Boro exhibition at Somerset House

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Others resemble more “conventional” patchwork as we know it in the West.

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Yet others looked as if they tried to stay as true as possible to the original colours of the garment.

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Some had stitching that was more whimsical, creating its own design.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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12 thoughts on “Boro exhibition at Somerset House”

  1. I know what you mean about the slightly uncomfortable feeling. I was thinking that before I reached the bottom of your post. Fascinating though.

    1. Apparently in Japan there is still some embarrassment about them. They are undoubtedly beautiful pieces, so it’s good to be able to see them – it’s just this mismatch between what they were and what they have become.

  2. Your point about the hierarchy of colour-wearing reminded me of my days living as a tudor at http://www.kentwell.co.uk/events/tudor/tudor-kentwell-1559. I was always a peasant dressed in a wool kirtle, made each year with no pattern, just fitted and stitched using my own body as a mannequin. The kirtle could only be made of certain colours which could be achieved using plant dyes readily available to the masses. Only the gentry were permitted richer colour: “The Elizabethan period in England had a daily life based on social order: the monarch as the highest, the nobility as second rank, the gentry as third, merchants as fourth, yeomanry as fifth and laborers as sixth. The queen was believed to be God’s representation here on Earth. It was also believed that God had formed these social ranks and showered blessings on each rank. The Parliament regulated the clothes that can only be worn by each rank and it was considered a defiance of the order if a laborer wore clothes of the rich. Sumptuary laws were imposed by rulers to curb the expenditure of the people. These laws applied to food, beverages, furniture, jewelry and clothing. They were used to control behavior and ensure that a specific class structure was maintained. Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws dictated what color and type of clothing individuals were allowed to own and wear. This allowed an easy and immediate way to identify rank and privilege”.

    1. I think a certain amount of colour hierarchy existed in other societies as well – in China, only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow, while the imperial classes in Rome, Egypt and Persia were the only ones allowed to wear purple.

  3. There is something so beautiful about these patchwork “Boro” textiles. They were made for necessity but with so much care and such intricate hand stitching. Thank you for sharing this.

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