I have to admit to feeling a bit ambivalent about Japanese boro (mended or patched textiles). They have become incredibly fashionable in the West, presented as abstract art with prices to match. But the rural poor who made them were not making them as art. They made them from necessity, layering and stitching small pieces of scavenged cloth, adding more patches as these wore out. The earthy colours – mostly indigo but also grey, brown, and black – were the only ones that commoners were allowed to wear. Lavish kimono and vivid silk were confined to the Japanese aristocracy.
That said, it’s wonderful to see the varied pieces in this exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, part of the School of Oriental and African Studies. All from the Karun Thakar collection, the boros include not only mattress covers and blankets but also clothing, bags, and even shoes.
It was interesting to see the variety of plant fibres used for making fabric, including banana, wisteria, and linden (lime) bast.
There was also an intriguing undergarment known as an asehajiki (“sweat repeller”). I suppose our nearest equivalent is a string vest! Paper from an old accounts book was made into cordage and then plaited.
Artist Siân Bowen is currently working out how to make a replica at the Economic Botany Collection at Kew Gardens.
Other examples of resourceful recycling included kimono made from cotton hand towels (tenugi), kin-tsugi and gin-tsugi (repairing pottery with gold and silver), and a basket woven with recycled strips of cotton.
Japanese Aesthetics of Recycling runs at the Brunei Gallery until 23 September 2023.