|Japanese Lore and Legends Quilt
Patricia L. Cummings
The traditions and culture of Japan are a treasure trove for design possibilities. The “Japanese Lore and Legends” quilt
celebrates a few of the many legends and symbols of the “floating world.” In an attempt to graphically interpret certain
concepts about Japanese life, the logical place to start seemed to be with an asymmetrically-pieced center circle. Circles, as
a design element, have always been popular in Japan. To the eastern mind they represent the continuity of life, if not
eternity. Circular family crests of heraldry were worn on clothing in Japan for centuries. Within the crest, a specific motif
would be stitched and each family name had its own designated crest design.
"Japanese Lore and Legends" Quilt made by Patricia L. Cummings
Circles Popular in Japan
Circles as a design element have always been popular in Japan. The shape of a circle then was a must to use when
designing the quilt shown here. Other shapes have also been executed purposefully and certain geometric configurations
have meanings that transcend the obvious. Hexagon patterns have been used, in both the fabric within the circle, and as
elongated shapes in an appliquéd motif in the border perimeter area. To the Japanese, hexagons represent the divisions of a
sea tortoise’s shell. These creatures which return yearly to Japan are an integral symbol of Japan. According to legend,
Japan itself sits on the back of a gigantic sea turtle. Like the beloved crane, tortoises represent long life, as they were both
thought to live 1,000 years. The flying crane, embroidered with perle coton, is a lovely motif design borrowed from a book
called Sashiko and Beyond.
The chrysanthemum, considered to be the sacred flower of Japan, is presented as an over-stitched motif on a piece of
cream color silk, in the center of the circle. Variegated pearl cotton, which was dyed in gradated values of violet, was
couched on, to make the flower look more 3-dimensional. Legend says that if a person drinks the water in which
chrysanthemum petals have floated, he/she will have eternal life. Family crests of this flower have always been reserved for
exclusive use of the royal family.
Buttons and brass charms which help tell the story of Japan’s traditions were added to the quilt. The brass charm of a long-
necked bird, suggesting the image of a crane, was added as an embellishment. Cranes arrive in Japan each year to spend the
winter, returning to their home in Siberia in the spring. They are a much-revered symbol of fertility and good luck and the
birds are welcomed back with great joy each year.
Butterflies, a long time Japanese image which represents the human soul, has been added as a surface embellishment as an
appliquéd motif on one of the patches which resembles bamboo leaves. Butterfly references often appear in haiku poetry,
and are celebrated as print images on the surface of many textiles, such as yukata cloth.
Not surprisingly, fish are motifs often used in Japanese design. Fish are an integral part of the economy and diet of this
island community. In my quilt, I have used a brass charm to depict a carp. Carp or Koi, as they are called in Japan, are
extremely fierce fish and are fearless. For this reason, they have come to be an important symbol. On Boy’s Day,
celebrated on May 5 each year, a carp windsock is flown outside the home, one for each boy in the house, in the hope that
the male children in the home will be strong and successful.
Other embellishments on the quilt include jewels, a Shisha mirror, and a brass Sun with emanating rays. Together, these
symbolize the legend of a sun goddess who went into her cave and refused to come out. Tired on sunless days, the
villagers went to the cave opening where they shone mirrors and jewels to entice her to reappear. They succeeded in their
efforts and once again, the sun was out and the rice fields thrived.
Another very important symbol within the circle is a bunch of gathered and tacked silk ribbons which represent the
traditional noshi. The noshi is a ceremonial gift which is traditionally given on New Year’s Day. Originally the gift was an
abalone fish, wrapped in bright paper resembling colorful ribbons, and tied. Meant to convey the wish of good luck in the
coming year, the noshi is often seen as a colorful ribbon style design on many printed Japanese textiles now being sold in
the United States.
A piece of antique lace that is suggestive of the shape of a kimono is appliquéd to the upper part of the center circle.
Kimono (singular and plural are the same word) are a traditional silk garment. Every man and woman are expected to own
at least one good ceremonial kimono, some of which cost in excess of (US)$50,000.
Sashiko stitching, which we regard as mostly decorative today, actually began as a way to repair and to conserve kimono.
Sashiko has been called a “hybrid” type of stitching which is somewhere between embroidery and quilting. It is a running
stitch which is most often done using white or indigo cotton thread. A variegated Sashiko thread is currently being
produced in Japan, an innovative change to traditional color use.
The two Sashiko designs appear in the perimeter area of the circle. One of these is the traditional kasumi cloud formations.
The other is an interlocking pattern called “Linking Plover.” This abstract design represents a plover which is a type of
seabird common in Japan. Here again, the design element is honoring something that occurs in the natural world.
Other motifs outside the circle include: a paper-pieced fan, the Japanese national flag; a maple leaf, stylistically rendered,
and an appliquéd shape representing a pine tree and set within a quilted diamond. Pine trees are always depicted in this same
traditional manner, especially in Japanese art work. The pine, the plum, and the bamboo, used together as a motif are
referred to as the “three companions of the deep cold.” Those three tree are very hearty and survive the cold winters well.
The diamond shape is often seen in Japanese quilts. Hexagons are quite popular, as noted, and on this particular quilt, a unit
of elongated hexagons was assembled and appliquéd. Continuing upward from that unit, we see a patch containing musical
notes to illustrate and represent the importance of music in Japan. The plain white piece of fabric has writing that spells out
“Japan” twice, once in English and again, using a Kanji symbol (Japanese language character).
Two brass fans of different classic shapes are also used as embellishments, as well as the white fish button, a symbol of
Christianity, a religion present in Japan since the Muromachi period (1333-1568) with the arrival of Portuguese traders who
arrived with missionaries and guns.
The needlework of Japan reflects the fact that the basic belief system of the country is Shintoism. This set of beliefs does
not recognize a central deity but rather, believes that all things, whether animate or inanimate, possess a spirit. In addition,
Shintos honor all of nature. It is not surprising that collectively, the Japanese people have a deep respect for flowers, birds,
fish, trees, parks, and water. This is reflected in their stitched goods as well as in their art work. Of note to us as
needleworkers, is the fact that once a year, Japanese women gather at Shinto shrines to thank their worn out needles for
their year of service and then they ceremoniously bury them in tofu. This is called the Hari-Kuyo ceremony.
The Japanese have a long history of creating and treasuring beautiful textiles, especially silk ones due to the availability of
silk in that country. Currently, American cotton fabrics are a valued and often hard-to-find item in Japan. In my quilt, both
silks and cottons have been used, including some Momen House prints, printed in Japan. Comparing the colors to the
brighter American ones, one would have to describe them as have more grayed tones.
This quilt was the outgrowth of the need to visually illustrate a talk that I gave to a needlework group, one lecture in a series
of five that I presented about the history of Japan, its culture, and its people, especially in regards to needlework issues. As
the world is becoming smaller and smaller, due in part to Internet connections, it is helpful to try to understand the work
and traditions of other cultures. Japanese quilters often look to traditional American quilt patterns for inspiration, but quilting
is becoming a way for those quilters to celebrate their own heritage.
An especially delightful quilt show was one that we attended in 1996 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. This show was an
invitation co-exhibit, presented in conjunction with a sister guild from Japan which sent over many quilts. As confidence in
the use of quilting techniques grows, Japanese quilters are creating more one-of-a-kind quilts which express their own
unique and creative energies.
While it would be impossible to convey the richness of the Japanese textile tradition in one short article, I hope that you
have gained more insight by having read this article. It was fun to make this little quilt which uses circles, hexagons,
diamonds, a rectangle, a pine tree image, Sashiko quilting, embroidery, and a crazy quilt style center to share a deeper core
meaning than what initially appears on the surface. May the information provided here be useful to you, not to copy what I
have done, but to investigate the traditions of Japan on your own, and to design a quilt which incorporates some of the
wonderful images and shapes common and relevant to Japanese design. Good luck, and remember...if you create
something of which you are really proud, please send me a picture!
This article was first published in 2002 and is re-published here in 2015. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications,
Concord, NH. All Rights Reserved.