Fashion & Style Interviews

Reina Nishida-Lee on Sashiko, a Japanese Embroidery Technique, and Accidentally Starting a Small Business

Hand embroidery on a jacket by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto.
Sashiko embroidery technique on a jacket by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto. Photo courtesy of Reina Nishida-Lee.

Artisan Reina Nishida-Lee was raised in a small village in Japan, where her grandmother was often engaged in handicrafts, sparking Reina’s own creativity. In 2019, she began making custom denim jackets for children and deepened her craft by learning Sashiko, a traditional Japanese hand stitching method. Reina named her brand “Ottotto” because the word means “oops” in Japanese. Since she didn’t set out to start a business, Reina calls her journey “a happy accident.”

We asked Reina to share more about her path to business owner with our audience.

Artisan Joy: Tell us about your art.

Reina Nishida-Lee: I customize clothing and accessories with hand embroidery and patches and other small handmade accessories. The pandemic steered me to make handmade cotton face masks, which I’ve been creating for over a year.

Artisan Joy: What drew you to your craft?

RNL: I’ve always loved working with my hands. I was born and raised in a tiny village in Japan and grew up surrounded by my grandmother’s craft projects—some of her favorites were knitting, Japanese cloisonne and hand sewing. At six years old, I remember making flowercrowns and friendship bracelets.

Hand embroidery on a baby blanket by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto. Photo courtesy of Reina Nishida-Lee.
Hand embroidery on a baby blanket by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto. Photo courtesy of Reina Nishida-Lee.

After working in the TV Production industry for 15 years, I started designing custom denim jackets for kids in the spring of 2019. Deeply inspired by a class I took in the traditional Japanese embroidery technique, Sashiko, I started to compliment my denim jacket patches with hand embroidery. While slowly building my brand through commissioned orders, I worked on a handful of freelance embroidery opportunities, live events, and other one-off jobs for well-established fashion brands. I saw this as a hands-on opportunity to improve my skills while immersing myself in the industry.

AJ: When did you realize that you could sell your art?

RNL: The pandemic changed everything. When New York City went into lockdown in March 2020, I, like many people, wanted to help. That led me to begin volunteering to make personal protective equipment (PPE), including face shields and cotton masks for medical and front-line workers.

In addition to receiving gratitude for choosing to help a vulnerable group of workers, I was surprised at the number of people asking if I could make facemasks for them. So I slowly began producing masks for these people while continuing to make donation masks. Word quickly got around that I was making handmade masks, and soon enough, the volume became too significant for me to ignore. Since then, I’ve focused my efforts on building my brand through a growing mask business and planning for the next phase of Ottotto that is less centered around PPE.

Hand embroidery on a jacket by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto.
Hand embroidery on a jacket by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto. Photo courtesy of Reina Nishida-Lee.

AJ: Where do you find inspiration for your creations?

RNL: I find inspiration through my background in Japanese culture, travels and everyday life with my family. Since becoming a mom and growing a family, I’ve started to value tradition and

practicality more and find inspiration there for my creations, too.

AJ: How do you apply that inspiration to your work?

RNL: It’s a lot of trial and error through creation. I explore colors, shapes, designs, textiles

through my embroidery and creating new sample products. The process of making the items, touching and physically seeing them allows me to see what works and what doesn’t. Generally, I try to incorporate a sense of playfulness and fun within practical designs that bring comfort and joy.

AJ: What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

RNL: I lived in four continents before settling down in Brooklyn in 2010. In my life so far, I’ve lived in Brooklyn the longest.

10. As creatives, we can be continuously creating and refining our art. How do you handle perfectionism?

RNL: This is a tough one and something I find challenging myself. I remind myself to find the beauty in the imperfections. That is what makes everyone unique and one of a kind.

AJ: What advice would you give to someone interested in putting their art out into the world but feels vulnerable about it?

RNL: Everyone starts somewhere. It doesn’t have to be perfect. And think about how inspiring itwill be to see your progression and growth over time.

AJ: Has someone ever criticized your artwork? How did you handle it?

RNL: I get bad reviews on my products from time to time, especially on an open platform like Etsy. I do my best to rectify them without compromising my values as a brand and as a person.

AJ: Creatives are often very in tune with what’s happening in the world. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming. If this happens to you, how do you cope?

RNL: I’m a firm believer in the power of meditation, especially when I feel overwhelmed. It’shelped me stay grounded.

Hand embroidery on a t-shirt by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto. Photo courtesy of Reina Nishida-Lee.
Hand embroidery on a t-shirt by Reina Nishida-Lee founder of Ottotto. Photo courtesy of Reina Nishida-Lee.

AJ: What brings you joy?

RNL: Seeing my customers be truly happy and satisfied with my products brings me so much joy. There is no other feeling like it, which also reconfirms my decision to start a small business.

Thanks, Reina! Her work is available for purchase at madebyottotto.com. You can also follow the Ottotto brand on Instagram.

This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

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