Kogin Stitching: practical aspects and bibliography

November 21, 2012

Scans of my own kogin work, unbleached cotton on commercial kogin fabric.

Left: Detail from a 4″ square. Authentic design of a diamond made up of six hana or flower motifs.You can see here that I worked the middle section in the proper manner (from one side to the other) but got lazy and ‘cheated’ by doing each larger diamond separately. You can see that I will have to undo the entire diamond at the bottomn – it is ‘out’ by a line where it meets the middle diamond.

Left lower: my kogin needle.

Right: Detail from a 13″-wide sampler using contemporary patterns of Takagi, formed into bands. Only the second from the top retains a classic, authentic look, such larger diamonds made up of two smaller diamonds of four ‘flower’ patterns each, joined by another, with the large blank spaces incorporating a single dash reminiscent of the ‘cat’s eye’ design. The third row is based on traditional diamond outlines joined in the middle by a classic ‘pillar’. The bottom row features the small ‘closed’ diamond or ‘soybean’ design element. The prominent areas of plain background in the first, third and fourth bands mark them as clearly contemporary patterns.

I’ve written posts on kogin stitching previously, but I thought I’d draw a line under my past experiences with this Japanese folk embroidery by  being less objective and more subjective by describing my personal experience with it. I’ve also appended a bibliography. Compiled four years ago, I hope to do some more online research and try and update it sometime.

My approach was to work as “authentically” as possible, i.e. to get the feel of what it must have been like by stitching in unbleached cotton thread on commercial “kogin” fabric. By rights, I ought to have woven my own fabric then indigo-dyed it (lots of dippings into the dye pot to get it near black). In addition, I’ve compromised by opting for contemporary kogin patterns.

My limited experience of creating kogin can thus be summarised as follows:

* Modern commercially-available kogin fabric is usually dark blue. When blue-black and densely woven, counting the warps can be difficult and holding the fabric to a light source is the only way I can work, especially indoors. Considering this embroidery would have been stitched at night and in the dead of winter, perhaps the fabric was held up against some sort of candelight. Frankly, I went almost went blind trying to see what I was doing. Working more than one stitch at a time per needle stroke results in neater work, but runs the risk of gathering the fabric, resulting in pulling-in of the fabric at the sides. Mis-counting the wars is very easy to do, no matter how strong the concentration. Undoing one’s work affects the quality and look of the cotton thread.

* A thick, multi-stranded unbleached cotton yarns create the necessary dense stitching appearance of original kogin. Some dense stitching done in Japan of old takes on the appearance of a snow drift, of undifferentiated white, with the most marvellous of textures. A blunt needle poses fewer problems than a sharp one.

* Originally the stitching was done in sequential rows, from right to left. Work from right to left on one row and at the end of that row, turn the work upside down and work the next from right to left also. Diamonds were never created as separate large diamonds. It is truly very tempting just to create each diamond separately, especially since the back of the finished embroidery will be covered by a lining. However, original kogin, like blackwork in the West, really requires the back of the work to be as finely finished as the front.

* When working with traditional 13-inc wide fabric, it’s possible to cut lengths of thread for single rows, with small slip knots at each end.

* Reading modern-day pattern drafts can be disconcerting at first if one is used to cross-stitch patterns. In kogin patterns, each square represents not the space between the warps but a separate warp. When the square is blank, the thread passes to the back of the fabric. It helps enormously to keep in mind when stitching from a pattern to be fully aware of the fact that work can only be done over 1,3 or 5 warps.

* Simple embroidered bands, quite different from the diamond-shaped pattterns, were often used to mark off broader bands of work. Simple goemetric stitches, not unlike sashiko, were used in these bands. Patterns for bands appear in modern how-to books.

* Generally, original or ‘authentic’ kogin calls for hardly any underlying blue fabric to show through. This is not inconsistent with the original need to strengthen the fabric. Modern interpretations of the patterns (such as the ones I’ve stitched) call for much more of the ‘blue’ to show through. While still beautiful, the more ‘blue’ that shows through, the less close it is to ‘authentic’. White-on-blue seems to be accepted as classic kogin, though blue-on-white or red-on-white, even variegated thread, are contemporary alternatives. A large single diamond surrounded by plain blue is common these days, but is far from the original. Sometimes a large single diamond is surrounded by a “background” of stitches, again far from the original. In contemporary work also, single large diamonds are sometimes broken up into overlapping diamonds.

I wrote these notes in 2008 and haven’t gone back to kogin since. If I was to return, I’d probably attempt something less taxing on the eyes, e.g. red-on-white or blue-on-white. On my bucket list is the next ‘stepping stone’ from kogin, multicoloured nambuhishizashi. But for nambushishizashi, I’d have to weave my own fabric because all commercial support fabrics I’ve seen rely on squares, while nambushizashi relies on rectangles instead. I’ve tried stitching nambuhishizashi on commercial ‘square’ fabric and I ended up with ‘square’ diamonds instead of elongated ones.

That said, I have come across a kogin project by Phyllis Maurer (USA) in the magazine Inspirations (issue 62, 2009). Her chair pad (45x50cm, on navy 18-count Aida cloth using #5 pearl cotton in white and navy) is interesting because (a) it’s obviously much easier to stitch since one stitches both white and navy threads on white cloth, rather than white thread on navy cloth, and (b) its “flat” diamonds come close to representing the diamonds of nambushizashi.

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