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Jeannes This & That

11 May

A blue story of recycling textiles in Japan

By Jeanne Goutelle

Boro is a Japanese word meaning "tattered rags". It refers to the way people used to recycle small pieces of fabric to make bedcovers, futons and clothing for daily use in Japan. (image above: Mingei Arts Gallery & Gordon Reece) These complex yet beautiful blue textile pieces tell us stories about Japanese families, their rural way of life and the economic situation in the northern part of the country from the Edo period up to the early Showa period (17th – early 20th century). Each piece is an heirloom handed down from generation to generation. For decades, humble hands have worked on these pieces of fabric to increase their lifespan. All these traces of darning and quilting were added to repair the boro but they were also a way to make the piece stronger and warmer, little by little, generation after generation.

 Boro textiles

(c) Jeanne Goutelle

In the Northern part of Japan at this time, hemp, ramie and nettle were the main fibres used to weave cloth. Cotton was reserved for the wealthy merchant classes and came from the Southern part of the country, where the warmer climate ensured it was easier to grow. Requests from the Northern community for reasonably priced cotton pieces encouraged traders to transport the cloth from the south to the north along the coast. Small pieces of cloth cut from old clothing could then be purchased to reinforce the existing boros. The largest pieces of cotton used in the boros show the size of handlooms available in Japan during this period. Panels of 15 inches / 38 cm wide were standard. The entire width of these narrow fabrics was used in the making of kimono or other types of clothing. There was no waste.

Boro textile

149x159 cm (c) Jeanne Goutelle

 Boro textile

(c) Jeanne Goutelle

The predominance of blue is due to the strict laws governing colour and dyestuffs at the time. Commoners were restricted to dressing in blue, black and brown. Other colours were the reserve of the aristocracy. Indigo was then the principle dyestuff in use, and to which people also attributed healing properties. Boro are dictionaries both of the indigo colour and all the weaving techniques in use at that time. On each piece you can see dozens of shades of blue and a variety of weaving techniques. The layers of fabric accumulate and enmesh to the extent that you can barely distinguish the front from the back. The layers of rectangular pieces form surprisingly thick and uneven surfaces; your eyes travel through holes worn by time.

Boro textile

(c) Mingei Arts Gallery & Gordon Reece

The small pieces of cloth are sewn together using sashiko, similar to our running stitch. On some of the pieces you can see that the thread used for sewing was taken from the warp or the weft of the woven cloth showing just how important the idea of recycling was. The thread often contrasts with the blue fabric perhaps because the boro were sewn at night with very little light from candles.

Boro textile

91,5x157,5 cm (c) Jeanne Goutelle

Despite the fact that they were made out of necessity I cannot resign myself to believing that they weren't influenced by the Japanese craft aesthetic. We all agree that every single little object from that period is a treasure. From ceramics to lacquer work, Japanese crafts are recognized as ancestral knowledge of the finest craftsmanship. Textile making is just one of these craft traditions the Japanese seem to hold in their blood.

Boro textile

(c) Jeanne Goutelle

The curators of the Boro exhibition at Somerset House in London display the pieces as artworks. Each Boro has been framed and hangs on the wall. On the one hand, they appear to lose all meaning for someone who might know them as items of daily life. But, on the other hand, it shows clearly the diversity of the work made. I have been captivated by the variety of composition as well as the many possible sewing techniques used to attach the pieces of cloth. From little stitches covering the entire surface in perfect straight lines to long running stitches outlining abstract shapes, no one piece is similar to another. Each piece reveals the personality of the person who made it.

  

Boro textileBoro textile

Boro textile

(c) Jeanne Goutelle

As a textile designer I have been fascinated by the range of techniques displayed. I would recommend a visit to this exhibition more than any textile course on the subject! You would have difficulty finding a museum with such a collection. Each piece teaches you more than any book on weaving, quilting, dyeing, darning, sewing, and assembling...

Boro textile

(c) Jeanne Goutelle

I have found this exhibition hugely inspiring but it is also a great lesson about how people made beautiful things with so little. I've always kept my old pair of jeans and I might just think about what to do with them...

Boro textile

135,5x191 cm (c) Mingei Arts Gallery & Gordon Reece

Boro is a collection exhibited at Somerset House this April. The collection was presented by: Philippe Boudin & Maiko Takenobu, Gordon & Olivia Reece collection

Contact: Philippe Boudin & Maiko Takenobu, Mingei Arts Gallery - Paris,  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



 

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