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Old to New: History of Boro and Its Influences Toward Modern Brands

In the current age of consumerism, the majority of people are driven by fast fashion. Fashion is heavily influenced by trends that change and cycle quickly, so most people end up shopping at mass market to mid-level retailers, such as H&M, Forever 21, and Uniqlo. With this model of fashion, we have become reluctant to value clothes as an “asset” of the individual or family. Because of consumerism and mass production, we have been taking natural resources and the environment for granted. Since fashion is a highly polluting industry, fast fashion practices have been a concern to me.

Let’s take a look at a particular example of when clothing and textiles held significant value to people’s lives. It is amazing to see how Japanese farmers and the poor class of the nineteenth and twentieth century repurposed old fabrics by piecing small scraps together to form larger pieces of textile. These patched up textiles are referred to as ボロ (boro). Although this was a response to the poor economic conditions of the time, it is eye-opening to see how fabric and garments were valued so much that is was repaired and repurposed to make something wearable.

During these times, cotton and silk were scarce in Japan, allowing only the wealthy families to purchase and obtain them. Most people had to farm and cultivate hemp in order to make textiles for daily necessities, such as clothes and blankets. The creation of clothes took immense amount of work; women of the family twisted the hemp fibers into threads, weaved fabrics using handlooms, and then dyed these fabrics using indigo. Because it took so much time and labor to obtain pieces of clothing, these textiles were handed down and valued as family treasures (Ide).

Boro fabrics clearly resemble the Japanese ethics of もったいない (“mottainai”), which states that nothing should be wasted and everything should used to its upmost capability (Boisbuchet). The poor working class mainly consisted of farmers, who wore farmer’s jackets, or noragi. The labor-intensive farming caused these jackets to become distressed and worn out, but instead of throwing away these garments, they repaired them by piecing scraps of old fabric and treating it with running stitches (called sashiko), which strengthened the garment (Bryant). After time, these garments were repurposed by cutting up and piecing them into blankets and other daily textile necessities. Every scrap and thread was used to its upmost ability.

Boro literally means “ragged” or “tattered”; to the Japanese, boro and its associated garments were regarded as “dirty” and “embarrassing” and resembled the hard times of the era (Boisbuchet). As a result, they were quickly disregarded and were not glorified; however, folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka collected these artifacts and revealed its beauty in the late twentieth century (Ide). Although this sustainable practice came about from poverty and the desperate needs of these families, it seems there is harmony between the different patterns and textures of the fabrics pieced together. “The spirit of taking great care of everyday necessities” resonates in each of these boro garments, which makes each one of them unique and beautiful (Ide).

Today, there are a couple of brands that have taken these boro fabrics as inspiration and have designed jackets, shirts, bottoms, and accessories using boro aesthetics (Bryant). One of these brands is Kapital, a Japanese brand that incorporates many traditional Japanese garment- and textile-making techniques in constructing American workwear-inspired pieces. Some techniques that I’ve seen include indigo dying, sashiko (running stitch embroidery), kasuri (ikat) textiles, and most notably, boro. Below are some boropieces we found at Cotton Sheep SF in Hayes Valley. Very beautiful and amazing pieces. All the borotextiles are pieced, distressed, and embroidered by hand to make it look like it was a result of heavy wear. Although these modern reinterpretations use this traditional Japanese patchwork style as an aesthetic design rather than out of necessity, it is regardless cool to see a once “embarrassing” moment of a culture honored and paid tribute.

Post: Tomoya Saisu

Model: Edison Tong

Photography: Kapital Boro Pieces Provided by Cotton Sheep