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A Blueprint For 'Boro'

The Craft Project

Cocoa & Jasmine
November 2019

The first time I ever laid eyes on Japanese boro textiles, I was in an 1850’s châteaux somewhere in the south of France. To say nothing of that discrepancy, I was also a graduate student of Design Studies, which meant that I was preoccupied with designing for the future. Little did I know that these traditional textiles belonged to an 18th century Japan of great economic and social hardship, and that by studying their cultural history through time, I would be offered a window into a possible future. 

The term ‘boro,’ for ‘ragged’ refers to traditional Japanese textiles patched together by hand from scraps of cloth. They are stunning every time you look at them: a sea of blue cloth interjected with patterned patches of cotton – discarded in a forgotten century – worn around the edges, and dotted with stitches as if mended in haste. A result of need rather than want, boros are imprecise, the design of the whole, unspecific but thoroughly compelling.  

Interestingly, the history of these textiles went unchanged for the better part of two hundred years. Up until the mid 18th century, cotton was a luxury reserved for the upper classes but farmed by poor peasants across Japan. Without access to it, they resorted to weaving cloth using locally available natural fibers like hemp, ramie, wisteria and nettle. Cotton was a revolutionary fiber for many reasons: it kept bodies warm in the winter and was comfortable on skin, and took well to dye from the indigo plant. In order to obtain cotton, peasants started buying used or damaged garments and scraps that were traded along Japan’s coast by rag merchants and intra-trade ships. Then woven or sewn together by women into kimonos, yogis, futons, sacks and bags for merchants, peasants and artisans, boros followed the Japanese ethics of mottainai (waste nothing) and wabi-sabi (finding beauty in objects as they age) and were continually patched and reused for centuries. 

The simple running stitch, sashiko is one of the two main techniques of this craft. Initially, sashiko was used to reinforce scrap patches together using bast fibres, but with the arrival of cotton yarn, allowed peasants to improvise in design. The result: a basic stitch that transformed into a decorative technique used to give boros its characteristic feel. Weaving was also a part of this practice. Old cotton cloth was shredded into yarn and then woven as weft onto a bast or cotton warp. This heavy, rough fabric was called Sakiori. Cloth that was woven from left-over yarn was called Zanshi-ori, an unplanned, irregular cloth oftentimes slubby as a result of using random yarns for the weft.  

So what values could I discern from these boros, and possibly adopt in the future? For one, I learnt how to read them: I followed the stitches of a kimono across the torso and into the arms like re-tracing the peasant’s fingers as she mended the cloth; I spotted the rare stencilled print of oriental birds or blossoming flowers (no doubt a scrap from a royalty’s obi); I looked beneath the worn outermost layer of a jacket’s sleeve to find three more layers readily stitched and waiting to be given life. This is how objects hold stories and how they seemingly become valuable to us in our lifetimes.

Secondly, that boros were made to last through foreseeable time, shared across generations through continuous patchwork and reuse. Today, the term ‘circular design’ is gaining popularity for design that uses materials and processes efficiently and in a circular manner so that ‘waste’ is eliminated from our collective practice. Lastly, that there is an undercurrent of urgency in approaching consumptive patterns with a clear conscience, one that is based out of absolute need. Boros have inherently carried these tenets of sustainable living through centuries, and it may well be time to adopt their wisdom today. 


Images by Elif Akcay, from the exhibition 'Boro: The Fabric of Life' at the Domaine de Boisbuchet in Lessac, France in 2013.

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