Kogin – Historical Overview

July 5, 2009

Etymology

Kogin is a form of whitework or counted running stitch embroidery specific to north Honshu. Closely related to teh other great country textile technique sashiko, kogin is known as sashi kogin, koginzashi and Tsugaru kogin and comes from “koginu” and “kogino”, a short field jacket which has been indigo-dyed and decorated with hemp thread stitching, created in Honshu and Kyushu Islands. Kogin can refer both to the stitching and to the finished fabric. Over time and with the introduction fo white cotton from urban areas, as well as from the promotion of local handspun cotton, kogin has come to represent blue-and-white embroidery from rural Japan. It is specific to the region associated with the daimyo family of Tsugaru, an area also known formerly as Tohoku which today is known as Aomori Prefecture. The dense tight stitching reinforces the bast asa (hemp or ramie) fabric and is said to mimic the heavy snows typical of Tohoku winters. The worst of the winters resulted in rice crop failures roughly every six years, so that Tohoku came to represent all that was very distant and rural, poor and backward, compared to urban Kyoto and Edo.

History

Kogin was first documented in 1685 as elaborately stitched fabric, but it seems to have crystallised as a textile technique thanks to sumptuary laws forbidding the wearing of cotton. The Frugality Act for Farmers, enacted in 1724, prohibited peasants from buying or using cotton or silk cloth and the Tsugaru rulers took these sumptuary laws seriously. As a result farmers around Hirosaki City, the stronghold of the Tsugaru overlord, were thus forced to limit their wardrobe to bast fibre garments. Asa fabric was strong but cold, so asa thread and later cotton was used to improve the fabric, a surface addition which conveniently skirted around the sumptuary laws. Indigo-dyed blue thread on white asa fabric was mentioned in a travel memoir of a samurai in 1788 and another memoir in the same year mentioned white thread on blue fabric. Perhaps it was from this time onwards that the look of kogin as being white-on-blue became the ‘classic’ we know it today.

Embroidery cotton and modern kogin

In the 1830s, cototn thread came to be manufactured in Tsugaru itself and cotton was permitted to be worn by ordinary Japanese in early Meiji Period (1868-1712) so Tsugaru farmers developed the ‘Sunday best’ version of kogin accompanying cotton kimono, as opposed to the hard-wearing everyday field garments. It is thought that the embroidery was used on formal wear initially and as the kogin became worn, it was later incorporated into work clothes. Once the railroad came to the area in 1892 and later via the Tokyo-Hirosaki railway line in 1894-5, kogin declined rapidly in contrast to mass-produced clothing from the city. Within the larger mingei craft movement of the 20th century led by Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), kogin was revived by the collector/designer Teizo Sohma (Hirosaki City, Tsugaru) and practitioner Setsu Maeda (born at Tsugaru near the end of World War I) who was named a National Living Treasure in 1962. Naomichi Yokijima, of Hirosaki City, spent the period between the 1930s and 1960s documenting kogin, giving rise to his book of 1966. He founded the Hirosaki Kogin Research Institute providing a commercial outlet for local embroiderers.

Kogin is still worn in the dance performances of Sanaburi-Arauma-odori in Kanagi City, north Tsugaru; mishima kogin features int eh costume of the horse-keeper in the performance. After World War II, kogin was incorporated into art classes at schools in the local area. Publication of books has assisted in its being maintained in Japan, as well as abroad, as interior decor. Examples of classic kogin appear to be few and far between, rarely coming on to the textile market. I personally saw only one example in Kyoto, admittedly far from its native land, in the Orinasu Weaving Centre display of Japanese textile techniques. One kimono with kogin has been on sale on eBay for a very long time with an asking price of $US3,800. As a craft commodity of north Honshu, it obviously features heavily in the promotion of Aomori Prefecture and is undoubtedly a feature of tourist souvenirs there.

Base fabric
Before industrialisation, field garments were invariably made of the bark of trees (elm, wisteria, linden) or hemp or ramie. In Tsugaru, ramie grew wild but was eventually cultivated as was hemp. Hemp grew tall and was easily damaged by wind and heavy rain and the birds loved the seeds, so the plants needed constant attention, so cultivated in a small plot close to the house. Hemp takes indigo rather more easily than tree bark fibre, but in the dead of the coldest winters, framers would be obliged to wear five or seven layers of clothing to keep out the cold.

Garments

Classic kogin involves a plain dark blue kimono with an embroidered yoke over the shoulders to the waist. Below the waist and the arms, the fabric remains plain or with extremely restrained sashiko. The long sleeves on extant examples show this to be the Sunday-best variety since short sleeves would have been worn in the fields. The embroidered bodice was treated with great care and kept for a long time, while the rest of the kimono got wet in the rice fields. The yoke is invariably older than the rest of the kimono garment. To hide stains and age, it can be indigo overdyed or over-embroidered in the opposite direction to the weft direction of the original embroidery to prolong its life.Museum examples as illustrated in Ogikubo’s book show the yoke by itself, sometimes still attached to the lower kimono without sleeves, sometimes with the sleeves attached, sometimes as a short jacket and at other imtes a long-sleeved formal kimono. Some examples show different patterns in the one piece in subtle patchwork technique, obviously salvaged from various different pieces. The Okigubo book shows a single example of indigo over-dyeing.

Technique

Kogin stitching uses a straight, horizontal running stitch, sewn from one side to the other, commencing from the centre out to either side at the centre point. The base fabrics were generally loose to allow easy counting of the stitches. The diamond patterns are created by the use of plain weave fabric: even weave creates ‘square’ 90-degree diamonds and uneven weave creates elongated diamonds, i.e. more warps than weft per inch. In some examples of kogin and Nambu diamonds, it’s possible to discern both types of diamond in the one textile, which can be disconcerting to any modern-day embroiderer trying to replicate a pattern. Small diamond patterns become the elements of much larger overall diamond patterns. Commentators mention neko no ashi (cat’s foot) and sayagata (the linked swastika), especially in relation to east Tsugaru; abacus stitch (soroban sashi) is used in the west. Western commentators talk about “flower”, “soybean”, “pillar”, “cat’s eye” and so on, as being the base design elements.

Sashiko and Nambuhishizashi context

There are several characteristics of kogin which set it apart from kogin (literally, “little stabs” or “little stitches”) and the kogin-like diamonds embroidered in the nearby Nambu area to the east. Some kimono stitched with sashiko often have heavily-stitched areas around the shoulders, so it’s not too much of a stretch to see how embroiderers would have developed as a consequence a very dense ‘sashiko’ in these parts of the garment, which may have eventually developed into kogin. In kogin, cotton is used; wool is used in Nambuhishizashi (literally “sashiko-type diamonds from Nambu”) mainly because it is a much later style, from the late 19th century when coloured wool from urban areas became available by rail. Nambu faces the Pacific Ocean which was outside the shipping lanes of the inland Japan Sea. Sashiko designs utilise stitches which can go in any direction; in kogin, stitches go only in the direction of the weft. In kogin, designs are created by crossing wefts over and under odd numbers of warps. Small diamond shapes are thus created just by crossing 1,3 and 5 warps. Crossing 5 warps is invariably the longest float stitch used in traditional kogin – longer stitches are found in contemporary work. Crossing 4 and 6 warps doesn’t happen; 7 is made up of 3,3 and 1, 8 is made up of 3 and 5, etc.

Regional variations

It’s thought that each village and area developed its own patterns which spread through intermarriage as a wife would go and live with her husband’s family. There are several regional variations associated with kogin, linked to the areas east and west of and at the mouth of the Iwaki River. the west (Hirosaki City), nishikogin, is made up of patterns with dense stripes over the shoulders. The north (Kanagi City), mishimakogin, has three wide horizontal stripes, like bands in a sampler, three on the back and three on the front. In the east (southern Aomori or Tsugaru, its former name), higashikogin has a large overall pattern, done in thicker thread, uninterrupted from front to back. Originally, girls would start embroidery at age 7 and would learn kogin at around 10. By their marriageable age of 16, they would have made three coats for their future husbands and three for themselves as part of their trousseau.

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