Ayako Miyawaki, Japanese textile artist

ayako miyawaki: inventive stitcher

By Patricia Belyea

SEATTLE WA  I learned about Ayako Miyawaki (1905-1995) from an exhibition catalog of her textile art printed in 1988. The catalog introduction states: In 1945, at the age of 40, she began in an outburst of spontaneity and vitality to produce applique works out of rags, a material which she found in her everyday life.

Ayako herself writes: World War II ended on August 15, 1945. On that day, when tears streamed ceaselessly down my cheek, I realized that from now on I would be able to freely use the time which I had spent in vain going in and out of the bomb shelter on many hard and unbearable days during wartime.

Artwork by Ayako Miyowaki

She mentioned her husband, who was a teacher, spent most of his free time painting: During vacation time, he had a notice saying "No visitors allowed" at the door of his studio.

Artwork by Ayako Miyawaki

At the end of the war, applique work was popular in Japan but generally made using patterns or copying designs from books. Ayako shares: Different from that, the way in which I began to produce my applique work was to create my own designs after natural objects I observed. It forced me to invent my own designs and methods. This was a source of pleasure as well as anxiety.

Look how Ayako used string for her zodiak sign (left) and lamp wicks for dried sardines (right):

Artwork by Ayako Miyawaki

After completing her first applique piece, Ayako decided to produce one a day and post it on the wall of her room for her family to review (an early-day Instagram girl). She expressed: I enjoyed those days full of love for pieces of fabrics, nature and natural objects as well as full of the joy I got from creating my works.

Artwork by Ayako Miyawaki

When Ayako’s husband became terminally ill, she cared for him in their home. Although Ayako prayed for a miracle, he slipped away. In his will to their sons and daughter, her husband wrote: I would like to ask you to take good care of your mother and let her continue to create her works.

Artwork by Ayako Miyawaki

After losing her husband, Ayako was at a loss and unable to return to her applique work. By believing that she could set her husband’s soul at rest, Ayako began again bit by bit.

Artwork by Ayako Miyawaki

Over the years, Ayako exhibited her applique art in group and solo shows. When Ayako was in her early 80s, Asahi Shimbun—a daily newspaper in Japan—offered to mount a major retrospective of her work that would travel around the country. She disclosed: When I heard of that, I was near to tears of joy. I think my husband would be the second person to be glad of the news, if he were here. I can hear his voice saying “Good for you.”

Artwork by Ayako Miyawaki

The exhibition catalog displays 150 works chosen by Ayako. Also represented are drawings and notes from her 58 volumes of Harie Nikki (Diary with Textile and Paper Illustration).

Diary Pages of Ayako Miyawaki

I was delighted when one of my Japanese home-stay students brought me a gift of two tenuguis (muslin hand towels) printed with Ayako Miyawaki’s artwork. This showed me that her aesthetic continues on today in Japan.

Tenugui with artwork by Ayako Miyawaki

I bought this catalog for the equivalent of $15 from an antique warehouse in Osaka. When I got back to my Seattle home, I learned that copies sold for about $350 on the internet!

This special publication stands out as one of my favorite books. I loved learning about Ayako’s sincere commitment to making ingenious hand-stitched art daily—with materials found around her. Her talent and thoughtfulness shine through every piece.

Artwork by Ayako Miyawaki


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  • Okan Arts
    Gloria—I think of your Japanese fabric stash and your hand stitching prowess, and know this must inspire you!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Margaret—Thanks for visiting Okan Arts online!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Allison—I hope to share another book next month by Amy Katoh of Tokyo. I’m just working on getting permission now to reproduce some of her images.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Thanks Jill! Ayako’s work naturally appeals to so many.

  • Margaret Horton
    Thanks so much for sharing this lady’s beautiful work.

  • Allison CB
    Awesome and inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Gloria P
    Thanks for introducing me to a very talented artist. Keep these inspirational stories and visuals coming.

  • Jill Varnell
    Thanks so much for sharing. The photos of her applique work are outstanding.

  • Okan Arts
    Rachel—Ayako wrote about posting her art daily: “Sometimes I asked my husband to comment on it. Sometimes my children reviewed my work as if they were full-fledged art critics. It was a period of happy days.”

    I can imagine having her family take an interest in her work motivated her to make more for them to see.

  • Okan Arts
    LeeAnn—How great! You will really enjoy any book about Ayako’s work. In fact, I think this blog post was written just for you.

  • LeeAnn
    Thank you for all the photos. I LOVE her work! Thank you, also, for making it easy to purchase the book. I just did!

  • Rachel F.
    I love Ayako’s humble, bold, inventive applique designs of the things we know in our lives. And, making one a day when she began! Well,that is creative genius exploding! Her work will always be beloved by many.

  • Okan Arts
    Terry—I talk with Debby occasionally. She is busy this summer cooking at two wilderness lodges near her home in Wyoming.

  • Okan Arts
    Teresa—Keep your eyes open for a copy of the catalog when you are in Japan in September!

  • Teresa Duryea Wong
    A beautiful story of a treasured book. I am so glad you shared this story… now I wish I could have seen the exhibition in person!

  • Terry Waldron
    You are absolutely right about Kasuri Dyeworks! I’d forgotten the name… We actually became friends, and I remember when he died of a heart attack at the quilt show. About 3 years ago at Road, we had dinner with his wife and the man that she is with now, and I loved them both. They both work on a ranch in Wyoming… she is the cook and he is a ranch hand. I bought some of the last matted squares she had of that gorgeous woven silk, and I’ve framed them. Gee… I miss their little corner at the large quilt shows. It was the closest I could ever come to be in Japan itself!

  • Okan Arts
    Terry, I love the pages from Ayako’s diary. I wonder what her notes say.

  • Okan Arts
    Kerry, I had no idea how much I would love this book when I bought it. Good luck on finding your own copy of one of her catalogs. It will be a great gift to yourself.

  • Okan Arts
    Terry, I bet that was Kasuri Dyeworks where you bought the book—another important Japanese influence in many quilters’ lives. Ayako’s work makes my heart soar. I’m so glad you love her textile art.

  • Terry Waldron
    Oh, and by the way, I still have those early Quilt Japan magazines that you show pages from. Superb!

  • Kerry S.

    I am so glad you wrote a post about Ayako today. I discovered her work about 20 years ago and just fell in love with her. She was definitely a leader in textile art.

    I hope one day to own a copy of the book that you mentioned. I even called the museum that exhibited her work to see if they would reprint the catalogue and they said that they seriously doubted that they would.

    Cheers, Kerry

  • Terry Waldron
    The book that you showed is the first one I ever bought when I began to quilt. It cost me $52, and I bought it from the best Japanese fabric shop in Berkeley. Two years later, I was offered $250 for the book, but I’d never part with it! In fact, if I hadn’t bought this book, I would have never stayed in quilting. It’s still the best art book ever! Thank you, Patricia, for publishing this wonderful article.