I was once told a story of how a Samurai brought cross stitch to Japan without knowing it. Like many tales about cross stitch I firmly ignored it, however, as time has gone on, I found out the story was true. So, without further ado, here is the story of the Samurai that brought cross stitch to Japan by accident.
Edo Period (pre-1868)
Our story starts in the Edo period of Japan, a time of economic growth and strict social order. With a wealthy Imperial Court, it was a common practice for Ladies of the Court to have costumes decorated in a traditional Japanese embroidery (nihon shishu). However, during these stages, Shishu was only available to a select group of the highest ranks of society due to high costs for its creation.
The Edo period continued until its fall, which brought about mass social change.
Keiō Era (1865 – 1868)
One of the largest changes following the fall of Edo was the restructuring of the military. Gone were the days of samurai classes ruling over their territories. Many joined up the new military, whilst others set up businesses. One of these samurai, from Fukui in Echizen decided to bring in sanada string as a clothes accessory.
Taking many artistic cues from nihon shishu, sanada string was a more affordable option for many Japanese.
Meiji Period (1868 – 1912)
Unlike nihon shishu however sanada string lacked artistic flair and left many Japanese wanting a more artistic clothing option. In this wake, the samurai changed his business model and instead focused on sashiko embroidery, a regimented embroidery featuring crossed stitches as part of its design, originally used to reinforce garments and as a means of repair.
Taishō Period (1912 – 1926)
As the popularity of sashiko increased its art form became more free, with regional differences resulting in a varied series of patterns and structures. One of these, was extremely similar to modern day cross stitch, Hitomezashi. However, still out of reach by the average Japanese person, the thread brand DMC entered Japan and offered a high quality, affordable thread.
Modern Japan (1926 – present)
Post-war interest in Japan started a revolution of sorts, resulting in ‘handicraft’ or craft as westerns know it, becoming a national pass time, with specialty stores becoming well known all over the country. As time passed, handicraft stores became the largest stores in Japan.
My thanks to the Japanese store echizen-ya who not only corroborated this story but was also the original store the samurai opened in 1867.