Obsessions : Boro & Sashiko – The Art Of Mending – Part 1

Boro in the Japanese language means “rags” or “fabric remnants”, and Boro as an artform means the repurposing or recycling of old fabric, mending, sewing and quilting, thereby transforming something about to be thrown out into something of beauty with a new purpose. Beautiful AND Useful. Recycling at its best.

Boro was born of the need to “make do and mend”, in the old days of yore (17th Century), and traditionally used indigo dyed fabric from old clothes, patchworked and quilted with running stitches and Sashiko stitches. It is said that you can’t “make” Boro, as the rags and remnants used have to be already used and vintage. It is also said that you could tell a family’s history and ancestry by simply “reading” the Boro clothes they wore.

These days, anyone can create an approximation of Boro, especially with the plethora of Japanese-style fabrics available from textile retailers and wholesalers. It doesn’t even have to be indigo or blue, any colour goes. 

Boro and Sashiko go hand in hand. Sashiko is the art of embroidery, its name in Japanese translates to “little stabs”. The most commonly used stitch is again the humble running stitch, just like in Indian Kantha quilting. 

Traditional Indian Kantha quilting sandwiches layers of old clothes between sari fabric, which is then oversewn with rows of running stitches to keep all the layers in place, and to create a handsewn quilt. 

In Boro, rags and remnants are pinned or tacked onto a fabric backing, traditionally linen or hemp, and then sewn in place using running stitch or a range of beautiful Sashiko decorative stitches. Contrast this to Western Patchwork, where pieces are sewn together first, to create a larger whole, and then quilted by hand or machine to hold the batting within in place.  

I’ve been playing with creating my own Kantha pieces (see my previous posts on Kantha), and I’ve utilised the Boro technique of patching remnants of fabric to a larger background piece, secured with rows of running stitches. I could just use white embroidery thread throughout, but then again I’m a bower bird and love colours, so I much prefer using different coloured embroidery thread for my own projects. I love the idea of randomness creating a cohesive whole.

I also love the whole idea of recycling/upcycling textiles, re-using and re-imagining them into new and wonderful objects of beauty. We live in such a throwaway society these days, where fashions come and go by the day. So, for me, making something unique out of someone else’s discarded junk is like breathing new life into things that by right should still have many more years in them, if not for the disposable whims of their previous owners. 

Our ancestors knew how to save, treasure and indeed honour old things. We should learn to appreciate the same. 

Here’s an example of a traditional Boro piece. Contrasted with a contemporary Boro-inspired piece. The 2nd photo shows the technique I’ve adopted to use for my Kantha projects…I even tie off the thread ends on the side of the patchwork pieces the same as in the photo.

I love the colour blue, especially in indigo fabrics. What I might do for a future project, is perhaps dye pieces of different fabric remnants in a cold water dye, then lay them onto a backing fabric (I’m loving the idea of using a dark velvet or panne velour), before sewing everything down Kantha-style.

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