I visited the Kogin Institute in Hirosaki on January 31, 2017 after visiting the Tokyo Quilt Festival, Takayama, and Osaka. It was a pleasant flight from Osaka to Hirosaki, with the view of snowy mountains most of the way, and many, many empty seats. My companion Toyo looked around the plane, counted the passengers, and said in a low voice, “We’re the Seven Samurai.” Five men in business suits and the two of us, plus a very cheerful and friendly flight crew, happy to practice their English on me. I shared fresh strawberries from Osaka with the crew, and they shared hot tea and sweets with us.
After landing, Toyo and I took a bus to our hotel, then a taxi to the Kogin Institute for a tour and brief Kogin lesson. Tokyo and Osaka had been windy, a bit rainy, and somewhat cold, but Hirosaki is in the north country at the top of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The snow falls deep up there, and we had arrived in late January.
Upon entering the Kogin Institute we removed our snowy boots and slipped on house slippers, then stepped into the lobby. A glass case containing prize winning examples of Kogin with a plaque featuring a large swastika caught my eye. This being Japan, however, it was Manji, an ancient Buddhist symbol used in Japan since the 8th century CE. When seen on maps it represents the location of a Buddhist temple, and is also the basis of the popular “Sayagata” (“key fret”) design used in sashiko.
Inside the main office we met with Sadaharu Narita, CEO of the Kogin Institute. He talked about the history of kogin in the region and how the Institute provides a way for that history to continue, along with giving local women an opportunity to sell their own work through the Institute’s shop. A hundred local people work with the Institute, some only coming in to pick up or drop off projects, but others are more involved, such as those who teach on-site. My first lesson was on how to weave the linen base fabric.
This is the “student loom” where weaving neophytes such as myself can pretend we know what we’re doing. Weaving always feels a bit like playing piano to me, but in this case I can’t find the keys and the foot pedals are far more important. There’s an earnest rhythm to weaving, one which I haven’t quite got the feel for just yet.
My delightful instructor was patient and friendly, which helped build my confidence at the loom. The loom she works was built in 1942 and kept in good repair over the years. She has a waiting list for custom obi, which run about 4-5 meters long (if I remember correctly). It takes a month to weave the linen, then another two months to stitch the design.
There are 355 threads for the warp. The weight and texture are similar to (cotton) Congress Cloth canvas used for needlepoint. The linen feels slightly stiff, but has a warmth and softness to it from being handled by a human rather than processed by a machine.
Back in the main office Toyo and I had our kogin lesson. The teacher here was more firm, often taking the fabric from my hand, pulling out my stitches, and doing them for me with the correct tension as mine were too tight. To be honest, anyone who has ever taught me anything to do with sewing, knitting, or working with thread can tell you I am TENSE. The only reason my sashiko stitches are loose now is that I’ve been practicing for over a decade.
These bright red pieces that have been brought in by local stitchers to be turned into items for the shop, such as tote bags, pencil cases, and such.
Designs are mapped out on graph paper, using traditional designs handed down for generations, and adapted for modern use.
This finished garment is actually a miniature piece for display. The narrow stripes at the shoulder are a talisman for good luck, and identify the region from which the specific design originally came (more about that in a future post). The quality of work is stunning. Did you notice the sayagata design with interlocking Manji?
This roll of vintage kogin-stitched linen is part of the Institute’s collection. Such fabric would have been made by a young woman as part of her marriage dowry, proving that she could adequately clothe her husband and family. These fabrics would be stitched into clothing to present to her future husband when the time came. This piece was never made into a finished garment, which tells a story of its own, albeit more of a mystery.
I am grateful to the members of the Kogin Institute for their warm welcome, sharing of information, and encouragement to continue my own journey with kogin. I also wish to thank my friend Toyo for being an enjoyable companion on my trip up north in Tsugaru snow country, and also for being my translator along the way. I would have been quite literally lost without her!
I’ll be writing more about kogin this winter. If you have specific questions, please let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Visiting Japan? Learn more about the Kogin Institute here: