The Transylvania Times -

Quilters Look To The East For Latest Work


Derek McKissock

All this month, the Transylvania County Library will have examples of quilted art objects in the Japanese style.

Quilting is truly a global phenomenon.

Thought, styles, materials and techniques may vary in different parts of the world, but we find this craft everywhere – and a special variety of quilting can be discovered right here in Brevard.

About two years ago, 12 members of the Western North Carolina Quilt Guild, Area 5 group, got together to study quilt patterns and styles. Their resource was a book by UK textile artist and teacher Susan Briscoe, titled “Japanese Quilted Blocks to Mix and Match.” The result of their efforts is a colorful array of quilted art objects in the Japanese style on display at the Transylvania County Library this month.

Each month, a member of the group would make and present one of the blocks from the book’s patterns to the group; a discussion of the technique for making the block would follow. Combining both traditional Western with the Eastern methods described in Briscoe’s book, each quilter then created a unique quilt block using her own choice of color, fabric and style.

Members of the group whose work is shown in the display are Gretchen Batra, Phillis Beeson, Billie Begg, Jean Hart, Joy Mizeras, Carol Presston, Loretta Raser and Barbara Wright. Other group members who were unable to display their work are Barbara Liggett and Lydia Weathersby.

The unique objects in the display include wall hangings, a table runner, quilts, a purse and jacket.

To create them, the quilters used piecing, fusing, hand and machine quilting, applique, embellishing and the beautiful, decorative stitching traditional in Japanese work, sashiko.

This blend of Eastern and Western design and technique used traditional kimono fabric and unusual motifs such as a family crest (Kamon) or ancient symbols such as takara zukushi, a motif which brings good fortune.

Finishing with the distinctive sashiko embroidery, Japanese quilt artists produced stunning and exotic fabrics.

Sashiko embroidery (or reinforcement stitching) is a simple, very old hand sewing practice, which originated in Japan during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868).

It is characterized by running stitches (literally, “little stabs”) made with a long needle and thick thread. Interlocking lines of these stitches create geometric patterns; running through one or more layers of fabric, the sashiko stitches create a quilted fabric.

Sashiko’s origin was functional. It is believed to have originated in the northern, colder climate of Japan in remote, working class communities by Japanese farmers and fishermen who needed warm, durable, reinforced coats and kimonos.

Sashiko quilting was a practical approach resulting in stronger, warmer fabric at a time when mass and machine produced cloth and clothing was not available or practical.

Firefighters especially appreciated the layered, closely stitched coats, soaking them in water to provide additional protection from burns and bruises.

In the early days, fibers used for weaving fabric included hemp, grass, wisteria vine, tree-bark fiber and ramie.

Hemp was preferred in severe climates by farmers and laborers who were restricted by law and economy from wearing expensive cotton fabrics. Indigo was the most affordable and available plant for making dyes and the dark, vibrant indigo color set off the usually white thread of the traditional sashiko patterns.

In addition to the functional advantages of applying sashiko patterns to garments, these stitches were believed to provide spiritual protection for the wearer; they prevented evil spirits from entering the body at the neckline, hem and sleeve opening of garments.

Thousands of criss-crossing stitches would be applied to assure strong protective powers.

Blue indigo was believed by certain social classes to repel snakes and biting insects.

There were laws in Japan which regulated the colors and designs that could be worn by lower and upper social classes.

Only the higher classes could wear brightly colored cotton clothing since cotton was an expensive commodity.

The lower classes were restricted to hemp and the hard-wearing indigo dyes.

Repairing garments at home to keep them in use as long as possible was a necessity. The hand-dyed, homespun clothing was worn until it was ragged and then creatively mended and recycled.

Women spent many hours, particularly in colder seasons, piecing together scraps of cloth from warn garments repairing and patching tears to be able to reuse the old clothing.

Girls learned sashiko technique, passed down for many generations, when still very young.

Their skills and accomplishments became a measure of their readiness for marriage.

In modern times — with the introduction of less expensive, machine-made fibers and with living standards improving — cotton and synthetic fabrics have become more widely available.

The fine sashiko embroidery techniques are now decorative rather than functional, used to embellish the surface of a fabric.

In combination with patchwork and applique techniques, sashiko patterns, adapted from kimono prints and with motifs from nature and stylized weaves, have become more complex and artistic.

The local Area 5 group of the Western North Carolina Quilters Guild, a non-profit organization which promotes the art of quilt making, meets on the third Tuesday of each month at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd.

Informational programs and ‘show and tell’ are part of each meeting.

The Western North Carolina Quilters Guild meets on the third Thursday of the month.

Beginners and experts are all welcome to the lectures and workshops offered during the meetings. For more information, go to

An interesting story about these 12 quilters:

Any time a quilter said something that denigrated or reflected poorly on their own work or expressed doubt about their ability to finish the project, they were required to put a quarter in a pot. At the conclusion of the project, the group had lunch at a Japanese restaurant – and they paid the tip from the quarters in the pot.

The quilters who have worked on this month’s display truly love creating and showing their beautiful handwork. The display certainly demonstrates the exotic, colorful and artistic techniques used in Japan for centuries.

No two quilted pieces are alike other than having been based on a pattern from Briscoe’s book.

The very visible stitch patterns of Japanese sashiko sewing is, according to our Brevard quilters, a relaxing and meditative process – and extremely satisfying. The Japanese Quilt Project was a creative and community-building undertaking which they all hope to be able to repeat.

The Transylvania County Library provides exhibit and display space for educational, artistic, historical and cultural materials that promote interest in the use of library materials and information, or that share information about the local area, culture and organizations.

The Friends of the Library, an association of more than 600 members, coordinates the approved use of the monthly display cases located near the elevator in the library.


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