An Introduction to Sashiko with Jolie Bird

Story by Christina Wong
Photos courtesy of Esker Foundation

The Esker Foundation’s workshops are often sold out events, and for good reason. Lead by experts in their fields, the gallery’s free programming provides participants with the materials and guidance to try new things, explore new concepts, and learn new skills. From hour long sessions to full-day affairs, these workshops cover a range of topics related to the gallery’s current exhibitions and have a variety of activities for all ages. This summer, the Esker Foundation’s programming is focused on textile and jewelry design, and though one might think that these workshops require a lot of proficiency to attend, no experience is necessary to enjoy them.

One of the full-day workshops presented this summer introduced participants to the ancient art of sashiko. Sashiko is a Japanese stitching technique rooted in the desire to extend the useful life of a garment in varying ways. Whether it’s increasing the durability of a jacket by patching swatches over thinning areas, or creating a new blanket by hiding worn out pieces of cloth between newer panels to increase the overall warmth, sashiko turns an ordinary piece of clothing into a fabric phoenix that’s constantly reincarnated and reused.

Participants at the Esker Foundation workshop ‘Introduction to Sashiko with artist Jolie Bird’ Saturday 21 July. Photos courtesy of Esker Foundation.

For most attendees, sashiko and its applications were new concepts, but the workshop began with a presentation by textile artist and workshop leader, Jolie Bird. Bird’s artistic practice and love of slow, meditative techniques made her the perfect instructor for the session, and her particular understanding of fabrics, tools, and the process turned new concepts into familiar ideas. An alumni from the Alberta College of Art and Design with an MFA from NSCAD in Halifax, Bird is also the creator of the current installation, 1597; Harmonious Frequencies, and it was a pleasure to have an exhibiting artist teach the workshop.

After an introduction to the sashiko technique, participants were given two pieces of indigo linen, hand dyed by Bird, and the freedom to create whatever they desired. Ideas of what one could make in an afternoon—coasters, pillow cases, bandanas—were tossed around, and Bird guided participants to create a plan for their pieces. What followed was a flurry of fabrics as traditional sashiko patterns were shared, plans were made, and pieces of found cloth were sorted through before participants returned to their stations, ready to give this new technique a try.

Participants at the Esker Foundation workshop ‘Introduction to Sashiko with artist Jolie Bird’ Saturday 21 July. Photos courtesy of Esker Foundation.

For anyone who would not consider themselves gifted in the arts, it was easy to start the day staring at the swatch of cloth in confusion. Rotated, ironed, folded, and ironed again, ideas could be hard to come by, but excitement was in the air, and it was impossible not to be swept away by everyone’s enthusiasm. What began as an exercise in anxiety over what to create became an genuine excitement over what these fabrics could become. Armed with a darning needle and a pair of thread nippers, the indigo cloth became an ambitious patchwork of colourful layers, held together by a simple sashiko pattern. Though for many participants, the day’s work remains an imperfect piece of art, it is something that would not have been possible without a bit of encouragement.

While it is fortunate that these workshops are provided for free, the true value of these events is their ability to inspire so many to try new things. Though the concepts explored might be completely new, the quality of the workshops make them a fun way to feed your curiosity and good way to spend an engaging weekend.

The Esker Foundation’s Summer 2018 programming runs through the end of August.