In the sustainable boro cloth I understand Romeo and Juliet’s subtle declaration of their love through the touch of hands — “And palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss.” For, in boro, around each line of stitching I know that a hand once framed each side and gently guided a needle through its layers of cloth. Each stitch lingers as a quick peck, joining patches and thread in confidence. In accumulation, over a surface that becomes clothing, blankets, and other textiles, these stitches resolutely proclaim that here, now, we are together.
Boro: binding handwork and care together
Boro highlights these patched together ideas of handwork and care because the cloth does not hide its heart. It is composed of overlapping woven patches with dense sashiko. This is a running stitch used for household and work textiles, which bind the layers together. Originating as a practice of thrift in the late Edo Period of Japan (1603-1868), sustainable boro cloth can be thought of as a practice of patchwork. It incorporates techniques of quilting, embroidery, and applique as defined within the Western tradition. Boro was a humble, peasant-produced cloth born of necessity.
But the practice waned with industrialization. And the historical artifacts became highly collectible in the late 20th century, valued for their representation of mingei, the “people’s art” and mottainai, the spirit of wasting nothing. Patiently and continuously worked on, the rice sacks and work jackets made through boro were ongoing creations of assemblage. As utilitarian objects, users carried the touch of their cloth’s devoted makers and menders with them. With each hole eclipsed, patch after patch, warmth and protected sustenance made life, and livelihoods, and love, possible.
Boro is a study in contrasts
Aesthetically, boro is commonly recognizable through the contrast between thread and background cloth. The stacked, layered construction and stitch clusters generate pinched, rhizomatic movement. Indigo blue, both richly saturated and sun-faded, is a historically common patch color. Plants and the ever-giving dye-pots of indigo were commonly cultivated and maintained in peasant homes during boro’s development. As a result, the color is now considered traditional for the background.
Both plain woven and patterned cloth can be present, visually aiding in distinguishing one patch from the next. This also highlights the technical method of the cloth’s construction. At first glance, a surface that can grow like sedimentary rock and spread like hardening, crusting magma. The threads used for binding the patches can vary, in line weight and in hues of blue, white, and black. They move through the cloth like schools of fish. Groups of similar density will suddenly abut another cluster of stitches that are blazing an alternative path. Thus each stitch captures a unique moment upon an ecosystem of distinct patches. In this way, the sustainable boro contains a sense of time and place, ongoingness and stillness, simultaneously.
Today, the sustainable techniques and symbolic presence of boro continue
Contemporary boro is separated from the particular historical, cultural, and economic circumstances of its origin. It’s practices embrace new ideas of material choice, utilitarian function, and aesthetic considerations. It provides a wise, effective technique for sustainable cloth production. Thus, patches of assorted sizes and sources, from last-season’s surplus to tiny factory scraps, can all be reconstituted into a fresh, usable fabric.
In an unexpected way, industrially-made sustainable boro can encourage local-level mending and sewing simply by making its presence more constant. That constancy is consequential. Often it is a reminder that we can return to a practice of material reuse, this time for our planet’s sake.
Boro’s sustainability: use and reuse
As an object, cloth holds the memory of the earth in its fibers. Thread is a composite of spun strands of cotton, flax, hemp, sheep’s wool, silk worm’s cocoons, and countless other natural and synthetic materials. First, each emerges initially as independent, living creatures or distinct polymers often derived from petroleum. All, with varying levels of distance and intervention, derive from the matter of the earth. And all are capable of living multiple lives. Then they modify cloth from one object to the next. So finally, from a tent to a bag to a small patch among many on a blanket, we continue our collaborative endeavor with the earth to craft matter into material.
Continuing to use and reuse the materials we have already fabricated means we can lessen our extraction of raw resources. Boro may be a last stage before the cloth becomes a rag. Or, it can return to the soil for decomposition. But it still can last for decades, perhaps, with care, even generations.
Becoming sustainable Boro
Through her research on historical and contemporary boro practices, Leren Li argues that “boro embraces the conceptual idea of destruction and rebirth with the passage of time.”
“In a world that is falling apart, I [Li] finally propose that boro and other mending practices offer a way of communicating human warmth and finding both individuality and social belonging.”Leren Li
The physical warmth of boro emerges from accumulated layers, in stitches guided by hands and fixed by needles.
The cloth becomes a visual cacophony of touch. Each stitch leads to the next. And each patch contributes not to a world that is not falling apart but, instead, to a world marked by fortitude, tenderness, and resolute devotion. Within it we may find a palm-to-palm assurance. These values extend to ourselves, and outwards to each other, and the earth. That we, like boro, are in continual process of becoming.
To see how Diamond Brand has explored boro, see the Moonrise Project, here. What patch will you add?
About the Author:
Danielle Burke is an artist and folklorist. She studies textiles, craft pedagogy, and artist communities; her studio practice focuses primarily on weaving. Danielle is currently a PhD candidate in Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Visit her website here.