One of my favorite things about Japan is that no matter where you go, each place has its own traditional regional craft. In Hirosaki, or rather in the Tsugaru region as a whole there are three crafts that I am really interested in. These are: Kogin-zashi embroidery, Tsugaru Nuri lacquerware, and akebi-vine basketry. I want to talk about all three of these, but for today let’s talk about Kogin-zashi, because it’s the one that I am the most familiar with.
About Kogin Zashi:
“Kogin-zashi” is one of the needlework techniques that originated in the Edo Era and remains one of the top three types of sashiko (embroidery) in Japan. Kogin-zashi is characterized by white cotton threads which were stitched into indigo dyed linen clothes called “Kogin.” The purpose of this was to increase insolation and keep the farmers warm during the winter months. Kogin patterns take the form of geometric shapes, mostly consisting of a diamond shaped pattern and are created by odd number stitchings of 1-, 3-, 5-, 7-vertical threads .
Kogin-zashi patterns are made up of “modoko” or rather the geometric pattern that constitutes the smallest element of a design. There are currently 40 modoko. Patterns are created by combining the modoko together. Traditionally there are 600 patterns that have been retained, however about only 300 were selected as basic designs (designated by the Hirosaki Kogin Institute). Women in these farm villages lived most of their lives snow-bound for almost half of the year. These women led economically and socially constrained hard lives, so Kogin-zashi became one of their household artworks. Over the course of time fine geometric patterns were created to decorate garments.
Kogin-zashi itself is broken down into three smaller categories depending on where it is from: Higashi (East) Kogin, Nishi (West) Kogin, and Mishima Kogin.
Higashi Kogin comes from cities around the Iwaki River such as the east side of Hirosaki City where the castle was located, Kuroishi City, Hirakawa City, and the Ishikawa area now inside of Hirosaki City. Higashi Kogin is characterized by having the same pattern from back to front and the patterns being sewn with rough thick hemp yarn.
Nishi Kogin can be found in the Satoyama area such as the western side of Hirosaki city, Nishiya village, Hirosaki city Iwaki district, the Soma area of Hirosaki city, and lastly across the Iwaki River. It is characterized by dense patterns caused by weaving with thin thread. Some patterns are sewn by alternating black and white thread, because of this Nishi Kogin is also called “Shima Kogin“.
“Mishima Kogin” was centered around current Goshogawara city, which is downstream of the Iwaki River and Tomoni Tsugaru city. Mishima Kogin is characterized by three striped patterns. There are only a few examples left of this style of Kogin that exist today making it very valuable.
Even though Kogin traditionally used indigo cloth and white string, today there is an array of cloth and string colors you can choose from. Even though there are a number of set patterns and modoko, people today still often create their own modoko and patterns, so you can easily make many different crafts and enjoy Kogin-Zashi.
Kogin is actually relatively easy to do as long as you have all of the materials! Even though there is specific cloth and string that you are able to buy in Japan, these can easily be substituted for other materials that can be purchased outside of Japan!
So first the materials. All you need is a cloth, stitching string, a Kogin needle, and a sewing thimble (optional).
- Stitching string
- You can buy this in Aomori prefecture basically at any fabric store or a store dedicated to Kogin-Zashi. If you don’t have access to this then embroidery thread No.25 is about the equivalent.
- You can use any cloth as long as it is a plain woven cloth, as long as you can read the grids of the cloth. The embroidery cloth called “Congress” that is produced by Olympus is the main one used in Japan.
- Kogin Needle
- The needle used forKogin-Zashi is typically 5.5cm or 6.5cm (longer than the average sewing needle), the tip is rounded and the top needs to be able to allow thick string to pass through it. They suggest a Swedish embroidery needle if you cannot buy a needle made specifically for Kogin.
- Sewing thimble
- This isn’t really necessary but when sewing with a long needle it is convenient to hold the needle with a counter thimble on the middle finger to support the advancement of the needle.
Here is a step by step explanation (both in English and Japanese) since I probably wouldn’t be able to explain everything that well:
I think the hardest thing to understand with this type of embroidery is you go row by row. So if you are stitching a basic diamond that goes 1, 3, 5, 3, 1, you stick 1 then move up the grid once then stick 3, then move up up the grid once and stick 5 and so on and so forth. This can be overwhelming when you are stitching like 10 diamonds in a row and your first line is just a bunch of white dots but it’s really cool to see the progression and eventually the final product.
Another tricky thing to watch out for is that the string should never be too loose or too tight. If it’s too tight then the pattern could disappear under the grid like pattern of the linen, so be very careful, and make sure you tidy up the string before moving up to the next line.
The history of Kogin is very interesting. But I left this at the bottom since I’ve already written a lot. Feel free to just skip this bit if you’re not interested.
As you know from the beginning of this article Kogin-Zashi was developed during the Edo period. However, the reason for this was not that women had a lot of time inside the house during the winter. That is more likely the explanation for why there are an abundance of set Kogin patterns.
The reason that Kogin developed during the Edo period is because of a law that was put in place around this time. This law mandated that farmers were not allowed to wear cotton or silk due to a frugality order. The farmers could only wear clothes made from hemp and other self-sufficient materials. As you know hemp is woven and has a lot of holes. This is really not suitable for people working in harsh winter conditions that can be found especially in the Tsugaru region.
Kogin-Zashi is said to have been started because the wives of the farmers started to stitch sashiko with hemp thread to achieve more durability with the cloth and to increase heat retention. They basically started to stitch the hemp to plug the holes of the linen.
In the Meiji era, this law was lifted and cotton became available to farmers once more. Women started to make their own strings made of cotton. By changing the string from hemp to cotton, the fabric was able to retain even more heat. But, as cotton became more and more available, the art of Kogin-Zashi declined abruptly during the Meiji period.
It wasn’t until a magazine,‘Kougei’ No.14, in February 1960 announced that there were signs of resurgence surrounding this declining craft. A student from Aomori became fascinated by Kogin and at the beginning of the Showa period began researching and collecting. The announcement in this magazine were pictures of all the crafts that he had collected.
From this point Kogin-Zashi has become an integral craft associated with the Tsugaru region. There are many festivals including Kogin Fes that show off peoples mastery of the craft, and Kogin can be bought all over Aomori prefecture.