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
the origin of the word "quilt" which we use today.
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.)
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.
The "Silk Road" of the 11th Century
The "Silk Road,"
ran between the Mediterranean coast (Egypt)
on the west, through
Iran (Persia) and
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 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
Confucianism and Taoism from
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
It could be said that all things Chinese (and foreign) were being
borrowed by the Japanese. Japanese travelers and students in
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
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
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
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.
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,
Jill Liddell & Yuko Watanabe, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1988.