If you ever thought it’s too late to take up a new hobby, Akiko Ike will make you think again. She started with Chiku Chiku at the age of sixty, and has forged a reputation as an internationally renowned artist in the distinctive naïve style of Japanese embroidery. Chiku Chiku is the name of the sashiko embroidery offshoot which is defined by rows of running stitch sewn in parallel lines across pieces of fabric.
The onomatopoeic name comes from the sound of the needle threaded with thick cotton punching holes through the fabric.
I met up with Akiko at the recent Craft and Quilt Fair in Brisbane, Australia where she visited to as a guest of the Fair organisers, Expertise Events, and the (online) shops Wabi Sabi Designs and Fabric with Panache. Her friend, Alison Yamazaki, from Wabi Sabi very kindly translated during the interview.
Accompanying Akiko was her was her daughter, Tomoko, and the exhibition of her embroidered works. At the Craft and Quilt Fair she held three talks daily, which morphed into group discussion sessions, continuing long after the advertised finishing time. She is an inspiring example for a long, vital, creative life.
When Akiko was a young child she watched her mother and grandmother sew and copied them, doing hand sewing. When she went to school she was excited about the prospect of learning sewing formally. However her enthusiasm evaporated when she was made to adhere to sewing techniques she found difficult to master. Instead she ended up “hating” it because the techniques were so rigid. Instead, over the year she’s explored lots of different artistic methods – a lot of painting, knitting, and traditional sashiko. But it wasn’t until she was sixty that she returned to sewing by starting with chiku chiku and developing her own style.
She says she is informed and inspired by many sources – books she reads, opera or ballet she visits, a meal she enjoys. She has learned from all these art forms and they in turn inspire her. “Everything in her daily life is her teacher” she says, but it’s said without any suggestion of marking out her artistic territory “Only she can do her work and everyone should do their own”.
Akiko doesn’t see herself as the great artist. In fact, it’s the opposite, Akiko wants people to view her work and consider the process accessible, to think “I could do that”.
Her early experience with being turned off sewing could be the reason why she is reluctant to be overly prescriptive with how to follow her style, and that she doesn’t see herself as a great teacher.
During her talks, audience members were asking for exact instructions, wanting to know exactly “how” to do this style of embroidery. But with her typical humility, Akiko didn’t want to be prescriptive and dictate rules.
What type of Needles ? – she found one type after trying many, many types of needles. But it’s what suits her, and it may not be right for you.
Thread – No brand names to jot down. Just a thick cotton thread she now has made for her after lots of testing and trialling.
Style of stitching – Just a simple running stitch which is followed all over the world.
What fabric ? Ahh, well this is where it gets interesting, Akiko recommends old fabrics. Go searching through your old cupboards.
With fabrics, Akio loves using really old fabrics. In fact it’s the ONLY type of fabric she uses. She likes the softness and pliability of old fabrics, whereas new fabric is harder to punch through with needles. She likes muslin or sheer cottons once used for nappies, or mosquito nets that are decades upon decades old. She uses the wide Obi waist bands from kimonos. Not just the beautiful patterned silks, but the old white stiffening in the middle. She has a real interest in fabrics that are discarded.
Akiko considers that once a piece of cloth has served a long and useful life, to respect it’s purpose, her stitching “gives it strength”. Adding the layers of stitched thread is like adding new life to the old fabrics.
And her advice for those who wish to start?
Just start. It’s not a goal-driven process, it’s about doing at one’s own pace and finding one’s own way. Enjoying the process and the doing rather than focusing on the finished piece. In fact Akiko often doesn’t have a grand vision for the final piece, she chooses fabric swatches as she goes.
As passionate as she is about her craft, not everyone should do this. “For people who don’t want to do it, it’s okay”. Akiko herself belongs to a small craft circle where some don’t even craft. They stay, they eat together, they drink tea and talk, but they don’t actually stitch a thing. For Akiko, that is fine, it’s not essential for participation. She says she learns as much from them as they do from her. She doesn’t like to be seen as the teacher. She sees the process as the exchange of ideas, to sit, to talk, to have the connection with people, enjoy the process of selecting the colour of thread and fabrics. That is all part of the enjoyment of the craft circle.
While we hear the term “mindful” crafting and “upcycling” to describe contemporary crafting styles. there is much to be learned from a seasoned artist like Akiko Ike who teaches these time-honoured principles. Without “teaching” them.