Explore Traditional Japanese Handicrafts with the Library

By Daria

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the diverse cultures and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the United States. Japanese Americans specifically have made significant contributions to the Asian American community, both historically and in modern times. Their resilience, leadership, and innovation have paved the way for progress and success, and their cultural heritage continues to enrich and inspire the community today. One aspect of Japanese culture that is particularly renowned is the country's rich history of traditional crafts. Japan has a long-standing tradition of creating handmade items that are not only beautiful but also functional, and many of these crafts have been passed down through generations. In this blog post, we will explore some of the most beloved and iconic traditional Japanese crafts and their significance in Japanese culture.

Sashiko embroidery

Sashiko is a type of stitchwork that originated in Edo period Japan (1603-1867.) The innovations of thrifty women in rural farming and fishing communities grew into the cherished craft we know today.

Sashiko, which literally translates to "little stabs" in Japanese, refers to a style of stitching that involves a simple running stitch in repeating or interlocking patterns. The technique originated in rural communities of farmers and fishermen in Japan, where it was used as a way to recycle fabric and reinforce old garments and bedding. The practice, known as boro, was born out of thriftiness, as the peasants could not afford to waste any material. The use of sashiko stitching was found to be especially effective in creating layers of fabric that could withstand the elements and last longer. The women who practiced this technique also found that using white thread on indigo fabric created a visually appealing contrast, adding a creative and individual touch to their handmade garments. Today, the beauty of sashiko is enjoyed around the world as a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of these early Japanese craftspeople.

The women who practiced sashiko were able to create patterns and symbols that reflected their lives, family history, and local culture. Each woman developed her own unique style, adapting the technique to her needs. Some of the motifs were believed to have protective qualities, with specific shapes and positions intended to safeguard the wearer. The simplicity of the designs was a result of the practical nature of the craft, which required quick and efficient communication. Negative space played a key role in all sashiko patterns, with many of them being simplified representations of natural elements such as plants, animals, or weather phenomena.

And while sashiko was traditionally used to mend and repair clothing, it can be just as easily employed to create beautiful decorative projects for the home. Check out these book recommendations from our collection or visit an ideaLAB makerspace to get started with this craft. 

Shibori tie dyeing

Shibori is a technique of tie-dye that produces patterns by tying specific parts of the fabric before dyeing, which results in those parts remaining white. There are over a hundred different methods of tie-dye available today, including nuishibori (sewing and tying before dyeing), kumo shibori (spider-web shaped pattern), sekka shibori (flower pattern), miura shibori (a tie-dye method invented by a doctor's wife in Oita), and kanoko shibori (dappled pattern). Depending on the technique used, it could take up to a year and a half to create a bolt of overall tie-dyed fabric or over two years to produce a bolt of fabric for a long-sleeved kimono. Shibori skills have been passed down through generations for the purpose of creating clothing. However, in recent times, craftsmen have adapted to the trend and have started using shibori for modern fashion items and interior design.

Shibori is believed to have originated in India and was introduced to Japan through Buddhism, becoming popular throughout the country by the 6th and 7th century. The earliest record of shibori dyeing is found in a collection of poems called the Manyoshu, which was edited during the early Heian period (794-1185). By the 10th century, shibori patterns were being used on court costumes. Shibori techniques continued to be refined in various parts of Japan from the Muromachi period (1338-1573) to the early Edo period (1603-1868), with its popularity reaching its peak at the end of the 17th century. However, shibori dye fabrics faced a temporary setback when sumptuary regulations were enacted, classifying shibori as a luxury item of the time. Production resumed and the highly skilled techniques have been passed down through generations until today. The first International Shibori Symposium took place in 1992, and the shibori network has since spread worldwide. 

Check out these book recommendations from our collection or visit an ideaLAB makerspace to get started with this craft:

Japan Blue: Indigo Dyeing Techniques: A Beginner's Guide to Shibori Tie-dyeing by Piggy Tsujioka

Shibori: Designs & Techniques by Mandy Southan.

Suminagashi paper marbling

Suminagashi is a traditional Japanese paper marbling technique that translates to “ink floating” in Japanese. It has been practiced since the 11th century by Zen monks as a way to meditate and show devotion. The craft gained popularity among the Japanese royal court in later years. Marbling techniques also developed in other countries, such as Turkey and Persia during the 15th century. A type of marbling practiced in the Ottoman Empire, called Ebru or "cloud art", used paints made of oil or gouache and a thickened medium called size to keep the heavier paints afloat. This allowed for more control over color movement and pattern creation, which was achieved using a feather, stylus, or comb.

Marbling eventually spread throughout Europe by the 17th century. However, knowledge of the craft was closely guarded and marblers were hesitant to share their techniques. This led to the formation of marble guilds, where master marblers trained apprentices in the various techniques, but still kept their secret formulas to themselves. In modern times, marbling has evolved significantly with new techniques and tools. Instead of using traditional methods, modern marbling involves mixing paint with carrageenan to create a more viscous water solution, which allows for intricate patterns to be created. The desired surface, whether it be paper, fabric, or wood, is then laid onto the surface of the carrageenan bath to transfer the design permanently.

The Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Branch Library ideaLAB will have a marbling kit available throughout May. We also highly recommend Making Marbled Paper by Heather RJ Fletcher to get started with paper marbling. 

Kintsugi Ceramic Mending

Around four or five centuries ago in Japan, artisans started using lacquer and gold pigment to mend broken ceramics, creating a lavish technique known as kintsugi or "golden seams" (or kintsukuroi or "golden repair"). Although recent interest in kintsugi may be due to the current enthusiasm for ceramics, facilitated by communal clay studios and innovative contemporary artists, the technique itself has generated interest. The restoration process involves using natural resin from tree sap called lacquer, which is toxic when in liquid form but harmless once cured. This resin creates a durable and water-resistant repair, but the process is complex and requires multiple steps. Kintsugi was traditionally performed by lacquer masters but has been adopted by modern ceramicists. It has even been adopted by leading contemporary artists and is the subject of self-help and wellness books that use it as a metaphor for embracing flaws and imperfections. Nevertheless, kintsugi was initially a practical and beautiful means of repairing ceramics.

The Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Branch Library ideaLAB will have a kintsugi repair kit available throughout May. Check out these books in our collection to get inspired:

Kintsugi: the Poetic Mend by Bonnie Kemske

Kintsugi: the Wabi Sabi Art of Japanese Ceramic Repair by Kaori Mochinaga

Kumihimo braided cords

Kumihimo is a traditional Japanese technique that involves braiding strands of silk to create beautifully colored cords, also called kumihimo. These cords are slender yet strong and have a wide range of uses. Samurai warriors, for instance, once used kumihimo as laces for their armor, and kumihimo cords were also used as obijime, the cords that bound the traditional kimono belt, or obi. Kumihimo is not only a culturally significant art but also a visually stunning one.

The term kumihimo comes from Japanese, meaning "to gather or combine cords or threads." While the earliest kumihimo cords were made by hand, using a limited color palette, the introduction of tools enabled the weavers to create more intricate patterns and include more colors in their designs. However, the first kumihimo looms, known as takadai and marudai, were large and cumbersome, limiting their portability.

Nowadays, kumihimo remains a popular craft in Japan, with its application extending beyond traditional uses. In addition to adorning religious artifacts and kimonos, kumihimo cords are used to make necklaces, bracelets, and even wall art. As a result, kumihimo items have become popular souvenirs for tourists, as they showcase a traditional Japanese art technique in a contemporary and trendy way. A kumihimo cord even plays an important role in the plot of a massively successful 2016 anime film “Kimi No Na Wa” (or Your Name) that is available for checkout with your library card. 

See if your local ideaLAB has the tools and materials necessary for this craft, and don’t forget that you can place our recommended books on hold to be delivered to your neighborhood branch:

Making Kumihimo: Japanese Interlaced Braids by Rodrick Owen

Kumihimo: Basics & Beyond by Rebecca Ann Combs


Written by Cultural Inclusivity on