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Q &A with Zakka Sewing Coauthor Therese Laskey (also see Q & A with Chika Mori)

For those who aren’t familiar with zakka, please tell us about it?

Zakka is handmade items that you make for your home. It embodies a lot of Japanese traditions. Many of the designs are simple, but others follow the modern trend of making things “cute,” like the squirrel tea cozy in Zakka Sewing. In some ways, zakka derives from a 1960s movement in Japan, the “thrifty housewife,” a time when a lot of women said, ‘I don’t have to buy that, I can make it myself.’ In Japan there is true love and reverence for things that are made carefully and beautifully. Zakka is a way to make the everyday unique and special. Something like the House Mug Mat is a perfect way for anyone who enjoys hot chocolate to lend the experience of drinking it an extra little nicety that is so lovely.

How did you first become interested in zakka?

I started reading craft and design blogs four or five years ago, and that’s where I came across zakka. The blogs inspired me to take a look at Japanese craft books. Many American bloggers were buying the Japanese books and trying to figure out from the illustrations how to make the designs they featured. So I had the idea to do this book so that an English-speaker could have access to the patterns.

Zakka Sewing includes 25 projects by zakka designers living in Japan. How did you find the designers? How did you choose the projects?

My coauthor, Chika Morey, is Japanese and lives in Los Angeles. She reads Japanese, so she was able to navigate the Japanese blogs and find the crafters. I started a private blog for the two of us so we could post photos of things that we found online. She would post a photo and I would comment on it, and check the link to the person’s site and see other items that they had made.

I was very careful to ensure that we had a nice cross-section of items in Zakka Sewing--from projects that are very traditional, like the Sashiko Placemats, to others that are more modern and “cute” like the Bunny Pencil Case. Sometimes Chika and I would go to an artist we liked and ask her to adapt the work of hers we’d seen online, using perhaps a different fabric or a decorative element. One of the artists did four of the projects in Zakka Sewing–Sashiko Pouch, Merci Apron, Bunny Wallet, and Bird Pillow.

Which projects in Zakka Sewing do you recommend for a beginner?

The Flower Coasters are really simple and easy but the way that the designs are done is so special, with the backstitching that both secures the front and back pieces and is decorative. The Sashiko Placemats are not difficult either.

To what do you attribute the growing interest in zakka in the United States?

I believe it is part of a growing interest in making beautiful things by hand. The rise of the blogosphere has fueled that by making it easy for people to find inspiration and people with similar interests online. Americans are recognizing Japan’s long tradition of doing this kind of work. A lot of the Japanese designers have gone to art school and their work tends to be sophisticated, which is appealing to American crafters.

What is your favorite project in Zakka Sewing?

The Merci Apron. It is made from beautiful old vintage linen with a lovely hand. It is so meticulously and beautifully stitched. The apron strings are made from little pieces of fabric patchworked together. The front says “Merci” in sashiko stitching. It represents a lot of the Japanese traditions – putting foreign words on items, meticulous sewing, and beautiful fabrics.

I also really enjoy the zakka facts we wrote because they help you understand how the projects fit into Japanese culture. For example, in Japan when little children are home on a rainy day their mothers will tell them to make a doll and hang it in the window to make the rain go away. The House Camera Cozy has a little ghost doll that hangs off it and a door that opens to show a little girl waiting inside for the rain to end.

What do you think are some of the most exciting trends in zakka today? How do they show up in Zakka Sewing?

I think the use of different printed fabrics is interesting. You see that in American pieces too, if you look on etsy.com, for example, but it has been going on in Japan for longer. The strings on the Merci Apron and the appliqués on the Bird Pillow are good examples. Another trend is the use of foreign words as design elements, which shows up on the Merci Apron and the Pear Purse. In Japan foreign words--usually English or French–are often incorporated into advertising –as a design element. And sometimes they get it wrong, and you will see people walking around with a shirt that they don’t realize has a double meaning. The misused English is often called Engrish.

Do you think Japanese crafters who create zakka approach the process in a different way than American crafters?

I think they approach it more as art than Americans do. Americans like to be crafty and handy and look at crafts as a hobby. For a lot of people it doesn’t get to the level of art, and that’s fine.

But in Japan the heritage is so much longer, and more people are doing work that could be shown in a gallery. It’s also a cultural difference – Americans see something and think, ‘oh, that looks cool, let’s do it,’ while Japanese are more cautious and won’t even show their work to anyone until they have perfected their craft. They start younger and are often taught by mother and grandmother. That happens here, too--I was taught to knit by my grandmother, and my mother made all my clothes – but in Japan even more so.

Did you have to “Westernize” the project instructions in any way in order to make them manageable for American or other Western crafters?

We didn’t really Westernize the projects – we took them as they were, and rejected things that wouldn’t be functional here. Of course, there was translating to be done, and we had to adapt some projects because there some materials that are available in Japan are not available in America. For example, in Japan you can get felt with an adhesive backing that will stick to fabric. Here you can fudge that with interfacing.