Stitch for stitch, scrap for scrap, boro garments embody the Japanese indispensable concept of “mottainai” or not wasting fabric (in this case) when one can prolong the cloth’s useful life through recycling and reuse. These homemade pieces of clothing were characterized by their patchwork assembly and mended patched look. Often they had an abundance of sashiko stitches to hold the usually mismatched layered fabrics in place.
Hand Fashioned By Farm Women & Fishermen's Wives, Mid 1800s to Early 1900s
Boro textiles inherently tell on the tale of the struggle of a hardy people who lived in indescribable poverty who were able to make ends meet from very practical methods. Frigid winters required these hard-working thrifty women to add two or three layers of fabric to their husband’s work coat or pants. They mended the thin areas with patches of scrap fabric and reinforce the clothing with sashiko stitching, all in order to maximize warmth and to maintain the garment’s useful life.
Up until the early 20th century, penniless Japanese farm women were obliged to spin homespun cotton fibers into threads or yarn, and then hand loom the strands into fabric for fashioning clothing (& household textiles) for their families. The Japanese call homemade, hand-stitched rural work clothing “noragi”... jackets, vests along with momohiki and monpe pants were the most common “noragi" garments. This sewing tradition was passed down from mother to daughter, from each generation to the next, and was part of the basic homemaking repertoire of every Japanese farmer's or fisherman's wife.
For numerous reasons, Japanese rural folk preferred indigo blue dye “aizome” for the color of their textiles. They believed that indigo mirrored the hue of the oceans surrounding the Japanese islands, a symbolic concept that was both culturally and economically important to every Japanese. The indigo plant grew wild and was plentiful throughout most areas of the Japanese Islands. Indigo dye was favored for its ability to hold the deep blue color in the fabric after many years of use. Although, over time, the the blue dyed fabric changed color into shades of beautiful lighter blue(s) as it naturally faded through washing and wearing.
Indigo has inherently antibacterial and odor resistance properties, and is also effective for preventing odors. Additionally, it was thought that indigo clothing contained beneficial medicinal properties that would cure a multitude of skin problems. Interestingly, farmers believed indigo colored fabrics naturally repelled insects and snakes. This belief is the primary reason why Japanese farm women preferred wearing indigo clothing when working in the fields. (Japanese wives spent as much time laboring in the fields as their husbands.)
These aforesaid homemakers who resided in remote impoverished rural regions always needed to reduce, reuse and recycle the family’s textiles for both financial and practical reasons.
They carefully unstitched old futon covers, worn-out garments, and other ragged household textiles in order to recycle and remake the usable fragments into hard wearing field-work “noragi” apparel. Sometimes, these same disassembled fabrics were re-dyed to give them a refreshed appearance. Many times one can see signs of a textile’s previous life, like the faint image on the back of a boro jacket that still retains a faded tsutsugaki or katazome design.
Today, people who appreciate the admirable habits of a rural Japanese woman’s unpretentious lifestyle of textile thrift, reuse and repurpose… are able to hold and touch with their hands such precious items of a former time, when they acquire Japanese boro garments and textiles for themselves.