Introduction: Sashiko Inspired Embroidered Jacket

About: (Educational) Designer, Researcher, and Developer

"When life hands you a white denim jacket, you add some embroidery to it."

Or, well, you could - and I did.

Until approximately two years ago, February 2018, I had close to zero experience with embroidery. The months that followed February, however, I worked on a design research project. One of the things we'd come across during literature research was the concept of Sashiko. Sashiko is a traditional Japanese method of mending clothes by embroidering on a new layer of fabric. This embroidery follows a grid-like pattern that not only adds a practical value through the form of sturdiness, but also brings an aesthetical value. Through time and wear, a piece gains value, rather than loses it. A very useful source on the topic of Sashiko is this book: Sashiko source book. It goes over the history, but also breaks down the various patterns and grids used.

Flash forward to a year later, when I received a white denim jacket. To me, it was immediately clear it needed some embroidery, and so this project began. The exact layout of the Sashiko pattern wasn't decided until actually seeing it sketched out on the jacket, not letting previously made designs get me stuck on how to make it.

Another year, and I finally found myself writing up the instructions on how to actually add embroidery like this to a jacket!

Step 1: Materials

- a (denim) jacket (other types are possible as well, though I personally think woven fabrics work better with embroidery)

- an embroidery hoop large enough for your design

- embroidery thread and needle*

* while there are several options for this, I used the thread and needle meant for sashiko embroidery. These types are also linked above.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases

Step 2: Putting on the Hoop

As it turned out, the hoop I had laying around fit the jacket pretty well. Try to get as little creases in the circle as possible. This is where I could have used a hoop that was just very slightly smaller - the little area I had left on the bottom made it difficult to pull tight. When creating a design in the center of the jacket, also make sure to put the hoop exactly in the middle. I also found it easier to have the jacket closed while doing this.

Step 3: Design

Once the hoop is on, the tension on the fabric also makes it easier to sketch out the design. There is a range of products available to draw on fabric, though I just went with a freshly sharpened pencil.

As for the design itself, I started with the hands, inspired by Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. For the placement I mostly tried to follow the flow of the jacket.

Step 4: Starting the Embroidery

All the embroidery I did for this jacket was done with a double thread - threading the needle and knotting the ends together. This method is used in Sashiko embroidery, and I personally think it is very practical. It prevents the thread from getting loose from the needle and creates a thicker line.

Once the needle is threaded, you can start the embroidery. I began and ended most of my threads next to the seams of the jacket, which gave me space to put away the loose ends.

The most crucial thing in the embroidery is keeping the stitch length and the distance between the stitches as equal as possible. This makes the result look clean and helps with the general appearance of the embroidery.

Step 5: Working Away the Thread

As described before, I tried to start and end most of my threads near the seams. The area between the layers provides an ideal space to do so. By entering the seam from the side, you have a lot of space to move the needle. I knotted it around a few loops, let the needle go out of the seam again, and cut of the remaining thread.

Step 6: The Second Hand

These steps were pretty much repeated for the other hand, but there was one specific technique I used here that I wanted to emphasise. To continue working with the same thread in a different location, follow the stitches on the back of the embroidery, looping the needle through the stitches to get to the location you need to be.

Step 7: Adding a Grid

After completing the linework of the hands, I added a 5 by 5 centimiter square grid. Some Sashiko patterns may call for a different grid, however - while many are based on a square grid, some require a rectangular or triangular grid.

Step 8: Sashiko

As mentioned in the introduction, the red part of the embroidery was inspired by the patterns used in Sashiko.

During my previous project with Sashiko, I quickly got interested in one pattern specifically, Shippõ tsunagi (linked seven treasueres). While appearing as circles, most of the embroidery is actually done following the various curves, as will be more apparent in one of the upcoming steps.

Fill in the grid with your pattern to define the lines of your pattern. I deliberately left some parts of the grid empty, as well as some parts of the pattern, to help the organic flow of the design.

Step 9: Starting the Pattern

The pattern uses both straight lines and curves. The straight lines are a nice starting position, and also a great opportunity to see how the Sashiko needles work.

Instead of working stitch by stitch, the length and sturdiness of the needles makes it possible to fill a straight line before pulling through the needle. This is also where a Sashiko thimble can come in handy - it can get quite tough to pull the needle through the layers of fabric, especially in a dense fabric like denim. This method can be seen in the last two pictures of this step.

To keep the pattern looking evenly, decide on the amount of stitches you want to use, both for the straight lines as for the curves. In the curves, I used 5 stitches. The outer two stitches are used in two curves, leaving the space in between for three evenly spaced stitches. For the straight lines, I used four stitches, giving me approximately the same length of stitches.

Step 10: Planning Ahead

The patterns also lend themselves to logical order. By following the curves, you can complete large parts of the pattern without having to end the thread. Because of this, planning ahead becomes relevant - looping the thread over the sketched out patterns to get an impression of the length you will need. I also find it useful to take a picture of this or to draw arrows on the design to keep an eye on the direction I wanted to take. When filling a complete grid, it is a bit easier to keep track, but especially in this altered design it meant hitting a few dead ends in the order of embroidering.

Step 11: Ending Threads

To end the threads used in the Sashiko patterns, I made use of the back of the pattern. The meeting points of the curves have a number of threads crossing already, so I lead the threads back to those points and knotted the thread around it.

Step 12: Taking Off the Hoop

Once the embroidery is done, take off the hoop. With the amount of procrastination that went on in this project for me (read: put the jacket over a chair in my room and see it late at night thinking "oh right, I was working on that!"), the shape of the hoop was stuck on the jacket quite strongly, but after wearing it for a bit that slowly faded away.

Step 13: The Finished View

And that is close to it! As a last step, I also embroidered one of the cuffs using the methods explained in this instructable. Instead of working through the double layer of fabric present at the cuff, however, I only stitched through the top layer, keeping the inside of the jacket clean. The threads were worked away in the same way as before, now using the seam between the cuff and the sleeve.

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