Back in the winter, Pinterest lured me in with images of boro. At the time I had no real idea of what I was seeing only that I found it very attractive. If you get in there with a search engine, the internet will give you a lot of images of mostly denim patchwork, visible mending techniques and embroidery. As an enthusiastic needlecrafter and upcycler, this all had instant appeal. I dug in.
I like to have some idea of where things come from and what their significance is. Partly because I delight in such knowledge and partly because accidental cultural appropriation is not my idea of fun. Here’s a brief synopsis of what I found out when I dug in. Boro means rags, and it is a tradition from Northern Japan, inspired by poverty and necessity, that takes what little fabric is available and keeps it in sound, wearable, protective condition. It fell out of favour after the second world war because of the poverty associations, but is having something of a renaissance. Of course traditionally it wasn’t done with denim but currently that seems to be the fabric of preference. There is also an embroidery tradition that goes with it, called sashiko.
We really need these kinds of traditions right now – we need the inspiration and to reclaim cultures of re-use. To take our throwaway culture towards something more sustainable we need to start valuing re-use, repairing, upcycling, and keeping whatever is usable in use. This of course is what poor people have always done, of necessity, and that’s part of the problem. While we see these techniques as being about poverty and insufficiency, many people will be actively put off them. Who wants to look poor? Who wants to do what poor people do? Affluence means discarding things whenever you like. It means never looking shabby, or ragged, or even mended. We equate smartness with newness and wealth.
It will take a bit of a shift to see the value in what is old and repaired. But, there is a great deal of beauty and innovation in these traditions. Off the peg clothing is bland stuff that seldom lasts long. It means looking like everyone else and having limited scope for self expression. The upcycler on the other hand gets to play and make over, and has adventures in clothing unavailable to other people. There are plenty of things to find attractive here.
Over the coming few days I’m going to be writing a bit about my adventures with boro, so, watch this space. To be clear, I am not making boro – I’m using the wrong materials and the wrong tools. It’s not my cultural heritage, and my grasp of it at this point is fairly superficial. However, there’s a lot I’m excited about and inspired by, and there’s a world of difference between being inspired by something, and misrepresenting it by claiming to be doing it.