Kogin embroidery has long traditions and is currently enjoying a modern revival, but what exactly is this intriguing technique, and crucially, how do you stitch it?
Kogin is a traditional Japanese embroidey technique that hails from the great sashiko traditions of northern Japan, but unlike sashiko, is a counted thread technique. With running stitches in white cotton thread on dark indigo cloth, kogin is said to resemble snow scattered on the ground. It is stitched from side to side, counting over mostly uneven numbers of threads: one, three, five and, very occasionally, seven. Long stitches, avoided on the front of the cloth, may be present on the back, resulting in fabric almost three times its original thickness, trapping air for warmth.
The name ‘kogin’ comes from koginu (ko = small, ginu = wear), the name of a long work jacket. Kogin was also used on sodenashi (‘sleeveless’ waistcoats), although few have survived. Originally stitched as ‘Sunday best’ and festival attire, worn-out garments were demoted to everyday wear, sometimes with extra vertical stitching called niju-sashi (twice stitched) kogin added to reinforce tattered sections; others – somekogin (dyed kogin) – were over-dyed with indigo to hide discolouration.
“Although kogin is an old thing rooted in tradition, it is easy for anyone to have kogin’s beauty in their lifestyle today.” Kikuko Miyake
Materials for Kogin Embroidery
You need only basic sewing equipment to stitch kogin and, if you are a stitcher already, you are likely to have everything you require at hand. If you are keen on a counted thread embroidery technique, such as cross stitch, you may even have some fabric and threads you can use for your first attempts. You need a blunted tapestry needle for kogin, an evenweave fabric and stranded cotton embroidery floss, soft cotton thread or sashiko thread.
How to Read a Kogin Embroidery Chart
The graph lines in a kogin chart represent the threads of the fabric: one graph line represents one woven thread. The ‘stitches’ are shown by horizontal lines across one, two, three or more ‘woven threads’. It is like looking at a drawing of the actual stitching and, therefore, easy to follow.
How to Stitch Kogin Embroidery
Start stitching at the centre with the maetate (foundation row). Come up from the back of your fabric. Pull half the thread through to start stitching. Following the pattern chart, stitch to one end of the row. Several stitches can be placed on the needle before pulling through in a ‘sewing’ motion, similar to sashiko stitching: the fabric is pleated onto the needle tip, gathered up slightly and eased out flat. Make sure your thread is not twisting and that the stitches are not pulled too tight.
Unthread your needle and rethread it with the other end of your thread (the one on the back). Following the pattern, bring this thread through to the front, ready to start sewing the other half of the maetate row. Keep your rows straight: take care not to skip over a horizontal thread and slip off the row you are stitching. Stitches should be slightly raised on the surface, not sinking into the fabric. When the row is finished, check that your stitches are all going over and under the correct number of threads.
Turn and stitch the next whole row of the pattern. Most kogin motifs step diagonally over one thread at the end of the row so there will be a short diagonal ‘stitch’ on the back between the row ends. Keep this as a small loop so your stitching doesn’t pull in and distort the fabric.
Continue following the chart until the motif is complete, then weave in ends on the back.
Kogin Embroidery Masterclass
Susan Briscoe’s book The Ultimate Kogin Collection from which this information is excerpted is an amazing sourcebook for kogin – in it you’ll learn the history of the technique, how to stitch kogin in much greater depth than above, discover a range of beautiful projects to embellish with kogin designs, and a pattern library with hundreds of patterns to try out.