Embroidered Garden Flowers by Kazuo Aoki

Roost Books (to be published in January 2018).

In the twenty-first century, while the traditional embroidery styles sashiko (“little stabs”) and nihon shishu (ornate symbolic stitchery), have continued to enchant and engross stitchers, there has also developed a less-stylised kind of Japanese decorative stitching. This popular kind of embellishment is more varied than the darning-style stitching of sashiko and less painstaking than the fine satin-stitch of nihon shishu. One category of modern Japanese embroidery often features ‘kawaii’ figures in stem and outline stitch – animals, people, household implements – and is popularly used on children’s clothing. Another school focuses on the botanical – landscapes, plants, flowers and grasses.  Much of the work of the second school is accomplished in cross-stitch, and Kazuo Aoki is a master of that form. She also however excels in creating delicate forms of this new Japanese style in surface embroidery.

It is difficult to find Aoki’s books in English translation. This pending publication by Roost Books is a lovely and welcome addition to the library of any modern English-speaking textile artist.

The 63 varieties of flowering plants in this generous book are worked on white backgrounds in bright greens and with a judicious use of colour, giving an effect of delicacy, freshness and life. Each is staged as a botanical specimen, static and isolated, but with structure in accord with the understated Japanese aesthetic. Every plant is set out with an example of the main stem and flower together with seeds, hips, fruits, bulbs attached or larger outlined leaves. Names are included in a sketchy and attractive freehand backstitch. The occasional expressive insect adds charm. It could be said that the seven aspects of the principles of wabi-sabi can be discerned in Aoki’s designs – asymmetry, simplicity, weatheredness, unpretentiousness, subtle grace, freedom and tranquility. The specimens arc from spring to autumn (in a northern hemisphere garden). Aoki says “And so, by spending the course of the year in the garden – as the first leaves slowly unfurl, to the buds that will swell and bloom, to the process of scattering seeds that will produce next year’s growth – I come to know the many charms of these flowers”. So transience and cultivation are emphasised.

This book is uncluttered, attractive and vivid. Two black-backgrounded plates stand out in striking counterpoise to the otherwise white-backgrounded content. A real Viola and dog-rose, with accompanying buds and so on, are dramatically set against the dark backgrounds with vintage-look nameplates and a needle. Even the contents pages provide pretty and evocative reading “…wild strawberry, chamomile, lily-of-the-valley, chocolate cosmos” .The illustration for each plant or set of plants takes one or two pages. Two  pages are devoted to blue flowers (“Brachyscome, blue lace flower, blue star, ageratum, love-in-a-mist (nigella), nemophila, flax”) alone.

While the designs are simple and fresh, and Aoki’s instructions are concise and lucid, this is not the starting-place for a novice stitcher. The diagrammatical representation of stitches (including a whole page for the dreaded woven stitch) are good. Aoki provides a helpful, and all-too-rare helpful guide to the order in which each design may be most profitably worked. The whole-page outline diagram of each illustration will prove difficult for any beginner stitcher. An intermediate stitcher will find them easy enough to follow with patience. Experienced stitchers will relish them as inspiration.  It would be of more use were each diagram to face the photograph of the finished work, but presumably that was rejected as a format which would detract from the look of the book.  Stitchers will need to refer to transfer the diagrams carefully and keep the photographs at hand for close reference as to texture and the direction of stitches.

Of her favourite field guides, Aoki tells us “I stare at these meticulous images and have a strange sensation, as though I am the size of a bee, slowly circling around the plant”. It is this careful, whimsical and personal observation that Aoki shares with us and our needles.

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