Step-by-Step Guide to Sashiko Stitching
Sometimes I want to get a project done really fast, but lately I have picked up a hand stitching project when I want to unwind. The slow, meditative process of forming one stitch at a time is calming. Sashiko is a perfect technique for those times. It’s easy, portable and requires just a few supplies. Projects can be any size, from coasters on up.
Sashiko is a Japanese folk craft that is hundreds of years old with roots in practicality. Because farmers needed warm clothing that would last, the women (usually) stitched layers of fabric together to add warmth and to repair worn areas. Fabric dyed dark blue with indigo, when paired with unbleached cream thread, provided a palette for creatively expressing graphic designs. Humble work clothes became works of art with stitch.
Sashiko means “little stabs”, and that perfectly describes the stitch. It’s a running stitch that stabs the fabric back to front and back again. Ideal stitch size? Think grains of rice. My stitches are more like long-grain rice – not quite traditional – ha!
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners. Your purchases via these links may benefit Create Whimsy. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.
Today, Sashiko threads and fabrics come in a rainbow of colors, so your projects can go with anything you choose. My project has black fabric and green thread – not traditional at all! If you don’t want to mark your pattern, you can purchase pre-printed Sashiko panels. If you stitch the dashed lines, you can get used to the feel of even stitches. Then the marks wash away. No one will know!
Let’s get started! Unless you selected a pre-printed panel, you will want to mark your chosen pattern onto fabric. There are lots of options out there, more than I can show here, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. So ask around and test, test, test!
- A Hera Marker is a minimally invasive marking option. You never have to sharpen or refill, so it’s always ready to go. You draw your line by pressing the sharp edge of the tool as you “draw” on the fabric. It leaves a creased line for you to follow with stitches. No erasing needed! You will want good lighting if you choose this method, as the marks can be subtle.
- One of my go-to choices for marking on dark fabrics is the Clover White Marking Pen. It works like a simple ballpoint pen, but the “ink” comes out clear and turns white as it dries. The marks wash out with water or the touch of a hot iron. The fine lines are great for intricate designs, and the point follows the edge of template accurately. But don’t leave your piece in a hot car. Your marks may disappear.
- The Hemline Water Erasable Pencil is a mechanical pencil, which I like because I can’t keep track of my sharpener. 🙂 I used white for this example on black fabric, but it also comes in blue to use on light fabrics. It leaves reliable marks that you can remove with water.
- This is what I ultimately used for this project: Miracle Chalk. It comes in this tailor’s chalk style and in a chubby crayon format. It glides over the fabric, so tracing my design went very quickly. I planned to stitch in the evenings, so the bold line with high contrast was a real advantage for me. The marks remain clear from the start of the project to the finish, then disappear completely with a hot iron. Or when left in a hot car – see above.
Early Sashiko was stitched on indigo-dyed hemp cloth, and you might be able to find it in specialty shops. But most of today’s Sashiko stitchers stitch on medium weight, loosely woven cotton, linen or cotton/linen blend. The weave is important – quilting cottons (especially batiks) are too tightly woven to work with heaver threads and needles. They may show holes and puckering. Go classic with blue, or stitch on another color that makes you happy.
Sashiko designs, even those with curvy elements, are often based on a simple grid. Accomplished stitchers can draw just a grid on the fabric and fill in the design by eye, simply stitching from corner to corner. Most of us, however, need a pattern. With Sashiko’s rich tradition, there are countless options. You can design your own pattern or look for books and patterns from sashiko artists.
I love my light box! It allows me to see every detail when tracing a design, and it’s so much more user-friendly than taping paper to a window, especially if you want to trace when the sun isn’t shining. (Or you don’t want to move that chair next to the sunniest window out of the way.) As you can see, I opted to print extra bold and dark lines for the highest visibility.
I wasn’t sure the pattern would show for tracing on black fabric, but here it is! The fabric is Essex by Robert Kaufman, the same cotton linen blend pictured above. This is substantial fabric, not a flimsy low-thread-count open weave, and the pattern is still clear. Now, to mark!
Here is the project in process, showing the Miracle Chalk marks so far. With paper blocking the light on part of the piece, you can see the difference and how clearly the marks appear. It’s a good trick to check on your progress – did I get all the spines of that fan?
The marking is done, and it’s time to start stitching. I will stitch just the fans, not the line segments between fans. Those will help me keep the project square and disappear when I remove the other marks.
You have choices when it comes to thread. Traditional Sashiko cotton thread has a soft twist that’s lovely to work with. It comes on skeins, which require some preparation before you begin to stitch, but it’s easy to do. If you want to go this traditional route, Sashiko thread is available in a tempting array of colors.
Perle cotton is another option for Sashiko stitching. Size 8 is similar in weight to the traditional threads, but with a slightly tighter twist. Depending on the brand, you may see it on skeins or spooled into balls. Lots of colors and very easy to find!
You will need needles. But not just any needles. Sashiko needles really are the best, and with the growing popularity of the craft, they are much easier to find. These needles are longer than other embroidery needles, so you can load more stitches on the needle before pulling it through the fabric. Because the thread makes fewer passes through the fabric, the longer needle reduces friction and prevents the thread from fraying.
I used Sashiko thread for my project, but first I had to get the thread ready for stitching. It’s just a few steps and results in thread that is tangle-free and pre-cut to the perfect length. First, gently slide off the paper wrapper. Try not to disturb the threads. Keep the skein just as it is. You will unfold the skein in the next step.
Find the small knot that binds the threads together. Do this gently, without disturbing the skein. Tip: When the skein comes out of the package, it is folded in thirds, so you may have better luck finding the knot by touch rather than by sight. The knot may be inside a fold. Do not unwrap the folds until you have located the knot!
Once you have the knot, gently tease the skein into a large tidy circle.
Now you can find one end of thread (it might not be near the knot) and cut two pieces, each approximately 5 inches long.
Wrap one of your thread segments around the thread where the knot holds the loop together. You want this to be snug, but not tight. You will pull threads through this loop one at a time for stitching.
On the opposite side from the knot, cut through the entire loop of thread. The length of the cut threads you have just created is the perfect length for stitching.
To keep your threads tangle-free, make a simple braid. Enlist the help of a friend or something pokey and stable, or, as I did, hold something (like a pair of scissors or a screwdriver) between your knees. Drape the tied thread around the object. Borrow a little from each side to form three groups of thread. Now make a simple loose braid – left over, right over, repeat.
When you get to the end, tie up your loose ends. (Ha!) Again, not too tight – You will pull your stitching threads through this little tied circle.
To release your first thread, tease one thread loose from the pack near the top of the braid. Pull gently and slowly. The first few will be the most resistant.
When you have successfully liberated your first thread, thread your needle and get ready to stitch! There are threaders made especially for embroidery if you need a little help. I prefer the Clover 8611 Needle Threader for Embroidery Needles. It’s sturdier than the wire-type needle threaders, and I can’t tell you how many of those I have broken. I haven’t broken a Clover threader in 15 years – I lose them before I break them!
Some stitchers knot the end of their thread, then begin stitching. I prefer a knot-free back, which takes a little longer to get started. But I think it’s worth it to keep the stitching smooth and not risk having a knot pop through to the front of the work.
I begin by bringing the thread up 3 or 4 stitches from the beginning of my stitching line, leaving a 1 to 2 inch tail. The stitches should be about 1-1/2 times longer on the front than on the back, so check both sides so you can be consistent going forward. Then I stitch back towards the beginning of my pattern line, ending with a “down” stitch.
This view from the back shows the unknotted thread tail and the back of the first stitches. Note that from the back, the stitches are shorter – that’s as it should be. Tension should be relaxed, but not “loopy”. If your fabric shows any puckers, give another tug to make a smooth stitch line.
Now, reverse direction and pass the needle BETWEEN the back of each stitch and the fabric. Tip: Make these passes leading with the threaded eye of the needle. This will prevent snags on your previous stitches or the fabric. Then insert the needle one stitch length from the thread tail, but don’t pull it through yet.
Check the front of your work to ensure that the needle exits where you want it to on the pattern line. This point is the beginning of the next stitch and will be a seamless continuation of your pattern. So adjust now, if needed, then pull the thread through.
Continue stitching, either one stitch at a time or loading several stitches on the needle before pulling through. Be aware of tension. I tend to be a “tight” stitcher, which is good for some things, but not for Sashiko! So I give the fabric a little tug after each series of stitches to prevent puckers.
When you come to a corner or a sharp turn, one stitch should begin or end at the apex. This keeps the appearance sharp. Don’t pull too tightly!
If you leave a small loop on the back between corner stitches, it will prevent puckers and keep your work smooth on the front.
When you feel comfortable and get on a roll, try loading several stitches on the needle before pulling the stitches through. On a straight line, you can load more stitches at once to speed up your work. Give the fabric a gentle tug to relax the thread.
On curves, load fewer stitches at a time.
If you need to begin a new line of the pattern and that starting point is no more than an inch or so away, travel to the next starting point by making a loose loop on the back. Here, I have stitched around the outside of the fan back to my starting point and need to travel to start stitching the spines. Insert the needle where the next line of stitching will begin.
Continue stitching along your marked pattern lines.
When you need to “tie off” the end of your thread, weave it back through a few stitches on the wrong side of your work. Trim thread, leaving a 1 to 2 inch tail. Begin the new thread just as you did when you began stitching.
Now you know what to do! Enjoy your stitching experience, knowing that you can steal a moment to get in a few stitches or have a nice, long, slow-stitching personal retreat.
Here is the first fan all stitched!
It’s easier to see the design with the pattern lines removed.
When my stitching was complete, I pressed from the wrong side to avoid flattening the stitches too much or pressing a sheen onto the threads. I like the nod to tradition with a dark background and light thread. But the zingy contrast of bright green on black adds a touch of fun. I think this might be a throw pillow when it grows up!
Browse through more Sashiko projects and inspiration on Create Whimsy.