In the late 1800s, Japanese city dwellers enjoyed improved prosperity and began to embrace Western style clothes. Many domestic, cotton mills produced abundant fabric for tailoring their newly discovered garments. On the other hand, farmer’s wives were too impoverished to purchase these commercially made fabrics. These women continued to spin cotton fibers into yarn, handweaving it into fabric.The resulting cloth fashioned clothing and household textiles for themselves and their families.The Japanese called it ‘noragi’. Jackets, vests, along with momohiki and monpe pants were the most common types of noragi garments. This home-based 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 farm wife.
The rural Japanese preferred indigo blue to dye their textiles, feeling that the indigo colour reflected the beautiful azure hue of the oceans surrounding the Japanese archipelago. To help matters, Japanese indigo plants grew wild and were plentiful throughout the country. In addition, the dye retained the blue colour in cotton fabric after many years of use, gradually fading into beautiful shades of lighter blue. Firsthand experience held that indigo dye possessed inherent antibacterial properties and was also effective for suppressing disagreeable odors. Beyond those attributes, the Japanese understood that indigo clothing contained beneficial medicinal properties that cured common skin problems. Farmers were convinced that indigo-dyed fabrics. Double layered with patches and a base fabric, late 1800s to early 1900s Northern Japan, 100% cotton homespun, hand woven. 126 X 160 cm fabrics could naturally repulse insects and snakes. This repellent characteristic was the primary reason as to why Japanese farmers chose to wear indigo clothing while working in the fields.
Over time, these homemade noragi garments became threadbeare, tattered and faded as a result of the hard labour. Homemakers in remote regions needed to reuse and recycle the family’s work clothing and these excessively mended work garments became known as ‘boro noragi’ stitch for stitch, scrap for scrap, boro garments embody the long held indispensable Japanese concept of ‘mottainai’ (prolonging an object’s life through recycling and repurposing); a concept that still holds its original value even today, derived from the religious teachings and moral precepts of Japanese indigenous Shinto and externally introduced Buddhism. Shinto believed that each material object possessed a kami (god) and, as such, deserved individual reverence. And, Buddhism held that wastefulness and a self-indulgent lifestyle were the opposite of Buddha’s teachings.
Boro is a Japanese word meaning ‘tattered rags’ and is frequently used to describe lovingly patched and repaired cotton bedding and clothing. In order to assemble fabric for use in their sewing projects, farm wives carefully unstitched and taken apart old futon covers, worn-out garments, and other ragged household textiles that were stockpiled for such purposes. Sometimes, the disassembled fabrics were dyed again to give them a refreshed appearance. Often one can see signs of a textile’s previous life in boro clothing, like the faint image on the inside or back of a patched jacket. Cold winters called for farm women to add three or four layers of fabric to their husband’s older work coats and pants. Often these garments needed an abundance of sashiko stitches to hold the mismatched layers of old fabrics in place. At the same time, the women mended the thin areas of fabric with patches of scrap cloth and reinforced the repairs with more sashiko stitching.
When Japan was struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II, the Japanese regarded their boro garments and textiles with great shame and disdain. Their rejection of boro was due to these utilitarian textiles serving as open reminders of Japan's impoverished past. On the other hand, international textile collectors of that same era sought out exceptional boro textile specimens because they treasured the exemplary mottainai practices of the rural Japanese lifestyle during the 1800s. Furthermore, they admired the unpretentious Japanese habit of textile thrift, reuse and repurpose. Today, Japanese collectors who have rediscovered their textile heritage along with international aficionados share a common reverence for boro clothing. Both consider Japanese tattered clothing as striking illustrations of a bygone and lost folk craft. Now, these boro garments are avidly collected and cherished for the unscripted stories they so candidly convey, and the individual windows they open up into rare instances of Japanese folk culture throughout history.
This article was previously published on issue 81 Japan Blue, available for purchase on our website. Text by Jim Austin.