As far back as prehistoric Japan, fishbone needles were used for basic stitching.
The arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century was the catalyst behind early examples of elaborate embroidery seen in the wall hangings and religious artifacts at temples. From the Heian Period onwards, the costumes of the aristocratic classes were embellished with increasingly decorative embroidery techniques.
Embroidery was often used in conjunction with other techniques to create ornate patterns. Noh costumes of the Muromachi Period innovatively combined stitching with imprinted gold or silver leaf. Untwisted metallic thread was used to great effect in the Momoyama Period on soft, coloured silks and created a stark visual effect when used on dark backgrounds. There are surviving examples of costumes from this era that were entirely covered with embroidered designs.
There are several stitches in the repertoire of a traditional Japanese embroiderer - some of the most common being hira-nui (satin stitch), sagara-nui (french knot), nui-kiri (outline satin stitch), matsui-nui (back stitch outline) and watashi-nui (long couched stitches).
The technique of quilting layers of fabric together using a continuous running stitch is known as sashiko. It developed as a rural craft, primarily as a way of strengthening or repairing indigo-dyed work clothes which were not easily or cheaply replaced. The functionality and warmth offered by the layering made the technique particularly popular in the colder areas of northern Japan but regional variations appeared across the country. Most often, heavy white thread was used to bring together several layers of indigo-dyed cotton or ramie fabric, producing a striking, aesthetically pleasing effect. As a consequence, the function of sashiko changed over time from a practical use to a decorative one, utilizing geometric and elaborate stitching patterns.
Kogin-zashi emerged in the northern region of Tsugaru as a technique diverging from sashiko. Running stitches of white thread, uneven in length, go in the direction of the weft and form a pattern by crossing over odd numbers of warp threads.
The great effort spent in creating fabrics from fibres meant that clothes were used until they were revived by saki-ori (reweaving) or else repurposed as boro (patches sewn together).