My work has appeared in…

Thursday 11 April 2013

Boro–scraps and rags.

Textiles often link us to the past. How often have you looked at a quilt, seen a piece of fabric that used to serve a different purpose, and been reminded of your childhood, or nearest and dearest? If this piece of fabric belonged to someone who is no longer around, it can also help keep their memory alive. Nowhere is this more evident than in boro textiles.

Photo courtesy of
The Decorator's Notebook.

Basically old scraps and rags of indigo dyed hemp, held together with dense stitching, boro textiles were worn by the poor. Boro was essential for prolonging the life of clothes, but families might also sleep together in a 'yogi' (a blanket-like kimono) and women often gave birth on a 'bodoko' or life-cloth, so the baby's first earthly contact was with something that once belonged to its ancestors.

Although I don't own any quilts or textiles that have been handed down to me, all my indigo dyed fabrics use pre-loved linens and silks. Some of the linens date back over a hundred years and were given to me by a German lady, whose mother brought them to England when she left Germany to make her home in England. Some are old clothes of mine, others are thrift shop finds. So my fabrics may not have belonged to my ancestors, but I'd still like to honour a tradition of reusing and giving new life to worn-out fabrics that gives more than a passing nod to boro textiles.

Photo courtesy of The Decorator's Notebook.

If soapbox blogs aren't for you, look away now!
I adore utility stitching, hand tied quilts, penny mats and boro textiles but occasionally attitudes to folk arts make me wince, and whenever I read the word 'charming' in this context, my hackles rise. To me, it suggests a Disneyfied view, of 'simpler times' and communities of happy peasants delighting in an ability to make do and mend, as if this were a lifestyle choice and not a chore brought about because of economic necessity.* That's not to say that many women didn't take great pride in their work, and perhaps too, saw it as a form of artistic expression. However, it shouldn't be overlooked that boro textiles were indeed mere rags, and for a long time were regarded as shameful by the Japanese because they were a reminder of a peasant class that suffered abject poverty and desperation.

I'm fortunate, for me recycling is a choice, and sewing is a pleasant way to pass the time. By recycling I'm making an ethical and political declaration about what I stand for and doing what I believe is right (rejecting cheap labour and mass production and trying not to create more than my fair share of landfill), not what economic circumstances are forcing me to.

So, the irony of wanting to produce something that looks like a boro textile isn't lost on me. I'm fully aware that I'll be trying to mimic a style of textiles that was a patchwork of necessity and impoverishment, and I'll be doing so with the help of my shiny electric sewing machine, in the comfort of my nicely decorated home–and I'll probably be listening to Radio 4 as I do so (can't get more middle class than that). In short, I'll be spending money to make something that looks like rags and tatters!

As much as that makes me a fraud, I still can't help but admire boro textiles and want to have a go at making my own (even if I will be using linen and silk instead of hemp). Partly, it's because I love indigo dyed fabric, which, as if by magic, just seems to get better with age. The texture of layers of stitching and scraps of fabrics really appeals to me too, some people are drawn to colour or pattern, but it's texture that always reels me in!

I've only recently discovered boro textiles, so do not claim to be any kind of expert about them. The pictures here are from The Decorator's Notebook but if you want to read more, I found Furugistar's blog post very informative. This book also looks like it might be worth adding to a boro wishlist.


*Perhaps the worst example of this attitude is a book entitled The Quilts of Gee's Bend. While the book itself is beautiful and showcases some stunning work, the editorial choice to keep the voices of quilters 'real' is just cringeworthy.


  1. I know what you mean re middle-class recycling, but I think it's valid to follow a visual aesthetic, as long as you do so with a healthy dose of self-awareness; which you have in spades.

  2. This is such a thoughtful and well articulated post. I'm just learning more about Boro myself, as it relates to Sashiko, and I had similar feelings when I read about its origins in poverty. I too love indigo and the aesthetic of Boro. I look forward to reading the links you included.

  3. Really interesting post. I'm convinced that the resourcefulness of past generations, which was forced on them by their immediate personal circumstances, is something we need to learn from now in order to deal with the global environmental and economic situation. The aesthetic inspiration can be a doorway to that, I think.

  4. Very well said.

    I also have been greatly influenced by boro, (well aware of its origins) as well as utilitarian quilts, (such as those of Gees Bends... they would never have survived the winters without those quilts to keep them warm. They also burned many of the more worn out ones during the winter, again, out of a necessity to stay warm.) And I also grapple with and contemplate the irony of my scrap pieced, patched and heavily stitched textiles, (from fabric purchased from the well stocked quilt shops.)

    However, I realize that I'm not just playing around here. (And I don't think you are either.) I am drawn to these works that were made from necessity, because they seem to possess a deep human honor in them, that simply cannot be found in the finest textiles owned by kings and queens and spun of gold. Those patched, worn, mended and stitched textiles (to me) represent the true resolve, and grit of the human experience. It connects with me way, down deep. My soul is touched when I look at those works. They may be the cloth of the very poor, but they posses such dignity to me.

    In our desire to create our own works from such humble roots of which we are inspired, we are, (I think) trying to honor those that were able to create such beauty from the most meager bits. Maybe it's a way of humbling ourselves. Of reminding ourselves that beauty goes way past the skin, and runs deeper then the pocketbook. We see the integrity of these textiles, and simply cannot help but to be moved, touched and changed by them.

  5. Hi, beautiful, such reminders of life in the past and the beauty of creating these types of creations, as a show of respect for life, simple joys and past memories. Message above is well said, touches my soul.


Comment away, I'd love to hear from you!