Four Words and Boro, Japanese Indigo Patchwork

Writing from Kyoto, March 25, 2019. It’s been four days since I landed in Tokyo and I’ve managed to learn four words: konnichiwa (hello), sayonara (goodbye), arigato gozai mas (thank you very much), and oishi (delicious).  I knew ai (indigo) before I arrived.

Mexico and Japan share a common language through indigo.

An indigo chrysanthemum, simple adornment

Everything here is delicious. Economy meals at corner restaurants where you order and pay in advance from a menu machine are delicious. In my view, as delicious as the priciest sushi set. The people are delicious, the kindest and most generously helpful of any I have met. The fashion is delicious. It is pure deliciousness to be under a cherry tree as buds begin to blossom pink. To say I’m in love with Japan is an understatement. 

The asymmetry of patched cloth, worn to tatters and repaired

My sister Barbara and I have filled our days with what my friend Liz Bell calls flaneuring. The discovery is in the meandering, the randomness of what you will find without a plan. Like the pure ai (indigo) coat I found in an off-beat shop hanging on a rack among nondescript clothes, made in the style of a workingman’s jacket crafted from old recycled cloth in pristine condition, redesigned, repurposed. I didn’t buy it but it was a delight to wear, even if for the moment.

Like Mari Ishibashi, a 2013 graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, who gave me her phone number and said if we need anything, to call her.

Vest, shibori indigo

With intention, we made it a priority to visit the Amuse Museum in Asakusa, Tokyo, where an incredible textile exhibition of boro was on display until the end of March. Here, we could see and touch an extraordinary exhibition of vintage cloth, saved by folklorist Chuzaburo Tanaka. The textile is now recognized as a national Tangible Cultural Property. Indigo plays a central role in this story. 

Long underwear, each one elaborately embroidered

Indigo is a reverential art form here, and nothing speaks more proudly of Japanese ingenuity, creativity and self-discipline than the utilitarian Boro patchwork from the coldest, northernmost region of Japan in Aomori Prefecture.  

The layering of cloth over the generations

Boroboro means something tattered or repaired. In the layering of the cloth and the accompanying long stitches, called sashiko, used to hold the patches to the base fabric and hemp filling, the fabric takes on a quality of shimmering texture and beauty. It was not intended this way. Boro was born from poverty. It´s purpose was to make a quilted piece of clothing or bedcover from leftover material that would provide warmth in a frigid, inhospitable, harsh climate. Hemp was used because cotton could not be grown in cold areas. Threadbare areas of cloth were repeatedly patched over, reinforced, and reinforced again.

Blanket, hand spun, woven hemp, dyed with indigo, stuffed with hemp

Hard scrabble peasant farming classes made boro, mending the same garments over and over again with spare scraps. Scraps were saved like treasure. Collected, scarce. Hemp dyed with indigo was common. Garments were passed down from generation to generation. Working class people made do with dignity.

Portrait of a grandfather with granddaughter, Aomori Prefecture

Today, the story is different. Vintage pieces of boro are collectible, scarce and costly. Classes are taught around the world in boro patchwork and quilting techniques. Boro is adapted by fashion designers to embellish blue jeans. Boro has become romanticized, commodified as a fashion statement, taking on a life far from its humble roots.

Intricately embroidered apron, and long underwear

We might compare the indigenous cultures of Mexico with the native peoples of remote Japan, who struggle to survive and thrive in the face of poverty, lack of education and with little or no access to health care. In the face of adversity, they create extraordinary cloth. I have written about cultural tourism and how we seek to get closer to those who are the creators. We admire their creative outputs. We may even yearn for a simpler life for ourselves — more basic, more grounded, more meaningful. In our yearnings, do we create a false romantic vision that obscures the harsh realities.

Inside lining, kimono

A core aesthetic of Japanese life and values is called wabi-sabi. It is a worldview based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Some say that boro is one of the best examples of wabi-sabi —the cloth and the stitches reflect the beauty of natural wear and use. The cloth and the stitches change, become asymmetrical, born of simplicity, roughness and economy. Beauty is in the simplicity of all.

Padded, stitched and repaired cloth shoes

Wabi-sabi acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Patched and tattered kimono, indigo

Boro cloth is quirky, repaired, subtle, weathered, imperfect, rustic, spare, minimalist. The cloth is organic, changing, deconstructed and reconstructed. Like the people who made it, boro is resilient and enduring, a testimony to cultural continuity.

I am on a quest for ai. The imperfect piece of ai. I know I will find it.

Patched boro blanket, indigo

16 responses to “Four Words and Boro, Japanese Indigo Patchwork

  1. WOWOWOW – Thanks for sharing this Norma. Japan has been a destination since I started textile design in the 70’s. Japanese textile were my main inspiration then. My son even worked in Tokyo for 4 years recently, so I ALMOST made a visit – but the destiny of my travel friends intervened – with two emergencies and I didn’t go! You are awakening the Japan textile-yearnings with this wonderful coverage of BORO – so perhaps soon I will get on that plane. I plan on thoroughly picking you brain when next we meet.
    Enjoy every INDIGO second! Sherita

    • Well, I’m not sure I ever would have made it here except for the inspiration of my friends Karen and Steve who have been here 5 times! Their enthusiasm convinced me I was missing something wonderful. I’m so glad my sister agreed to travel with me, too. We move at the same pace, love similar things. This is an amazing country. I will come back. Perhaps we will come together. The Amuse Museum we are told will close this month permanently. Where this collection will go to be displayed, I don’t know. So, I’m very grateful to have the experience of seeing and touching it. I took photos of everything. The detail is captivating. The poverty from which this was created is heartbreaking. From necessity comes inspiration. Sending love. I’m in awe of the indigo here. Deep. Rich.

  2. I saw that exhibit of Boro in Tokyo last year and was blown away. Japan has amazing textile traditions. I also visited Karume to see Kasuri, the double ikat indgo technique which is wonderful. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Norma, I’m touched by the respect & love you show for people & practitioners of this tradition of boro in Japan. Thank you for this lovely post. I have learned so much from you through your blog over the years. This story captures why we love the folk arts so much.

  4. I know you will,and you’re having a lot of fun on the way! Thanks for sharing. Such sophisticated use of ai. Marvelous

  5. Ohmygoodness, Norma! These photos tug at my long-time love for indigo blue in all its shades of use. Thinking of a denim quilt I once made from old blue jeans, it was quite heavy; are the boro items heavy? Thank you so much for letting us take this trip with you, vicariously, through your blog! It appears that your keyboard-iPad combination is working – yea! Cannot wait to hear about your perfect ai when it has been found!

    • Hi, Gretchen, I have to assume the ai is weighty, though not as weighty as denim, since hemp is a much more loosely woven fiber. With the layering, however, I imagine that over the years, there needs to accumulate heft for the warmth to work. I also read that families snuggled naked under the quilts because skin on skin body contact gives off greater heat. I’m so happy my iPad is working for me, too. I now have a lighter way to be a writer.

  6. Your article is wonderfully tender and expresses the feelings I have for Japan that I have never been able to put into words. Thank you. I will be in Kyoto April 23 to May 22 and will seek out the imperfect piece of ai as well.

  7. Lots to think about. What fabulous images too. Can I just say you and Barbara are adorable. It makes me smile yo think of you flaneuring around Japan. The very best way to explore !

    • Jenny! Me and Barbara, flaneuring. Just like you, Ann and Katie. So nice not to have to stick to a strict agenda. Though, we have an outline of what we want to see. I”m told not many people can help us with translation in Kyoto since so few here speak English.

  8. Loved your post/sharing about Japan!
    “Wabi-sabi acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
    Impermanence lasts….there is no need for a beginning, a middle or an end…the flow is what dips experience in a indigo infused bath of perfection…

  9. An inspiring post ..enjoy your travels.

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