Japanese fabric: quilt patterns, motifs, sashiko, more

Batik Garden by Kitty Pippen

Have you ever come across quilts made with Japanese fabrics? If not, you’re in for an elegant treat. Today we’ll shed light on three time-honored approaches to making Japanese-style quilts, where fabrics, motifs, and stitches combine for a dramatic look.

First: discover the fabrics! You’ll learn how authentic Japanese fabrics—like indigo, kasuri, and yukata—are made and used in Japanese quilts. Then, you’ll learn about the eloquent motifs celebrated in those fabrics, and how you can incorporate them into geometric quilt patterns that you’re already familiar with. Finally, you’ll be inspired to quilt in a whole new way when you see what you can achieve with beautiful sashiko stitching. (Believe it or not, there is a way to replicate sashiko by machine!)

Whether you’ve got a stash of Japanese-style cottons, collect the real thing, or are completely new to Japanese textiles, there might just be a trip to Japan—via your sewing room—in your future. Immerse yourself in these exotic Japanese-fabric quilt patterns with one of the books featured below, or start with one simple quilt pattern that spotlights Japanese fabrics.

Authors Kitty, Sylvia, Sharon, and Karen welcome you to fall in love—just as they did—with the beautiful textiles of Japan!

Introduction to Japanese quilts: inspired by fabrics

From Asian Elegance by Kitty Pippen and Sylvia Pippen

Japanese fabrics come in the form of a tan, a roll of cloth 14½" wide by 14′ long—just the right amount for constructing a kimono. Textiles are highly valued in Japan, and kimonos are often saved and handed down from generation to generation. Valuable kimonos are taken apart, washed, and reassembled when they become soiled. Many of the quilts in Asian Elegance are made with new materials as well as old hand-sewn kimonos that have been ripped apart. Here, we introduce you to some fabrics of Japanese origin.

Indigo fabricsIndigo fabrics have been used traditionally for Japanese and Chinese clothing. The indigo dye is made from a variety of plants. Leaves are cut, dried, and composted to promote fermentation. The dye is stored in vats that are buried in a clay floor and kept at a constant temperature. It is a long process to make a vat of dye, and the cloth dipped in each vat may produce a different shade of indigo. Deeper shades may be achieved by dipping the cloth multiple times. Natural indigo dyes continue to bleed whenever the fabric is washed. For this reason, we recommend using an indigo-colored fabric that has been dyed using a chemical process if you want to incorporate it into a design with yukata (see below) or American-made fabrics.

White sashiko worked on dark indigo is a beautiful combination. You can see an example of this in the “Linked Shapes Sashiko Panel” below.

Linked Shapes Sashiko Panel
“Linked Shapes Sashiko Panel” by Kitty Pippen

Kasuri and Ikat
Kasuri and Ikat fabricsKasuri is one of the most fascinating Japanese fabrics because of the many steps involved in making it. Threads of the warp and the weft are marked with resist, a substance that resists dye, before they are dyed and woven. Each length of thread from selvage to selvage has a different marking. The resulting designs have characteristic fuzzy edges.

Ikats are also made with resist-marked threads, but many of the steps are done by machine. Ikats are marked to create geometric designs and are traditionally used for men’s kimonos. Try using them in your quilt borders to create excitement and movement.

The dragon, sky, and cranes in “Night of the Dragon” below use kasuri fabrics.

Night of the Dragon quilt
“Night of the Dragon” by Kitty Pippen

Yukata fabricsOne of the most useful fabrics for quilting is yukata because it is soft, lightweight, and easy to needle. Yukata patterns vary from blue-and-white geometrics, used for men’s clothing, to colorful florals, used for women’s garments. The designs on yukata are made by the katazome method, which involves dyeing through a stencil. Because the dyes penetrate the material, there is no right or wrong side. This makes reversing directions of a design possible.

Large, bold yukata designs combine well with smaller designs and are useful for all kinds of quilts. You can see how they were used in the “Scrappy Yukata” detail below.

Detail of Scrappy Yukata quilt
Detail of “Scrappy Yukata” by Kitty Pippen

Japanese silk fabricsSilk is one of the finest and most beautiful natural fibers. The Japanese and Chinese weave shantung, crepe, and brocade fabrics from silk yarns. These fabrics all work well for appliqué. American-made marbled silk is also very useful in quiltmaking. Raw silk, which has a nubby texture and stable weave, is good for use as a background.

Many quilters avoid using silk because it can be difficult to handle. To overcome the tendency of silk to shimmy and slip, try using the paper-piecing method for appliquéing pieces. This involves basting the fabric over a paper pattern to help stabilize the piece.

“Notre Dame Rose,” shown below, was made using this method.

Notre Dame Rose quilt by Kitty Pippen
Detail of “Notre Dame Rose” by Kitty Pippen

American-made Japanese fabrics
American-made Japanese fabricsAmerican fabric stores carry many cotton fabrics with Japanese-inspired prints. Designs include traditional Japanese motifs, such as fans, bamboo, cranes, and cherry blossoms. Because these fabrics are three times as wide as traditional Japanese yukata, they have many motifs to work with. These fabrics may be used to make any of the projects in Asian Elegance.

Here are just a few of the step-by-step projects you can make from Asian Elegance, which also features quilts to make with exotic Polynesian fabrics.

“From China with Love”

“Springtime Dogwood”

“Hexagon Centerpiece”

Introduction to Japanese quilts: inspired by nature

From Quilting with Japanese Fabrics by Kitty Pippen

Scenes by a Garden Path by Kitty PippenLeft: “Scenes by a Garden Path” by Kitty Pippen.
Japan’s profound appreciation of nature is reflected in its long history of traditional textile design. As you page through books of Japanese fabrics and kimono designs, you will see one example after another of motifs from nature combined with geometric forms. Natural elements such as cherry blossoms, maple leaves, bamboo, pine boughs, cranes, ducks, and stylized clouds will be artistically intertwined with wheels, bridges, fans, boats, boxes, paper scrolls, or bundles of ribbons. The four seasons are often evident: the plum blossom represents spring; the iris and a flowing stream, summer; the chrysanthemum, autumn; and bamboo leaves, winter.

In Japanese art, asymmetry and irregularity are preferred over symmetry and balance. Designs may be off center, actually “disappearing” over the edge of a composition, leaving the viewer to imagine what has been omitted. Designs will overlap or scatter at random. Circles, hexagons, and diamonds appear as background, or they may be used to outline or contain other designs. With thought and ingenuity, you can easily adapt these elements of Japanese design to create innovative quilts of which you will be proud. Below are examples of projects from Quilting with Japanese Fabrics.

Hexagon Sashiko quilt
“Hexagon-Sashiko Quilt.” Crane and flower motifs combine with geometric hexagons in this quilt. To make this arrangement of hexagons appear more oriental, dark indigo bands were added to the top and bottom. All the fabrics in this quilt are American made.

Japanese Octogonal Block Quilt
“Japanese Octogonal Block Quilt.” Two octagonal sashiko blocks alternate with larger blocks featuring traditional Japanese floral motifs.

Linked Shapes quilt
“Linked Shapes.” In this design—actually a well-known Japanese sashiko pattern called Linked Tortoise Shells—equilateral triangles and hexagons fit neatly together to form an overall pattern. (Learn more about the Japanese art of sashiko below.)

Introduction to Japanese quilts: inspired by sashiko embroidery

From Sensational Sashiko by Sharon Pederson

Detail of Touched by JapanIn the spring of 2000, I was asked to teach a machine sashiko class at a local quilt shop. Sashiko, a centuries-old Japanese stitching art, was something I’d been interested in for a long time, but up to that point had done nothing about. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind; having agreed to teach the class, I began researching this kind of Japanese embroidery.

Sashiko has come a long way from its humble beginnings in fifteenth-century Japan. At a time when the type of fabric available to working people wasn’t thick enough to provide the warmth needed for outdoor wear, enterprising women (I know it was women who did this) stitched many layers of fabric together using a running stitch. The word sashiko actually means “little stabs,” which translates to the running stitch we are familiar with. The fabric used was often indigo and the thread available was heavyweight white cotton so it made a strong statement on the fabric. As women always do, they recognized that even though the embroidery was done for practical purposes, it could also be beautiful. So the art form we know as sashiko was born.

When researching anything Japanese, you quickly discover Japanese family crests—or kamon. Their origins can be traced back to the tenth century. At the height of the feudal era, these emblems would have been found on battlefield flags, camp curtains, and coats. There are approximately 200 basic designs, but thousands of variations. Any collection would keep a quilter happy and inspired for years.

Combining these two beautiful art forms, I offer suggestions on how to make it easier to incorporate the designs into your projects and make them machine friendly. Below are a few of the projects you can make in Sensational Sashiko. Many of the projects use my reversible-quilt technique, so you can spotlight the beauty of sashiko and Japanese family crests on both sides of your quilts—and do it all by machine!

Touched by Japan reversible quilt
“Touched by Japan”

Sashiko Table Runner
“Sashiko Table Runner”

Praise to Pippen reversible quilt
“Praise to Pippen”

ePattern: “Japanese Circles” by Karen Costello Soltys

Feeling inspired to try a Japanese-style quilt, but not sure where to start? Feature authentic or reproduction Japanese fabrics in this beautiful, simple design from our own managing editor, Karen. She makes it easy to bring many beautiful colors and patterns together in this tranquil little quilt, titled “Japanese Circles.”

Japanese Circles quilt
“Japanese Circles” by Karen Costello Soltys (finished size: 17½" x 20½")

Download the ePattern right now—or choose from one of the books featured above and take a deeper expedition through the textiles and quiltmaking methods of Japan.

Have you made quilts inspired by other cultures? Tell us your quilt story in the comments!

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