If you thought quilts were a Western art, think again!

The Tokyo International Quilt Festival

Quilt “Dancing in the Wind” by Masako Sakagami
Late summer means awaordori dance exhibitions, and this swirl of movement captures that festival atmosphere perfectly (“Dancing in the Wind” by Masako Sakagami)

You know how Japan embraces stuff from all over the world, and then turns it uniquely Japanese? Every year at the end of January, Tokyo hosts one of the most magnificent displays of quilting in the world—the Tokyo International Quilt Festival.* Japanese artists come from a long tradition of meticulous craftsmanship, so when it comes to quilting, their fiber artists really outdo themselves. The charming Japanese motifs are the most obvious way they make us look at quilts in a whole new way, but they also deploy very Japanese color choices and traditional Japanese sewing techniques. Without further ado, feast your eyes on THESE!

First, my favorites, because they blend such wonderful meanings with beautiful imagery

Quilt “Voice” by Yoshiko Karagiri
This one features lots and lots of sparrows, and is called “Voice” (by Yoshiko Karagiri) because the artist gently disagrees with the famous Japanese saying, “One crane’s voice is louder than a thousand sparrows.” In other words, she thinks that the opinions of the common people ought to be stronger the pronouncements of the powerful.
Quilt “Kimono Meet-Up” by Akiko Yoshinaga
“Kimono Meet-Up” by Akiko Yoshinaga is about the very Japanese pastime of friends going see an event together, after agreeing they’ll all wear kimonos. I often see these groups of ladies at museums or having lunch together at a restaurant, enjoying each other’s combinations, which are never the same twice.
Quilt detail “Kimono Meet-Up” by Akiko Yoshinaga
But it’s also a monument to the sheer number of painstaking hours Japanese artists are willing to put into a piece. This quilt features over 1500 appliqued and embroidered ladies wearing kimonos, and no two are the same
Quilt “Kaleidoscope” by Hideko Onozaki
“Kaleidoscope” by Hideko Onozaki looks like a lovely but typical quilt pieced from all kinds of printed fabrics…
Quilt detail “Kaleidoscope” by Hideko Onozaki
…until you notice that each of the patterns on the pieces is hand-embroidered in traditional Japanese sashiko quilting techniques
Quilt “Moving Picture: An Homage to Doshokusaie” by Reiko Nakahara
The pictures on the fans in “Moving Picture: An Homage to Doshokusaie” by Reiko Nakahara pay tribute to…
Cover of book about Itō Jakuchū
…18th century Japanese painter Itō Jakuchū. He was famous for his animal paintings, and I’m sure you can find the ones on the cover of this book in the quilt!

And that leads us into quilts that celebrate other uniquely Japanese arts and techniques

Quilt “The Kumiko Suite” by Keiko Morihiro
Besides being a masterpiece of applique, “The Kumiko Suite” by Keiko Morihiro celebrates the equally labor-intensive and precision-requiring traditional craft of kumiko woodworking
Fancy shoji screen
…in which intricate patterns are pieced together from precisely cut pieces of bamboo, and held in their frames entirely by pressure—no nails, no glue, NOTHING but friction and gravity.
Quilt detail “The Kumiko Suite” by Keiko Morihiro
Let’s look at a tiny detail of this quilt, shall we?
Quilt “Listen!” by Noriko Hasegawa
Indigo dyeing is one of the oldest Japanese arts, and “Listen!” by Noriko Hasegawa celebrates the changing beauty of indigo as it fades and ages
Quilt “Releasing” by Etsuko Misaka
“Releasing” by Etsuko Misaka is also a play on indigo and traditional Japanese fabric patterns, creating a modern optical illusion of a square that appears and disappears depending how close you are to the quilt

And then there are the ones that are all about the strongest theme in all Japanese art and literature: the seasons


Quilt “Cherry Blossoms” by Masako Sakagami
What could be more seasonal (or labor intensive AIEEEE) than the venerable tree depicted in “Cherry Blossoms” by Masako Sakagami
Miharu Takizakura cherry tree in full bloom
In case you thought that gnarled old trunk was a quilter’s fantasy, check out this thousand-year-old cherry tree I visited in Fukushima known as Miharu Takizakura!
Quilt “Wisteria and Peonies Throw a Party” by Sadako Kagoshima
“Wisteria and Peonies Throw a Party” by Sadako Kagoshima is a quilt about that brief moment in the spring when the peonies are still in bloom, and the wisteria start to flower. These flowers are seldom seen together—wisteria is a twining vine trained over arbors for shade, and peonies are raised in beds for show—so their coming together refers to a rare, but possible, event
Quilt “In Memory of Father” by Yoshiko Kawakita
Village men dressed up as oni demons for a spring festival in “In Memory of Father” by Yoshiko Kawakita (You can tell it’s spring, because the bamboo in the background is just sprouting!)


Quilt “Goldfish Versus the Fish Net” by Satomi Tominaga
I love “Goldfish Versus the Fish Net” by Satomi Tominaga because she actually pieced it from…
Quilt detail “Goldfish Versus the Fish Net” by Satomi Tominaga
…the goldfish-printed gauze dish towels that are EVERYWHERE in Japan
Catching goldfish at a summer festival in Japan
And because it so playfully pays homage to that ultimate summertime activity, trying to catch goldfish with a paper net at a festival
Quilt “Fireworks” by Makiko Mori
Going on a date to see the fireworks while wearing traditional summer kimonos is the top romantic thing to do in the summertime (“Fireworks” by Makiko Mori)
Quilt “Song of the Ground Cherries” by Kazuko Toshida
The cheerful plant whose seed pods have their very own festival every July are immortalized in “Song of the Ground Cherries” by Kazuko Toshida (And yeah, all the filaments of that dried seed case are appliquéd…)


Quilt “Sunbeams Between The Trees” by Hiroko Oouchi
I love this one, because I recognized the place immediately! “Sunbeams Between The Trees” by Hiroko Oouchi
Higanbana red spider lilies blooming at Kinchakuda in Koma
Uncannily accurate, am I right? I took this photo the first time I went to see the wild higanbana amaryllis at Kinchakuda Park, near Koma. They bloom for only a few days, right at the autumnal equinox.
Quilt “Memory of An Unspoiled Landscape” by Kazuko Tanaka
This one has the same higanbana flowers, but “Memory of An Unspoiled Landscape” by Kazuko Tanaka shows them the way they usually grow wild in Japan, suddenly appearing at roadsides and on the borders of the small graveyards that dot the deep countryside
Quilt “Soon The Wind Will Bring Winter” by Kumi Ohkawa
“Soon The Wind Will Bring Winter” by Kumi Ohkawa not only uses the colors most associated with kimonos worn in late autumn (including the native iconic indigo), it also includes the three most autumnal plants: the appliqués are of bush clover and gourds, and the quilting celebrates wind blowing through the plumes of pampas grass known as susuki
Quilt “Silver Hammock” by Kumiko Morita
The bug-eaten leaves of late autumn become even more beautiful in “Silver Hammock” by Kumiko Morita
Quilt “The Street of Golden Leaves” by Keiko Kimura
And the annual carpeting of the ground in gold under the gingko trees is perfectly captured in “The Street of Golden Leaves” by Keiko Kimura
Quilt “Flowers in Mode” by Michiko Sonobe
“Flowers in Mode” by Michiko Sonobe is super-Japanese in two ways: it uses a very Japanese color palette, and features flowers associated strongly with all four seasons, in a way that make this “flower quilt” not about the flowers themselves, but about the passage of time throughout the year


Quilt of tree trunks in winter
This gorgeously appliqued study of tree trunks in a snowstorm…
…uses lace and white tulle overlays to give the unusual effect of frost and snow falling

And finally, quilts with depictions of satisfyingly only-in-Japan things

Quilt “Congratulations, I Want to Eat, I Want to Love” ("Medetai, tabetai, koishitai") by Chizuko Kojima
The auspiciously festive whole snapper served when there’s something to celebrate “Congratulations, I Want to Eat, I Want to Love” (“Medetai, tabetai, koishitai”) by Chizuko Kojima
Quilt "Wind Chime" by Koseki Suzuko
The summer wind bells known as “furin” chime at the slightest breeze, to make you feel cooler in the summer heat (“Wind Chime” by Koseki Suzuko)
Quilt “Rice – Things We Can Do” Kawaguchi City Junior High School
All the ways to eat rice, in “Rice – Things We Can Do” made by the 8th & 9th grade students of Kawaguchi City Junior High School
Quilt "Kokeshi's Stories" by Megumi Mizuno
“Kokeshi’s Stories” by Megumi Mizuno brings delightfully animated kokeshi dolls and daruma figures to life
Wooden Kokeshi dolls, Setagaya Boroichi flea market
Kokeshi dolls have a scroll of paper inside their long bodies, which are often signed by friends and well-wishers, then given on a special occasion
Quilt with stitched family crests
Every family in Japan has a circular family crest (most often seen on formal kimonos and gravestones) and this tour de force of applique and quilting stitches riffs on some of the most beautiful ones
Quilt “Ultimate Autumn” by Reiko Nakahara
“Ultimate Autumn” by Reiko Nakahara uses an Escher-like tesselation technique to give the impression of falling leaves…but with ornamental koi fish

*So many wonderful events fell victim to the pandemic, and I was beyond sad to hear that the Tokyo International Quilt Festival was one of them. I only pray that it will be resurrected again, once travel restrictions lift ( ; _ ; )

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

3 thoughts on “If you thought quilts were a Western art, think again!

    1. I know you’ve seen most of them before (o faithful quilt post reader!) but I never get tired of seeing them! I was reminded just how many amazing quilts there were at these shows as I looked through my gazillion photos for this post, and wished I’d gotten a hit with the clue stick sooner, because I didn’t think to take info card snaps of the earliest ones. I so want to post photos of more, but it seems wrong to do it without artist attribution ( ; _ ; )


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