There is a wonderful tutorial on sashiko at the Purl Bee blog. This Japanese craft has elements of quilting and of a very ordered embroidery; the thread is heavier than Western quilting thread, no frame or hoop is used, and traditional stitching patterns are geometric and symmetrical. Mari explains the process in detail with wonderful and very helpful photographs.
Sashiko was originally designed as a mending technique to quilt together several layers of fabric for warmth and durability or for strengthening a single layer of fabric. Like quilting in America, sashiko had humble beginnings. The Japanese have been doing sashiko for practical sewing purposes since the early 18th century. It was developed as a way to recycle fabric and to extend the life of the garment. Sashiko is a running stitch sewn in repeating or interlocking patterns through one or more layers of fabric. As with many art forms, most of the stitch designs are simplified representations of things found in nature such as plants, birds, and clouds.
Despite its humble beginnings, as with other Japanese crafts, sashiko is a beautiful form with infinite levels of skill and subtlety. In the United States we tend to want to make everything quick and easy and oversimplified -- and at the same time, create products to sell that may not be necessary or even desirable to the heart of the practice.
As a result, sometimes the beauty and nuance of textile traditions are really lost on us. For instance: As I was searching around for information on sashiko, I came across this site on the Akan Cultural Symbols Project via Quilt Ethnic. In the Akan culture in Ghana, traditional cloth is woven to communicate with a rich and specific language -- here's one pattern from the site:
EMAA DA - NOVELTY
Symbol of EXPERIENTIAL KNOWLEDGE, CREATIVITY, NOVELTY, and INNOVATION
From the proverb: Dea emmaa da eno ne dea yennhunu na yennte bi da.
Literal translation: What is novel is what we have not seen and heard before
Now, I know I've seen similar African fabrics and have only seen color and pattern, with no idea about the rich conveyance of concepts, messages, language and communication woven into the cloth by master artisans. This richness and meaning exists in textiles from so many cultures. This is part of the Slow Cloth approach: respecting the significance -- as well as enjoying the beauty -- of world textiles.