Indigo Blue: Old Japanese Cloth–Shuko’s Gift

Shuko Clouse went to Japan to visit family in early summer. She travels with me in Mexico. We have a cross-cultural appreciation for cloth. When I saw her at her Los Angeles home in July, she presented me with a treasure — a piece of old indigo cloth she had picked up along the way. It was brittle. It was minimally repaired in two areas with sashiko stitches and boro patches.

My first pass at the repair work to save the missing threads

There were holes and tears. One corner had totally degraded and looked as if it had been chewed by mice. The cloth had turned transparent and white where it must have been kept folded and stored away for years. There were stains, perhaps the sweat of toil or perhaps used to wipe an oil spill. It was the discoloration of life.

Original repair on Shuko’s gift of old indigo cloth

This is the Japanese meditation of Wabi-Sabi, that nothing is perfect and in this imperfection is the most sublime beauty. The minimalist aesthetic of this philosophy resonates. In Abiquiu, Georgia O’Keeffe practiced less is more with the absence of collections, focusing on emptiness, light, space and landscape.

I thanked Shuko for this amazing gift of ancient culture, history and textile reverence. I fingered the threads and then wrapped the cloth gently to tuck away into my luggage to carry with me to North Carolina.

What I have to work with — indigo scraps and yarn

At the end of my first week of being here, being quiet and introspective, I pull out the cloth and begin to let it speak to me. What shall I do to resuscitate it? What will it take to bring it back to life? In thinking about the repairing of what is fragile, I pull out my small stash of Japanese indigo scraps I bought in Kyoto in May. Now, I think, I should have gotten more. I have indigo-dyed 4-ply hand-spun Oaxaca cotton yarn to work with, too.

I think about the boro cloth I saw in Tokyo and examine the few sashiko stitches of repair on what lays before me. I’ve watched YouTube videos and did a minor knee patch on a pair of jeans last year. Maybe I can make this up as I go along, following the primitive, beautiful inspiration of the Aomori Prefecture in the northernmost region of Japan.

Amuse Museum boro exhibition, layers of repaired cloth added to over generations

Is it ethical to use anything else except Japanese indigo-dyed cotton or hemp scraps? I have leftovers from an African tie-dye dressmaking project. I’m still debating as I use up the few Japanese pieces I have. I’m not a certified textile restoration expert, so perhaps, in the end it doesn’t matter. But I want to respect the origins of this cloth.

The underside of the patch — or boroboro — considered a Japanese art form now

My friend, Sheri Brautigam who operates Living Textiles of Mexico and sells indigo-dyed Oaxaca textiles on her Etsy shop, tells me that all things indigo are flying out the door. Remigio Mestas, our well-respected curator of Oaxaca and Mexican-made indigenous clothing, recently opened Los Baules Remigio in San Miguel de Allende where indigo plays front and center. Many of you know his Oaxaca shop, Los Baules de Juana Cata.

Holes and frayed warp/weft. My first stitches to hold the repair together.

My 4-ply yarn is too thick for the delicate fabric and I separate it into 2-ply lengths. I carefully iron the textile to smooth out the folds and bunched up frayed edges. It is a reverent act of appreciation. I choose my patching pieces and set needle and thread to the rhythm of a running stitch. Even though I mark the cloth with tailor chalk, my spacing isn’t perfect. That is okay. We are making art, here. We are saving something worthwhile.

The underbelly of the original repair. Who did this work, when and why?

The work is painstakingly slow. I converted the loft bedroom into the project space and moved sleeping area to the main level. Upstairs, I hunch over an old, 1930’s era large oak kitchen table I bought in western Pennsylvania almost fifty years ago. An overhead fan moves the still air. I take a break in the cane rocker I bought when my 46-year old son was born. Memory is important.

Is this brittle old cloth worth salvaging in our disposable, replaceable lifestyle?

This is a project to savor, to approach with intention, to consider which direction the stitches will lay. They form a quilt and a patchwork. I think about the clothing of necessity, the repeated repairs to keep people clothed and warm in climates of serve deprivation.

Oaxaca hand-spun indigo dyed cotton, with cochineal + coyuchi, size S-M, $350 USD, + mailing

In this process, I think about the women I know in remote Oaxaca villages who card and spin, then dye cotton with indigo. I appreciate the labor it takes to make beauty and what we share across cultures. When my Oaxaca indigo wears thin, I intend to repair it, too.

A few pieces of old Japanese indigo cloth I have to work with

In my own closet I am noticing a preponderance of blue as I turn to the natural dye that guides me through Oaxaca and around the world. To follow the indigo trail is to discover how humans adapted and applied color to brighten their lives.

New indigo and red oak dyed shawl, Oaxaca’s, Mixteca region, from Remigio Mestas

What will I do with this piece of cloth when it is finished? Perhaps it will be worthy of hanging, worthy of occupying scarce space.

Making a patchwork of stitches

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