Since the dawn of time, high fashion has recycled low... and congratulated itself for doing so. Antique Japanese boro fabric, increasingly popular among the edgy styluminati, is simultaneously co-branded couture, lowbrow folk tradition, and literally recycled. Boro traces its lineage to the traditional cloths used and reused and re-reused by rural farmers, artisans, craftspeople and laborers between the 18th and 20th centuries. Before cotton was widely available in Japan, the most commonly used fibers came from tough and abundant sources like jute, wisteria and bast. Rough stuff for sure, but resistant to wear and tear. As cotton production increased and cotton products began to spread, used cotton kimonos and other textiles became available at more affordable prices.
Exploded diagram of a kimono, Boro fabric exploding at the seams
Tasteful French gallery show of other people's old workwear
To get the most out of these valuable softer fabrics, they were patched over and over, sometimes being torn into strips and rewoven, integrating the tougher materials for reinforcement. Dyed textiles would often be taken apart, redyed and rewoven in multiple iterations, creating a deeply textured and mottled appearance over time. Sometimes you can find signs of a fabric's earlier life, like the darker strip on a blanket where a kimono collar used to be. The most recognizable boro fabrics feature an array of indigo hues, carefully patchworked with strong quilting or darning stitches. (For a good time, look up "sashiko" stitching, which literally translates as "little stabs." Quilting is pretty metal.) The patches on most boro fabric, while varied in color and size, are usually square or rectangular. Coincidence? Nope, nor a cultural obsession with rigid angles. It's another sign of efficiency and good design.
It's interesting to note that the designs of clothing and textiles were shaped by the production and lifespan of the fabric itself. A standard bolt of kimono fabric is around 38cm wide and 9-13 meters long, to accommodate the small hand shuttles used to weave it. While such a narrow base fabric might seem difficult to work with, it was used to maximum capacity by designs that required almost no trimming or cutting—even today, most kimonos are made from a single bolt of fabric in its entirety. Most garments were constructed so that when time came for a repair or a good washin', the panels could be taken apart and treated individually, or sewn back into a long bolt of cloth for reuse. These rectangular fabric panels directly dictated the shape of the garments and the repaired pieces. Since trimming curved edges would waste material that would likely be used again, most patches—like the garments themselves—adhered closely to straight edges and square shapes.
In this way, recyclability and modularity were at the heart of both production and use in Japanese textiles. Looking back, it created a creative feedback loop between material constraints and design flexibility. For most of us with the benefit of an Internet connection, maximizing the life of our textiles is no longer an immediate physical necessity. However, these need-based values are coming back into consideration now that conservation of energy and resources is an issue.
To get a tangible sense of what makes this fabric so compelling, I took a field trip to Cargo, one of Portland's most eclectic importers, to ogle their stockpile of boro fabrics from the turn of the century. The tactile experience of boro was a little surprising. Crunchier than anticipated (it's a century old, I'm not sure what I was expecting), but also disconcertingly personal. Unfolding someone's work coat, someone else's bed cover reminded me viscerally that making the best of what we've got and quilting the hell out of things are international inclinations. The heavily layered, carefully stitched pieces on this jacket reminded me of my grandmother's Depression-era sewing habits where every inch of thread was valuable and used completely.
Looking through the layered cloth, I could see why collectors now want to ascribe artistic value to the practical objects: They really do look like free form collage or abstract paintings. Like traditional African American quilting and contemporary repairs by denim enthusiasts (some of whom even explicitly use traditional sashiko stitching!), maybe there's something to be said for reading meaningful personal expression into pragmatic traditions.
That spirit is also manifested in the enduring Japanese concepts of shibui and wabi sabi, which promote simplicity and subtlety in design, and beauty in imperfection. Heck, even now, most kimonos require a decent amount of hand stitching - totally anachronistic in the era of mechanized production, but comforting in its appeal to traditional craftsmanship and design.
Upshot? Traditional textiles like boro fabrics present solid methods for creative resource use that reduce waste and maximize design functionality. Plus, let's be honest, a lot of traditional Japanese workwear just looks boss. In short, common folk have always needed to reduce, reuse and recycle, and regardless of your station in life you should too. Whether because it's trés chic or because it's damn practical, I hope you'll consider adding a careful patch to the next item you wear out.