A Book Review: Wabi-Sabi Sewing by Karen Lewis

When I was on Karen Lewis' printing course last year, she mentioned that she was writing a sewing book based around the Japanese wabi-sabi ethos, which felt oddly serendipitous as I'd been listening to a podcast about wabi-sabi a few weeks earlier, so actually knew what this curious term meant and had already fallen for it as a concept. Wabi-sabi is rustic design; a joyful acceptance of things changing as they age; it's breaking a favourite plate and then gluing it back together and painting the crack with gold to make the imperfection a joyful thing (it has its roots in a buddhist approach to life). What I hadn't done up until that point though, was link it with sewing, so it was interesting to hear how Karen saw the two things coming together.

Within the context of textiles, Karen writes in the introduction to her book that to her, wabi sabi evokes the idea of using the fabric we already have and using a bit of that and that when we run short, celebrating the results of hunting down mismatched yet treasured scraps. She goes on to talk about finding delight in the uniqueness of hand stitches, worn fabrics and visible mending. It's a delicious approach and the pages that follow are full of gorgeous projects with a wabi-sabi aesthetic - flying geese that aren't all travelling in the same direction and seams that deliberately veer away from sterile precision.*

The result is a book that's textured, organic, tactile, all presented with Karen's trademark laid-back, effortless style in a colour palette that many people who already follow her work will probably recognise as hers: blues, greys, mustard yellows. Karen has a gift for combining fabrics and its on display throughout the book: Outback Wife designs on vintage barkcloth, combined with Karen's own modern screen-printed fabrics; denims combined with floral cotton prints - her fabric choices always seem both unexpected and perfectly right (perfect probably isn't a word that I should be using when reviewing a book about wabi-sabi, but whatever, I'm something of a shameless fan when it comes to admiring the way Karen uses colour and pattern).

My favourite project is Karen's own jeans that she's wabi-sabied. If you'd said to me: would you like to wear a pair of jeans that have stitching and fabric patches on them before seeing these, I would have said 'no', but somehow Karen demonstrates how to do these things and make them look as though they've just been taken off the rail in Anthropologie. I have an absolutely favourite pair of jeans that are showing signs of distress and when the knees finally wear through, this is what I'll do with them - it's even introduced an element of excitement to this happening, rather than the intense panic I felt previously.

I've made some of the coasters from the book, as the last ones that I made, back in 2010, are looking a bit tired (I love being able to look back and find out how long ago something happened....I'm now amazed they've survived eight years of daily use so well).

When I was putting something away this week, I spotted a box of samples that have accumulated over the years and it seemed in keeping with the wabi-sabi approach to use them for my coasters. The chenille swatches are all from random places and the prints are samples that I bought from Abigail Borg's website a few years ago when choosing some fabric for cushions - I'm so pleased to have finally found a use for them that means I can see them everyday.

I enjoyed hand-stitching with Karen's words in my head about each stitch being different - it's liberating to sew when it's not just okay if they're that way, but actively encouraged if its to reflect the book's ethos properly, although oddly, my lack of worry somehow seemed to make them more even than they would be normally.

And here they are (below) in their home on the coffee table, possibly for the next eight years. The one at the bottom left now has my daughter's cup of tea on it - oddly satisfying as the mug fits really nicely onto the central square and then looks as though it's being framed by the triangles around it. 

Knowing that I was going to be writing about it later in the week, Karen's book kept wandering into my thoughts and when I was drying my hair one morning, which is a prime time for random thoughts, I found myself thinking about the dichotomy between her earlier career as a maths teacher and her later career in sewing, which, even prior to this book, has always been defined by an experimental, wabi-sabi spirit. We're all a mass of interesting contradictions, but I felt fascinated by how a very mathematical, logical brain came to be drawn to delight in a lack of structure when it comes to sewing, but what Karen told me made sense of it and was doubly fascinating: I actually think that my logical brain enables me to see random in an organised way, if that makes sense. When I look at a wonky line my brain wants to level it out and when I see random layout my brain can organise it into still randomly placed but balanced.

I realised that I house a similar contradiction - having been fairly poor at maths when I was younger, when it comes to sewing, certainly the English paper piecing patterns that I design are characterised by a fundamental desire for mathematical order and precision, focusing on degrees, angles, rotation and symmetry. Although I have no clever insight to offer as to why.

So anyway, do go and buy Karen's book or ask your library to order in a copy for you - it's lovely.

Other random thoughts from my week:

- As I write, there's a blackbird scratting moss from the roof and causing it to slide down my skylight window that I'm sitting beneath. Leading me to think: How can such tiny feet be so loud? What is it doing? Is it building a nest? I don't think this is nest-building season, but is now the time when I should wedge Liberty print offcuts in between the roof tiles? It would be easy to do from my sewing room window and my husband would never know (he has previously raised objections), although we discussed this option over lunch, so he now does know. He seemed in favour of this approach over leaving them in the garden, where the birds will be tempted into closer proximity to our cats and the fabric has greater potential to blow away and become litter.

- I think of myself as being incredibly sensible, but a friend recently revealed that while in my company, at various times she has smashed her glasses, received a speeding ticket, and broken her ankle. I was quite shocked to be the common factor in all this destruction, so we are meeting for a #safetysummit and I am keeping all my fingers crossed that the #safetysuit I'm fashioning for her from egg boxes (very good for protecting and insulating) will lead to an outing without incident.

- I visted a new sewing shop last week and it was lovely, so I thought I'd share it here: Pincushion is in the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells - it's an excellent source of Liberty prints (at very reasonable prices, purchasable in small quantities) and inspiration, as there are quilts draped about all over the place. I swooped upon one of the quilts in particular as it looked deliciously puffy and light and when I asked Jenny what the batting was, she said it's just the regular polyester that comes on a giant roll - years ago, I think this had a reputation for bearding, but I'm wondering if technology has come on since then - any thoughts? I'm desperate to try some as the look and feel of it was somehow far lovelier than a regular quilt (I often use Quilter's Dream Puff, which is also a poly, but this looked and felt nicer than that).

- I ordered some dried craspedia (aka billy buttons) last week and have since become quite addicted to it as it has the most amazing smell - like sticking your head directly into a pot of Manuka honey - I return to it several times a day for a fix. I'm now keeping my eyes open for a handmade ceramic vase for them - do you have any recommendations for independent ceramicists who sell online?

Wishing you a happy weekend,
Florence x

* Nb. when my sister was reading something over for me recently, she said that she'd noticed I always put things in threes, so as a fun exercise I'm experimenting with weaning myself away from this quirk, but goodness, it almost feels physically painful to just write two things in a row...like unexpectedly putting a three-fingered glove on and finding I must wedge two fingers into one finger hole. The weaning hasn't been entirely successful anyway - there are three options (naturally) for how it goes: sometimes I try to put just two things, which feels odd and unbalanced and leaves me wanting my old glove back; sometimes I wilfully ignore the fun exercise and write three things, which now feels deliciously deviant; sometimes I probably don't notice what I'm doing and, on those occasions, will have almost certainly written in threes again; I think my brain naturally thinks in trios.

Ps. The photos in this post are slightly yellow-toned as they were taken during golden hour as I was in a mad rush to photograph them before it got dark, but the light was actually too golden. I've edited them to try and make them look more normal, but it seems there's no eradicating the jaundice completely.


  1. My friend Liz makes beautiful pottery, she has just started out: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/HiraethHandcrafts. I'm not sure if there are cases on her Etsy, but I know she does have some so maybe you might message her to see.

  2. I love the coasters, and they are a great way of using up some small but special scraps. I am planning on getting this book for my daughter for Christmas. x

  3. Wabi-sabi sounds right up my street. Actually I love all Japanese sewing and style. I love the jeans too. Maybe I've just done a bit of wabi-sabi - I mended a large hole in my little granddaughter's tights with a piece of one of my socks and although I say it myself it looks rather pretty!

  4. I've just started following a wonderful ceramics maker on Instagram called Karen Howarth, who makes a range of pieces, including vases. Her ceramics are beautiful, very evocative of wild landscapes and in delicate shades of blue, green and yellow, which would go really well with your dried flowers. X

  5. This book looks wonderful, thank you for the review! I agree, the jeans are gorgeous.

  6. Thank you for the good and very helpful information. It is very interesting.

  7. Re the polyester batting that comes on a roll, I also tried this once however, if you should ever want to iron a quilt (I sometimes do, as for example the large plain sections of backing fabric can look unattractively creased rather than charmingly lived-in look of the patchwork front after washing), then the polyester batting flattens and shrinks flat and cardboard-like. I guess there are different qualities of polyester batting, but mine was the standard synthetic 1" thick, slightly puffy sort. I expect it would equally hate being tumble-dried, which we all probably want to avoid anyway, but who knows on occasion?
    To replicate thinner wool batting, I've used polyester fleece blankets to good effect, but for puffy quilts, I'm more likely to use a 3 or 10 tog duvet and hand-tie it.
    In a nutshell - in the longer term, polyester batting is too unreliable for all eventualities of washing, drying and ironing!

  8. I love Japan and all things Japanese, I lived there for a year about 20 years ago (showing my age). Wabi-sabi is everywhere - mainly because they want to be unique / different - so they will take something main stream and 'wabi-sabi' it. I came back with a beautiful silk patchwork quilt that I have had mounted and put in a frame. I hope to go back there one day, if nothing else just to visit all the 'quirky' places they have

  9. I understand exactly what you mean about being poor at maths. I was hopeless, but have always been able to work out and understand angles in patchwork and work out fabric amounts in my head. Wabi-sabi sounds good to me!


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