Radical Self-Care Sashiko (& Blanca Flight Suit #2)
My second Blanca Flight Suit took me about 2 weeks to complete. The actual sewing construction of the suit took up about 2 days, and the rest of the time was invested in sashiko-ing the garment.
Before I jump into the sashiko part of the make (as you can tell from my last few posts that sashiko is pretty much my jam right now) here’s a few words about the construction of the flight suit designed by Closet Case Patterns (@closetcase.patterns on Instagram). This time, I shortened the front and back bodice by 2cm. This is to reduce the “blousiness” of the flight suit when strapped in with the waist-tie. The fabric is a light to medium weight golden-yellow linen, a fabric that is much lighter than the tightly woven cotton drill of the first Flight Suit. I was worried that the blousy part of the shirt might not drape so well with the front zipper, and am happy that I made this adjustment. The other adjustment is reducing the side seams of the pants to 3/8” from 5/8” because I like more ease around the hips.
There was some back and forth about putting in an elastic band in the back waistband. After inserting it and trying it on, I decided against it. I liked the gathered look in the back created by the elastic, but I didn’t like the way it stretched the front of the suit backwards. I completed the embroidery on the separate pattern pieces before I pieced the garment together. Every section of the suit that has sashiko on it is reinforced with another layer of fabric to protect the embroidery on the reverse side, and to provide a backing to hide some of the unsightly stitching in the back. Many of these areas already have a double layer drafted in like the collar, the belt and the front pant pockets. I had to add a second layer to the back bodice, the breast and back pockets. Before starting the embroidery on the back bodice, I stay-stitched all the sides within the seams to keep the seams from stretching out of shape; and I zig-zagged the edges to keep the fabric from fraying.
Ten days of about an average of 6 hours each day is a lot of time to be hand-stitching. It’s the most I’ve done so far. At times it felt like time had stood still even though I was doing miles of (ironically-named) running stitches. On the other hand it felt like it went much faster than I expected. I was plunged into some kind of zone where time warps and things came to a still point even though I was in constant “movement”. It was a trippy and psychedelic experience since I was weaving in and out of kaleidoscopic patterns with my hands and in my head. Sashiko is free LSD, you guys. I was in a rapture and the main side effects are a sense of well-being, relaxation and peace. It put me in a contemplative, meditative state. It is a form of radical self-care. It centred, calmed and grounded me inside as the world outside seemed to be hurtling towards a tipping point.
Koi fish in Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture are symbols of good luck, prosperity and abundance. What attracted me to incorporating them on the back bodice embroidery is how they are also symbols of courage, endurance and perseverance in the face of adversity. There is a Chinese legend of koi fish that swim against the current upstream in Yellow River. They would go against gravity by leaping up waterfalls. These fish possess the ability to transform into dragons and fly into the sky when they swim past Dragon’s Gate. We can take inspiration from these mythical koi fish to swim valiantly against the current status quo to address the social, economic and political inequalities and injustices that have been unveiled in this current pandemic and wave of race riots. In doing so we will transcend and transform and do the change that is required of us.
In addition, koi fish are frequently depicted as part of a yin-yang symbol which for me is a reminder of how important balance and co-existence are as principles to incorporate into our way of life. If the yang aspects are too dominant, then the yin is weak and that imbalance of power is a sign of disharmony or unhealthiness in a body, a relationship or a society as a whole. White privilege and the systemic discrimination of black communities are indications that unequal, unjust and unbalanced power dynamics are at work. It is time to heal the dis-ease caused by this imbalance, and it’s high time to do the real work of bringing society back into harmony.
The design of the fish was drawn from a design I did a while ago when I was dabbling in pottery. I enlarged the sketch (by 200% on the printer) so that it would be a good size to cover the back bodice and made some changes to adapt it for sashiko embroidery. The enlarged circle of the koi fish design ended up to be 18cm in diameter. This was first drawn on paper then transferred onto the fabric itself with Chaco or carbon paper.
I prefer to draw the grid for the sashiko embroidery directly onto the fabric itself with removable ink pens. Pentel Frixion pens in different colours work really well here on light-coloured fabric.
The entire frame is a 24cmX24cm square, and I was working with a grid drawn within it with 1.5cmX1.5cm squares. The cyclical nature of yin-yang was the reason I chose sashiko patterns that are made up of circles. Logically speaking, one would think that a circle template of 1.5cm radius to draw curves on this 1.5cm square grid would do the job. But I found that a 1.4cm radius circle is better suited to accommodate the minuscule space needed to draw in the lines of the curves so that they meet side by side instead of overlapping each other.
My first circle template of 1.4cm radius was self-made by using clear plastic box packaging with a circle cutter. A few days later, I found an actual circle template with various circle sizes at a haberdashery and used that instead. The sashiko designs I applied to the suit have names. This I discovered 2 days ago when my copy of The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook by Susan Briscoe arrived in the mail from Book Depository (free shipping to my part of the world!). This is a great resource book for anyone interested in starting on a sashiko journey. It gives a detailed background and history of how sashiko was developed as a domestic craft for mending clothes in rural Japan, and the spread of its popularity to the rest of the world in quilting and embellishing garments. The book also guides you through sashiko projects and teaches an extensive catalogue of patterns to draw and stitch.
I identified 3 of the 4 designs that I used from the book: Shippo tsunagi (linked seven treasures), Fundo (scale weights) and Seigaiha (blue ocean waves) variation. The fourth design is a 6-petaled flower drawn with overlapping circles, which you can learn how to do from a YouTube video here. I don’t know what the design is called for now, but it was the most complicated to execute in terms of stitching. I couldn’t figure out a way to flow from one direction to another. It’s worth the work because it’s really pretty.
After finishing the embroidery on the back bodice, I thought I’d just sashiko the breast pockets the way I did with my first Blanca Flight Suit, and that would be the end of it. But then I continued with the collar, then the front pant pockets, moved onto the back pant pockets and finally stopped at the belt.
Is there such a thing as sashiko overload? The answer is no when it comes to the garments that I want to wear. As I was sashiko-ing this garment, other sashiko ideas for more sashiko garments kept flooding into my head. It was frustrating that my hands couldn’t move as fast as my head was willing them to do. *Sigh* So much sashiko to do, and so little time. If I was going to be trapped in this sashiko rapture for hours and days to come, then I would have to work smarter and more efficiently. Here are some tips for sustaining long hours of sashiko:
1) The preparation is all. Take time to draw in an accurate grid, and then the pattern on the fabric. This will make the stitching smoother and easier to accomplish.
2) Share the load of the work with the non-dominant hand. I am right-handed, and I had to retrain my left hand and fingers to be more active to feed the fabric through the needle instead of the right hand doing all the work.
3) Use the right tools. I’m saying this without having any actual contact with real sashiko thread and needles. I used what is available to me which are embroidery and darning needles. But I took the time to experiment with different lengths to understand what would work most comfortably with the Pearl cotton thread and linen fabric that I was using. A good clear ruler or quilting rulers and circle templates are required to mark accurate patterns.
4) Use a tailor’s ham to support the wrists and to hold up the fabric. Secure one end of the fabric with a pin. This opens and spreads out the portion of fabric you’re working on and helps with the stitching. This was a game-changer here. It took the stress out of having to hold up and grip onto the fabric, and that in turn reduced the tension in the shoulders, wrists and small joints in the hands. The ham gave a resting and pivoting point as well for the hands.
5) Take breaks. Do wrist and arm range of motion exercises before, during and after. This will probably save you from arthritic pain caused by overuse. The breaks should also include something different for the eyes to focus on. For example a take a walk in the park to look at some trees, or go and watch some Netflix. Change your perspective. Then come back with fresh eyes. When I did this, I made better decisions with certain design details. Avoid literal and metaphorical tunnel vision by switching to another task. In the midst of this sashiko project, I stopped and went on to sew a Kalle shirt (here), and that change was refreshing.
6) The main challenge for me in sashiko is maintaining even the stitches throughout. This is much easier said than done. I wasn’t successful all the time. It’s a skill that needs some polishing. The negative space is just as important as the positive space that the stitches make. Balance between the empty space and the stitches makes the embroidery more beautiful and pleasing to the eye. Yin-yang principles resonate here as well. Experienced sashiko crafters stitch from the reverse side for this reason. I’m not skilled enough for this yet. I tried to do it but it ended up looking wonky on the right side. The general rule is that the space in between the stitches should be half the length of a single stitch. When stitching around curves as opposed to straight lines, I found that the smaller the stitches, the better the curves look. The grid helps to even out the stitches by spacing out the same number of stitches within each line drawn within the same grid.
When I was close to finishing this garment, I suddenly realised that the colours that I chose to work with were royal colours that were only reserved to be worn by the emperor and the imperial family in Qing Dynasty China. Yellow/gold silk with red and blue embellishments were the ceremonial robes that the imperial family wore. These robes were mainly embroidered with dragons and intricate designs.
On some subconscious level, I had combined the regal colours of an outdated regime with a boiler suit pattern, which is the current utilitarian workwear of the common man. But I embroidered the garment with koi fish with the potential to metamorphose into dragons, instead of actual dragons. Perhaps as a descendent of commoners with no royal blood in my veins, I am reclaiming my right to colour and beauty, which were only reserved as a privilege for those who held onto absolute power. That’s how those in power stay in power by awarding themselves with privileges as a way to oppress and dominate. As we circle through another opportunity for deep change as the magma shifts beneath our feet, I wish for all to be true sovereigns of their own rights and freedoms, and not be shackled by the privileges of another. Slowly but surely, we are making these changes – step by step, stitch by stitch.
I am especially fond of this garment because I am wearing my art design literally on my back. There’s special pride in that. It is equal parts empress dowager, equal parts mechanic/plumber/pilot. My fave little bit (besides the koi fish in the back) is the detail in the collar.