The concept of “Japanese quilting” is one I am trying to grasp. On the face of it, it’s difficult to reconcile a ‘make-do’ tradition of recycled fabric with the current use of elaborate quilting sewing machines and brand-new ‘fat quarter’ fabrics. Until very recently, say 1850 or so, all fabric was hand-made and its life prolonged to the maximum extent possible; one certainly wouldn’t willingly throw away fibre spun, woven and tailored by one’s mother or grandmother, or mother-in-law. But these days, textiles in all forms are so readily-available, cheap and abundant and traditions so enmeshed.

Interior decor and garments

Certainly one of the biggest influences of the Japanese aesthetic in Australia has been in the area of interior decoration and when it comes to textiles, perhaps the biggest area of cross-over between Australian homemaking and Japanese culture is undoubtedly quilting and patchwork. I think just as contemporary Japanese, most of whom are caught up in their domestic world of small spaces, plastic and jungles of electronic adapter leads, would wish for themselves traditional spaces of great spareness, with all-natural materials and hand-made, hand-dyed textiles, so do contemporary Australians and Westerners crave the simple elegance of the ‘blue-and-white’,  the austere colours and textures of the handmade and the simple geometry of the Japanese aesthetic.   

‘Japanese’ fabric and the ‘Japanese’ quilt block

Secondhand Japanese clothing is being recycled as quilting fabric. In fact, quilting and patchwork must be the biggest end-use of Japanese fabrics here in Australia.  Japanese-printed fabric, made in China, is available as “Japanese fabric” by the metre for quilting; Australian quilting is reliant also on American-printed fabric using Japanese designs. A new phenomenon is the large Japanese quilt block, either fabric-printed or shibori-dyed or sashiko-stitched, which becomes part of a quilt. The quilt block can also be any single large statement in applique or in a purely printed form – say a bunch of noshi wishing papers or a single kiku chyrsanthemum. Another aspect is the use of Western quilting stitching techniques used in combination with Japanese fabric.

Quilt pattern

Yet another is the use of pieced fabric based on geometric designs from Japan, e.g. yosegire woodwork and parquetry.I understand the yosegire tradition was introduced to the West via the 19th century vehicle of the international exposition, as were so many other craft and art traditions. A Japanese folding screen was apparently exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 featuring yosegire-type textiles and this became the direct forerunner of the American “crazy” quilt, also referred to as “Japanese patchwork.”  

Incorporating traditional Japanese textile techniques

 Different Japanese textile techniques feature in contemporary quilting in a variety of ways. There is the ‘shibori’ quilt, made up of fabric pieces made from Chinese-made faux-shibori fabric for the Japanese market. There is the ‘yukata’ quilt, which is made from pieces of blue-and-white traditional cotton yukata, as opposed to silk kimono. Interestingly here the word “yukata’, which is the informal kimono garment traditionally associated with summer and wearing to and from bathing, is itself based on the word “chugata” which refers to the mid-size of the design motif used in traditional Japanese fabrics, as opposed to komon, for example, which refers to very tiny design motifs. There is also the ‘silk’ quilt, based on recycled kimono, either silk, rayon or chirimen/crepe in origin.

Boro and ‘making do’

In terms of quilting and patchwork closer to its native origins in Japan, there is ‘boro’ which is recycled garments or bedcover fabrics (including the yogi or oversized bedtime kimono), almost exclusively from rural Japan. The boro patches are used initially as repairs (as in darning socks or stockings) and once no longer in daily practical use, they are appreciated as whole fabrics, much like the Australia ‘wagga’.

Buddhist kesa

There is also the Buddhist religious garment, the ‘kesa‘; originally a mantle made of rags, it developed into a complex and elaborate garment of silk.

Recycled silk

Somewhat related to quilting is the art of fabric manipulation – chirimen silk crepe in particular – through the books written by Sudo and others. This can be said to be a manifestation of traditional patching techniques used in the creation of drawstring bags, small to large. There are wonderful examples of traditional drawstring bags from rural Japan, sold in the West via antique dealers. An antecedent of this can be found in the delicate textile bags (shifuku) used to store and protect the very small tea caddy (ceramic with an ivory lid) used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. These bags were fragments of traditional Chinese fabrics, so prized they were “named” fabrics; this concept of famous or renowned Chinese fabrics, gave rise to the recycling tradition, albeit a very upper-class, almost aristocratic one, referred to as meibutsugire


Lastly, the Shosoin Treasury in Nara is the touchstone of Japanese textiles and quilting/patchwork in Japan finds an ancestor in at least a few works in that 8thcentury imperial collection.


In terms of monographs, here’s a somewhat jumbled list:

Japanese quilts. Jill Liddell and Yuko Watanabe. New York, 1988

Japanese quilt blocks to mix and match. Susan Briscoe.

Quilting with Japanese fabrics. Kitty Pippen.

Asian elegance: quilting with Japanese fabrics and more. Kitty Pippen and Syliva Pippen.

Shosoin Textiles. Kaneo Matsumoto. Kyoto Shoin Art Library of Japanese Textiles ser. no.1, 1993. Chapter on Embroidery and patchwork.Meibutsugire. Ken Kirihata. Kyoto Shoin Art Library of Japanese Textiles ser. no.19, 1994. 

 I have a small postage-stamp quilt on the hop, from a variety of Japanese fabrics. More on that later, perhaps.