese word Sashiko means “little stabs”. Sashiko was born from the necessity of conserving and repairing garments at a time when cloth was not widely available to farmers and fishermen.
Sashiko has been considered as functional embroidery or a form of decorative reinforcement stitching to repair points of wear or tears with patches. Today, this running stitch technique is often used purely for decorative purposes in making quilts, purses or handbags and small pillows.
Japanese embroidery (nihon shishu in Japanese) is an embroidery technique that goes back more than one thousand years. It uses intricate patterning, silken and golden threads, and traditional symbolic motifs worked on fine silk fabrics. In its early stages, and in contrast to the functional aspect of Sashiko embroidery, Japanese embroidery was reserved for decorating items used during religious ceremonies.
Over time, as shishu developed its own unique Japanese qualities and characteristics, it took on a more artistic purpose. During the early stages shishu was only available to a selected group; only the highest ranks of society could afford such costly work. However, after a thousand years of abundance, this cultural heritage is revived amongst hand stitching enthusiast and is now available to a wider audience.