The University of Hawaii Art Gallery will host an exhibition of rare, embroidered 19th and early 20th-century coats in its "Pattern and Purpose: Japanese Fishermen's Coats from Awaji Island," beginning Sunday. Below are details of the sashiko stitching described by one writer as looking like a "string of pearls."

Patches in time

Sashiko started as a basic
in-and-out mending technique
that evolved into stitches used
to create patterns reflecting
the environment and
individual's lives

By Nadine Kam

The idea of mending clothes to render them wearable again is considered outrageous by today's disposable society. It's far easier to call on Big Brothers, Goodwill or the Salvation Army to cart off last season's rags to make room in the closet for the latest styles.

The fishermen of old Japan had no such option. In times of hardship and scarcity, they would head to sea in warm coats pieced together from fabric grown and woven from ramie, willow and hemp, and lovingly stitched by hand by grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters.

Karen Matsunaga recalls seeing a couple of old Japanese coats, rescued from the garbage "in tatters and patch, patch, patch, one on top of the other; they were so beautiful.

"Women created them in every household, and that's the beauty of it: You can see the lives of people, how they're reflected in the stitches."

Matsunaga will give a talk at 2 p.m. Oct. 19 in conjunction with the exhibition "Pattern and Purpose: Japanese Fishermen's Coats from Awaji Island," opening Sunday at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery.

The practice of Japanese fishermen mending their clothes continued for hundreds of years, with the humble garments, "sashiko no donza," evolving into heavily embellished coats made by professional seamstresses, and costing two months' pay. These were worn by ships' captains on special occasions.

The University of Hawaii Art Gallery will host an exhibition of rare, embroidered 19th and early 20th-century coats in its "Pattern and Purpose: Japanese Fishermen's Coats from Awaji Island," beginning Sunday.

Then in rolled the Industrial Age, trampling many traditional arts. As a younger generation was getting rid of the coats, historians from the Hokudan Town Historical and Ethnographic Museum rushed to save them.

The UH exhibition will feature rare, embroidered 19th- and early 20th-century coats from the museum and the Iwaya Shrine, where every year the sashiko no donza are used during the Bountiful Fishing Festival to pay tribute to the fishermen of the past. The exhibit was organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History and the University of California-Santa Barbara's University Art Museum.

Matsunaga said sashiko stitching "started as a method for mending. It's described as quilting, but it was really more practical, and evolved into a decorative stitch."

Sashiko started as a basic in-and-out running stitch that could be done by children. With the introduction of cotton fabric, which was soft and easier to work with than the rough fabric of the past, women spent more time embellishing their creations. Horizontal, vertical and diagonal stitches were used to create patterns that reflected the environment, such as mountain peaks and persimmon flowers.

The women used white cotton thread on indigo-dyed fabric, and the result was a design that "pops out at you," Matsunaga said.

"One writer described it as looking at a string of pearls because of that contrast."

In addition to the visual impact of white on blue, there were good reasons for using indigo dye.

"The dye strengthened the cloth," said Matsunaga. "When you look at old examples of tie-dyed indigo with splotches of white, it's the white parts that have holes in them.

"Indigo also has a natural ammonia, so for farmers and people who had to work outdoors, it kept bugs away."

JUST AS THE practice of creating the fishermen's coats was ending in Japan, Japanese farmers were immigrating to Hawaii to work the plantations.

"They brought the same values -- conserve, don't throw away -- to the plantation. In immigrants' clothing you see the patch, patch, patch, layers of patchwork on tattered clothing. When you hold something like that, you get a feeling of the kind of life that person lived.

"It was also something they could pass down to the next generation, because the way they made their clothing, it could fit many different sizes.

"I tend to romanticize it. I'm sure the people who did this weren't thinking of it in a romantic way at all, but I feel (the coats) reflect the hardships they endured. Even though they were created out of necessity, people really tried to make them beautiful.

"It's like the American pioneers. They tried to have some kind of beauty in their lives, no matter how simple their belongings. The smallest thing was important because they didn't have much. Even in dish towels there was a touch of embroidery."

MATSUNAGA LEARNED to sew kimonos by hand when she spent a year in Japan 20 years ago. After majoring in Japanese language at the University of Hawaii, she thought it would be a good experience to go to Japan, and she made the move without a plan.

"I was walking in downtown Kyoto, and I saw a sashiko sample in a store window, and that really caught my eye," she said.

She learned the art form, finding it helped her when she took up kimono sewing, which was taught in traditional style, with students sitting on the floor for hours, measurements taken with a bamboo measure called "shaku," and old-fashioned irons that required an external heat source.

She came back to Hawaii, and through TEMARI -- The Center for Asian and Pacific Studies -- she began teaching classes in sashiko to women in their 40s through 60s who wanted to learn more about their heritage.

It's rare for her to make kimono because there are few occasions when she can wear them, but she continues to work in sashiko.

"I find it very relaxing to sit down, get lost in it; It's just for balance, when I don't have to think.

"There's also something about creating things with your own hands. You can see the fruits of your labor, because a lot of things we do now, we don't see the end result.

For Matsunaga it's important to document the old arts as those who practice them continue to die out.

Noting the changes that the Industrial Age brought to a tiny place like Awaji island, she said once people started wearing Western suits and factory-made clothing, "10 to 20 years later, older men could still be seen wearing the coats, but women stopped making them and they faded away."

On view

What: "Pattern and Purpose: Japanese Fishermen's Coats from Awaji Island," an exhibition of rare, embroidered 19th- and early 20th-century coats

Where: University of Hawaii Art Gallery, Art Building

When: 2 to 4 p.m. reception Sunday; show continues 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, and noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 19 and Sundays through Nov. 22 (closed Nov. 5 and 11 for election and Veterans days)

Admission: Free; donations appreciated

Call: 956-6888

Special events: "Japanese Country Quilting: Awaji Island Fishermen's Coats," a talk by Karen Matsunaga, starting at 2 p.m. Oct. 19 in the Art Building, Room 101; sashiko demonstrations by Lorraine Tokuyama will take place from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 20 and Nov. 10 in the UH Art Gallery. Both events are free.

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