Boro: The Charm of Japanese Patchwork

A Japanese folk fabric art whose name translates as ragged or tattered, boro refers to textiles composed of the remnants of clothes, drapery, and other domestic items. Dating to the 17th century, this patchwork of mended, mostly cotton scraps — with a preponderance of indigo-dyed denims — has its roots in the utilitarian sensibility of Japanese peasants, who created these fabrics to be worn and used between generations, thus preserving and extending the life of seemingly “throwaway” fabrics.
Unlike quilting, whose use of various materials in one textile originally served to demonstrate wealth and abundance, boro incorporated different fabrics out of a sense of thrift and the quintessentially Japanese ethic of mottainai, or regret for wastefulness. This was especially salient in the lives of agrarian families coping with political and economic uncertainty; the futons of last decade became the piecemeal house-robes of the present out of necessity.
In their time, boro textiles were quotidian and a basic part of peasant family life – essentially banal and sometimes even shameful markers of scarcity and hardship in comparison with the fresh and precise textiles of upper classes. Today, however, boro has taken on a new affect. Running contrary to a consumption model where a commodity’s life cycle is singular, boro understands so-called consumer objects as containing multiple lives. Whereas value is linked in the former to novelty and freshness, boro textiles became more personal, storied and precious with age; their cherished heirloom quality was not merely preserved between generations but actively increased over time.
Perhaps this is why amidst our contemporary discomfort with globalized, expansive and wantonly wasteful consumer culture, boro is today being approached with interest and reverence. Vintage shops in Tokyo and beyond carry these ocean-tinted, hand-sewn tapestries, whose patches and irregularities register as “authentic” to a contemporary public disenchanted by the mass-produced uniformity of other fabrics.
As fashion tends to continue to fantasize about aesthetic access to notions of a “return” — that is, as trends continue to elevate the handmade, interrogate questions of sustainability, and fetishize small-scale production and storytelling as a primary source of value — the stage seems set for a new appreciation of this folk fabric. In boro, the integrity of material is conferred through a sense of permanence and respect and the illusion of obsolescence and the “single life-cycle commodity” is broken. What would in our contemporary context become trash, through boro, became treasure; in this way, boro offers not only an attractive aesthetic but an appealing ethical model as well, embodying in its stitches and layers a spirit of transmission and transformation.