The Patchwork Planet:
Quilting in Japan

I begin writing this piece, appropriately, on a laptop on an airplane whose ultimate destination is Tokyo. I'm getting off before that, in Portland, Oregon, but the plane is filled with well-heeled Japanese tourists headed home from Atlanta. These include the deeply slumbering adolescent male in the window seat beside me, who brought aboard two overstuffed carry-ons filled with items from one of my city's leading counter-culture emporia, The Junkman's Daughter.

In researching this piece I have once again called on the knowledge and experience of TVQ subscribers. Irene Bensinger, an American who has recently returned to the U.S. after six years in Japan, was willing to share her impressions and observations, and Sumie Manabe and several of her friends on the Nifty-Serve online service, one of the largest in Japan, have taken the time and considerable trouble to answer my questions and translate those answers into English!

The growing affluence of Japan in the post-war years, typified by my fellow passengers, has also contributed to that nation's exposure to, and considerable influence on, the craft of quilting. But of course Japanese needlecraft is ancient, and Japanese traditions bring to quilting unique colorations and techniques.

Irene Bensinger writes: "From what I've learned from friends and by reading, the class system in Japan long dictated that the clothing of artisans and farmers be considerably less splendid than that of the samurai and ruling classes. Before the introduction of cotton, clothing for the toiling classes was made of hemp and ramie. And the only color that was allowed to farmers and craftsmen was the range of blues they could obtain from indigo. Fifty-year old hand-woven, hand-dyed, hand-made garments now found in second-hand shops show an amazing range of indigo and simple weaves to create beautiful diversity. I have been collecting these old garments since I came and have found a delightful diversity of techniques: ikat, paste resist dyeing, shibori tie-dye, as well as stripes and plaids. Obviously, here as everywhere, people patched their clothing, but I have never seen any old patchwork made from cotton, hemp or ramie.

"There was always a tradition of taking kimonos apart in order to wash them, re-sewing them (always by hand), turning things around a bit to hide wear, if necessary. Eventually what had started life as a full-length kimono would go through several reworkings, becoming in turn a kimono coat, a jacket, a vest, cushion covers, small bags and finally used to patch other kimonos.

"Sashiko geometric decorative stitching developed as a decorative stitching pattern from the purely utilitarian need to hold several layers of fabric together for warmth, or to reinforce areas of garments which would experience extra stress or abrasion.

"There was also a tradition of using bits of brightly colored silk or silky kimono fabric to make small toys and bags, some of them made from a patchwork-ish mixture of fabrics.

"As all things western, patchwork probably didn't exist prior to the Meiji Era, which followed the arrival of Commodore Perry and his black ships in 1853. Following WWII, the American occupation brought all sorts of new ideas from the U.S. In recent times, Japan has become increasingly prosperous, its citizens able to travel the world, while more and more foreigners have come to Japan to work and study. Those exchanges inevitably result in cross-pollinations of design ideas, materials, and techniques."

Sumie Manabe points to the same traditions and describes how they are both antecedent to, and quite distinct from, quilting: "We have a traditional Japanese needlecraft similar to quilting," she says. "It is called sashiko. However, we enjoy quilting as a totally different craft from sashiko. On the other hand, quite a lot of additions unique to Japanese tradition have been made to quilting. A few examples: use of Japanese fabric such as indigo-dyed cotton or hemp, silk crepe for kimonos, old kimono cloth and so on; employing images taken from old Japanese picture scrolls in designing either patterns or contemporary art quilts."

Sumie and her Nifty-Serve friend Sayemi Yakamichi date their acquaintance with quilting, American-style, to much more recent visits than that of Commodore Perry. She writes: "In Japan today when talking of patchwork/quilting, it generally refers to American quilting/patchwork (though of course Liberty prints are very popular and the Victorian style attracts a lot of people here), which is said to have come to Japan in the 1970s.

"My first encounter with quilts was also about that time. In 1977 there was an exhibition of American quilts at Kyoto City Museum. Although I don't remember in detail, I surely was very much impressed. There were several pioneers who brought in quilting from America and have made it popular in this country. Ms. Shizuko Kuroha, Mr. & Mrs. Nohara, Ms. Takako Onoyama, and some others, have contributed a lot to the quilting community of Japan. Sayemi told me two episodes about the very first quilts that came to Japan from America. In 1970 the World Expo was held in Osaka. At the American Pavillion the stone from the moon was exhibited. The mat laid under the stone was a quilt! When the American President (Nixon) came to Japan, he brought a patchworked bedcover as a gift to former Emperor Hirohito."

While there is a growing number of quilting enthusiasts such as Sumie and Sayemi, the general household use of quilts in Japan is retarded by cultural factors. Irene Bensinger writes: "Quilting isn't as popular among the general public as it is in the U.S., and most women who do patchwork never quilt what they make, usually handbags, cushions or wall hangings. Japanese homes have no room for quilting frames, and traditional Japanese bedding does not include a bed cover, as the traditional sleeping arrangement is on a futon, on the floor. However in the past 25 years or so there has been a shift to western style furniture, so many people in their 40s or younger sleep in beds. A bedspread is called in Japanese "beddo kabbaa", bed cover, and sometimes women who have learned patchwork will piece bed covers. (Poorly made, shoddy pieced bed covers made in China are for sale in some stores, but don't seem to sell very well. Japanese consumers are very demanding and are able and willing to pay for quality goods.)"

Sumie points to some innovative ways in which purveyors of inexpensive quilts are trying to sell them to the Japanese:

"Sayemi gave me an interesting comment on this matter. Recently a lot of quilts made in China or other southern eastern Asian countries are sold at a very low price (sometimes less than 2000 yen!). Ads for those quilts often go, 'Patchworked quilts for multi-use -- not only for bedding, but for a rug, sofa cover, or KOTATSU cover.' (KOTATSU is Japanese heating equipment, a low table with an electric heater underneath) This phenomenon shows quilts are getting popular among Japanese people."

Sumie confirms, though, that most Japanese houses are too small ("like rabbit houses") to comfortably accommodate quilts, and attributes to this the Japanese interest in miniatures: "Whatever nice quilts I had, there would be no room for them! Instead, we enjoy making small goods such as bags, cushions, table mats, mini-tapestries, and so on. For us quilting/patchwork means not only making quilts for bedding use but also small tissue paper cases!"

When asked if the Japanese have American-style quilt guilds, Sumie's answer is yes, but with a different twist: "Yes, we have. Maybe as many as stars! Buuuuuut, [they are] quite different from what you mean by the word 'guild' in a strict meaning. This is because of difference in cultural background in which quilting has become popular. So, it might be correct to say: We have thousands of quilt 'groups' but very few of quilt 'guilds.' I think that in Japan quilting is enjoyed just for fun, with no purpose more than that. The word quilt guild gives me an impression of something rooted in a local community (say, church) or, how I should say.... something like 'solidarity.'"

If quilting is only done for "fun" in Japan, it is done in a big way and an industry has grown up around it. Many books and magazines are published, and large national-level quilt shows are held annually. Sumie writes: "In Japan, there are three major publishers that issue quilt magazines. And a lot more books on quilting/patchwork are published. The number of these books and magazines shows how many quilters and groups and classes there are in Japan. This month there came out a new magazine which focuses on such groups of quilters from all over the country.

"About quilt shows & exhibitions: Apart from scale, we have many. There are 2 or 3 nation-wide scale quilt shows held every year, one of which is 'Yokohama Quilt Week.' There were more than 2000 entries for the contest of this show."

And obtaining materials for quilting? "We can obtain anything... if only we have money," Sumie says. "There are many quilt shops, and a lot of mail order services (including overseas) are available. I have lived in rather big cities and don't know what inconvenience those people away from town have. In Japan fabric and notions for quilting are quite expensive. It is ironical that hand-making is more expensive than just buying things."

With regard to computer use, both Irene and Sumie say the Japanese are in the early stages of general computer literacy and internet awareness. Yet there is already a very active online community of quilters as exemplified by the quilting boards at Nifty-Serve. Sumie describes the origins of Nifty-Serve and of its needle and handicrafts board, known as FCREATE:

"Nifty-Serve was started by an electronic company (Fujitsu) in 1987 or 88. There is another big network service, PC-VAN, which had more members than Nifty-Serve. But Nifty-Serve has got more and more members and now both of them have more than 1 million members respectively. The percentage of women should be between 10 and 20.

"FCREATE (the name of the forum was different at the time) was started by a woman working (as a programmer?) for Fujitsu in 1988 when there were scarce women on the network. For three or four years afterwards, most of the members on the forum were those who use computers for their work and the number of articles posted was very few. In the middle of 1992, as personal computers became more popular, women who were not computer-related workers, such as housewives, began to join and Noriko [Furuya, SysOp of the Quilting/Patchwork board at FCREATE] made a proposal of making a friendship quilt at the beginning of 1993. The friendship quilt was a success, resulting in calling for more members. Since then there have been various projects other than friendship quilts -- exchanging photos of works, a Hawaiian Quilt Club, Quilting Practice Club, fabric exchange, etc. We made an entry for the contest for Yokohama Quilt Week last year. We are trying again this year.

"Each forum has a data library, to and from which anyone can upload and download image files freely. In FCREATE use of the library is very scarce. Noriko hopes for more use of it so that we can show pictures of our works and share the joy of making quilts each other more profoundly than only in text-based messages.

Nifty-Serve has been a closed network, similar to America Online in its earlier days, and access to the internet was unknown until recently. Sumie says: "As you see, I am the only Japanese subscriber of TVQ, which fact symbolizes that there is scarce use of the internet among quilters in Japan. Even most my friends on the board of Nifty-Serve have not yet had access to internet. Besides the delay in computer networking compared with that in America, most people who would have interest in time-consuming needlework such as quilting are on the other end of high- technology. I mean most of the quilters in Japan are housewives and the average age seems rather high. Another problem is the language. There are some books and magazines featuring `Internet English`!! The other day I was surprised to find an ad of an English school, "Internet English Course." (I am also trying very hard writing this!)

"As for the use of computer in quilting, some of us have quilt software. Harumi enjoys playing with Brackman's BlockBase. I bought EQ2 last year. MAC users have QDS. I have never heard of such programs made in Japan or Japanese versions of the programs mentioned above. I got information on them through the internet. Without it, I would never have got one, or even any information. If there were Japanese versions, more people would use them, I believe."

Despite the apparent large differences between Japanese culture and the countries where quilting was born, the experiences of Japanese online quilters sound eerily familiar to western ears. Following is a story told by Harumi Kanemoto, a recent convert to online quilting:

"When I was working full-time, I was very busy doing both much overtime work as a secretary in the office and household chores as a wife at home. I wanted certain time for myself, the time for doing what I wanted to do. Day by day, months by months, I was more and more thirsty for patchwork and quilting. I wanted to use my own time doing patchwork and quilting as much as I liked. So, some 15 months ago, I quit the company, at last, for which I had worked for seven years. I was happy and satisfied for the time being because I could fill my own time with just doing patchwork and quilting, which had been my few-years-wish. The loneliness, however, overwhelmed me several months later. I found myself to know nobody to chat with regarding patchwork, to know nowhere to go asking questions about quilting. . . . I felt lonely. . . until one day I bumped into FCREATE on Nifty-Serve!

"It was incredible that I could communicate through computer network with other people from all over Japan, who shared the same pastime, the similar trouble and the same joy, without even knowing the name of each other. I could get a wide variety of information regarding patchwork and quilting: patterns, books, shops, movies, how to get catalogues/magazines from overseas, and so on and on and on.... As my world became wider thanks to the computer network, my loneliness has shrank instantly.

"Recently, nearly half of my time saved for patchwork and quilting is allocated for communication through computer network."


Most the material for this profile was gathered in March of this year, and everybody knows in the world of the internet a few months can be an eternity. Sumie wrote me this week with the following update:

"The situation has changed greatly for these few months. More and more members have come to have access to internet. One of the members, who won a prize in a quilt contest in America, has her quilt home page, and her husband, Mr. Fujimaki, who actually created the page, gave us a chance to start our own site.

"Now four of us (including Mr. Fujimaki) can provide space for WWW page and have opened FCREATE Quilt Page although it is tentative and only Japanese version. We are preparing for more image data and will create English version. The temporary URLs are:


"We will soon move to Noriko's site and open an English page, but won't be able to make it before you finish July 1 TVQ. I hope, however, you will include this news in the story of Quilting in Japan. I will let you know, of the new URL as soon as it is ready."

Sumie also provided the following information on her fellow-contributors: