Literally translated as “rags”, boro are heavily patched bedcovers and clothing made by the rural poor of Japan.
Although cotton was grown in southern Japan from the 16th century onwards, it was only the richer urban dwellers who could afford it. Poorer people wore homespun hemp, nettle and ramie, but cotton was lighter and warmer than these so was highly valued.
So it was that merchants in the south found it worth their while to transport worn out cotton garments up to the north of Japan, where they were eagerly snapped up and turned into layered cloths and clothing.
As they wore through, fresh patches were added, so the cloths become a kind of family history, passed down through the generations, like patchwork quilts in the West.
The colour is predominantly blue, from indigo, but there are also patches of brown, grey and black. This is because these were the only colours that commoners were allowed to wear in the Edo period (1603-1868) – lavish kimono and vivid silk were confined to the Japanese aristocracy.
As Japan developed and became more industrialised in the 20th century, such textiles were looked on with shame, as a symbol of its impoverished past, and many of them were thrown away.
In the West, however, they are regarded as beautiful examples of folk art, and Somerset House has brought together 40 examples in a wonderful exhibition. You can see from the photos here how the personality of the maker shines through each one.
Some incorporate extensive rows of sashiko stitching to help strengthen the fabric.
Others resemble more “conventional” patchwork as we know it in the West.
Yet others looked as if they tried to stay as true as possible to the original colours of the garment.
Some had stitching that was more whimsical, creating its own design.
The pattern of wear on some of them was fascinating too. I got talking to one of the exhibition assistants who said that a visitor from Hampton Court suggested that this type of wear came from someone kneeling on the fabric. This is mark making of a very special kind.
As you can also see from some of the photos, the boro are beautifully mounted, mostly on stretchers like works of art, while this garment was hung on an intricately carved bamboo pole.
This did make me feel a little uncomfortable. The people who made these items were not making works of art - they were making them as necessities, to keep warm. Now they are self-consciously being hung in galleries and sold at £5,000 a pop.
Of course, this is not unique to boro, but I think I would prefer to use them as originally intended. Textiles – especially these textiles – are tactile things, to be touched, stroked, snuggled in, draped, wrapped, caressed. And if it wears through, I’m willing to continue the tradition of patching up as necessary. Now, where did I put that stash of shibori scraps? ;-)
Boro continues at Somerset House until 26 April.