Sheila DeRose Designs Japanese Quilting 

About Japanese Quilting

Historically, it appears that cultures living in colder climates developed some form of quilting (the traditional layered sandwich of backing, stuffing, and top) for bedding and clothing.  The oldest known quilt in the world was found in Siberia along the ancient "Silk Road" and is thought to date between 100 B.C. - A.D. 200.  The Romans slept on a padded pallet called a "culcita" which evolved into the "cowlte" in Britain - the origin of the word "quilt" which we use today. 

In Asia, quilts and quilted clothing have an equally long history.  Chinese quilts have been found in tombs which date as early as the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 B.C.)  And in Japan, the people have slept on a thickly padded pallet called a "futon" for centuries.  The futon covers were almost as heavy as the pallet, being made of layers of fabric and cotton waste.  The covers were basted together with very long stitches to hold the cotton in place.  Often, the covers were decorated with family crests and floral motifs, although simple channel basting stitches were the norm.   Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Japanese warriors all used quilted armor - channel quilted garments with lengths of metal or horn inserted in the channels - the original "bullet-proof" vest..  It is believed by many that these quilted armor garments were picked up by Crusaders along the Silk Road  in the 11th century and taken back to Europe.  The European medieval foot soldier wore a quilted coat called a "jack" - the origin of our "jacket."  While it is not certain if quilting originated in either the east or the west, it is certain that beautifully quilted and embroidered bedding and clothing have existed in both cultures from the earliest times. 

Silk Road

The "Silk Road" of the 11th Century

The "Silk Road," ran between the Mediterranean coast (Egypt) on the west, through Iran (Persia) and Turkey, to India and China in the east - a 7,000 mile stretch of hostile territory.   An intercourse of trade existed between east and west over the Silk Road; silk cloth, jewelry, carpets, musical instruments, pottery and lacquerware from the east were traded for silver, gold, glass and medicines from the west.  Also exchanged were the cultural and religious ideas promulgated at the time - Buddhism from India, Zoroastrianism from Iran, Confucianism and Taoism from China, and Christianity from Syria.  The eastern end of the Silk Road was Japan.

During the 8th century, and after many centuries of active trade along the Silk Road, the cosmopolitan ideas of mainland China found their way to Japan.  It could be said that all things Chinese (and foreign) were being borrowed by the Japanese.  Japanese travelers and students in China brought back to Japan items from the distant lands found along the Silk Road.  Persian design motifs (arabesques and grapevines), ivory, metalwork designs, woodwork designs, lapis and ebony inlaid designs, etc. were readily adopted by the Japanese.  Also imported were the religious ideas of Zen Buddhism and Taoism; these concepts formed an easier alliance with the indigenous Shinto religion than did Christianity.  Gifts from the Chinese and European emissaries to the emperor were highly regarded and a repository was built to house these treasures - the Shoso-in (literally, "shoso" meaning a place for storing rice and grain; "in" meaning precinct).   The treasures stored within the Shoso-in serve as a history of the goods that were traded over the Silk Road and preserve for posterity the incredible wealth of the arts and crafts traded along the Silk Road.  The design motifs garnered from these arts and crafts items found their way into Japanese design of pottery, lacquerware, weaving, painting, and quilting.

Patchwork in Japan has religious origins connected with both Shinto and Buddhism.  Shinto endows all things with a spirit called "kami."  The kami is the principle of "life" which gives to everything in existence its sacred purpose for being.  The kami enlivens everything, animate and inanimate, with a spiritual significance.  Textiles were especially valued because of their ties with the economy of the day.  Cloth was a trade item and therefore a form of currency.  Textiles of cotton and silk often declared a person's economic status, serving much the same as jewelry does for us today.  Silk cloth was used to frame pictures, cover furniture, wrap presents, store treasures, and hold tea and tea ceremony equipment.  Buddhist monk vestments (symbolic of priestly poverty) are of patchwork (often the half-drop set with which we are familiar), as are some of  the banners displayed at Shinto temples.  Thus, there developed a spiritual reverence for cloth.  Indeed, the preservation of fabric by piecing patches together is an auspicious sign, for by piecing together the patches you prolong the fabric's life.  A patchwork gift expresses to the recipient the hope for a long life.

A special type of patchwork called yosegire (literally meaning the sewing together of different fragments) was very popular in the early 1800s.  Japanese women joined patches of all types of fabrics, colors, textures, and shapes with which they made screens, clothing, and wrapping cloths.  A Japanese screen of this type was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 - the direct forerunner of our "crazy" quilt, also referred to as "Japanese patchwork."   Today, yosegire patchwork designs are printed on cloth, wrapping paper, or porcelain.

Appliqué was less used in Japan because of the early development of stencil and resist-dying techniques.  The Ainu people of the northernmost Japanese island, Hokkaido, retain a history of the appliqué art in their ceremonial robes.  The appliqué is ornate and symmetrical in form similar to Hawaiian appliqué.  For the mainland Japanese, however, it was common to use beautifully woven (chirimen, ikat and kasuri), stenciled and/or resist-dyed (aizome, katazome, tsutsugaki, batik, yakata), or tie-dyed (shibori) fabric in the making of quilted bedding and clothing.

"Sashiko" refers to the Japanese quilting stitch.  Meaning "little stabs," the stitches join together the layers of fabric and batt.  The sashiko stitch is a little longer than our quilting stitch (about the length of a grain of rice) and uses a heavy, loosely-twisted thread.  Today, most sashiko is worked on a single layer of fabric much like embroidery, then layered and quilted by hand or machine.  Traditional sashiko designs of repetitious waves, crosses, swastikas, diamonds, squares, and octagons are called "diaper" patterns and provide the backgrounds on larger designs for fabric, metalwork, pottery, porcelain, and lacquerware.  Sashiko designs are perfect background quilting motifs for Japanese quilts.


The Silk Road and the Shoso-in, Ryoichi Hayashi, Weatherhill/Heibonsha, New York/Tokyo, 1975.

Japanese Quilts, Jill Liddell & Yuko Watanabe, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1988.



Japanese Quilt - Long Life


"Long Life"