What Is Japanese Embroidery?

D. Grey

Japanese embroidery is the tradition of utilizing various stitching techniques to create specific designs on silk. There are over 40 different techniques to create the appropriate stitches to match this style of embroidery. Colorful silk and metallic threads are often used to stitch patterns onto silk fabric that is laced onto a frame. A pattern for the stitches to follow is usually transferred onto the silk fabric.

The cherry blossom -- known as sakura in Japanese -- is a highly popular flower in Japan and often featured in embroidery there.
The cherry blossom -- known as sakura in Japanese -- is a highly popular flower in Japan and often featured in embroidery there.

Training is often required to learn correct Japanese embroidery techniques, as there are several unique tools and materials used. Japanese embroidery motifs and patterns are also very distinct, commonly depicting natural themes, including cherry blossoms, turtles, chrysanthemums, ferns, and other imagery that has special significance and spiritual meaning in traditional Japanese culture.

There are various tools that are specifically for Japanese embroidery, such as the tekobari, a sharp, handmade stroking tool for smoothing flat silk. An awl is used to twist silk threads, which embroiderers generally twist themselves. Strong clippers or scissors are used to cut the thread close to the fabric, and specially designed bamboo brushes may be used to draw designs on fabric with finely ground oyster shell powder. Generally, a 29 inch (75.5 cm) frame is used to hold and stretch the fabric for stitching. Cotton thread, also called lacing thread, is used to secure the fabric onto the frame.

Other essential tools include a needle set, mirror box, and comas. Needles are either hand or machine made, the difference being that handmade needles can stitch all kinds of thread, from fine to very heavy, while machine made needles can generally only stitch fine thread. The mirror box is a wooden box with a mirror on top for storing and organizing embroidery tools. The mirrored top, in traditional settings, would assist in directing the appropriate amount of light onto the practitioner's work. Comas look like spools and are used to apply down non-stitch threads.

Thread type and quality are very specific in Japanese embroidery, which most commonly uses flat silk that is imported or traditional flat silk that is produced in Japan. It is supplied in tubes in different colors, with each strand composed of up to 12 filaments. Strands can be used in various combinations or twisted together. Another common thread is couching thread, which is used to outline a figure or design on the fabric.

An acid-free tissue paper is used to protect stitches from the sun and skin. When the embroidery is complete, finishing paper is used to protect stitches from heat damage. Powdered wheat starch is used to finish the embroidery.

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