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.


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.

boro3 boro10

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.

boro7 boro12

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.

boro1 boro9 boro13boro5

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.

boro11 boro16

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.

Indigo spring

After a break of around two months I finally fired up the indigo vat and did some dyeing yesterday.

The first experiment was to see if I could do something with the sample of smocking. Unlike shibori, where the stitches are pulled tight to create the resist, some of the stitches in this type of smocking are left loose. I knew that just dipping it in the indigo as it was would probably result in just a blue piece of cloth, as the dye would be able to penetrate all areas of the cloth.

lattice smock

So in the end I bound it to a pipe, as in arashi shibori, but left it flat, without compressing it. I knew from previous experiments of dyeing paper overlaid with cloth that the indigo won’t fully penetrate more than one layer of cotton.

This was the result, front (top) and back (bottom).

smock shibori front

smock shibori back

You can vaguely see the crossed lattice pattern in the top photo, but the bottom one looks more random. Back to the drawing board on this one for now.

More successfully, I dyed a linen pouch in a mokune pattern.

indigo shibori pouch

And threw in a few scarves for good measure.

It was so lovely to be able to hang them out in the sunshine to dry. Seems like spring may be on the way at last.

Scarf production line

Christmas is coming, the indigo’s in the vat, the scarves are on the line (when the weather is fine).

Latest batch of upcycled wool, silk and cotton scarves:

indigo shibori scarves indigo shibori scarves indigo shibori scarves

The next batch waiting for another dip in the vat:

shibori scarves in production shibori scarves in production

And the next haul of scarves waiting to be bound, clamped, stitched or wrapped:

assorted scarves

Details of markets, sales and exhibitions to come!



Catching breath

Phew! Since getting back from holiday it’s been non-stop trying to catch up with everything non-textile.

But finally this morning I got the chance to spend some textile time helping to clean some sheep fleeces. My friend Carol was given a couple of Shetland fleeces from a friend who rears Shetland sheep in Cornwall, and she met Mary, who had also been donated four different sheep fleeces from an Irish farmer.

Soon Carol’s kitchen smelled like a farmyard as the six fleeces were unrolled and laid out on the floor.

fleece1 fleece2 fleece3

My experience of scouring my own fleece last year came in useful, as we placed parts of the fleeces in sinks with hot water and shampoo to get rid of the the muck and lanolin.


However, even with two sinks, one tank of hot water was not going to go far with six fleeces – we only managed to scour two half fleeces before it ran out!


Still a little way to go!

I managed to combine the trip to Carol’s house with some very fruitful visits to local charity shops, as this haul of scarves shows – one cashmere, one wool and three silk. These will be upcycled in the indigo vat – the production rush for Christmas is about to begin!


Here’s one I made earlier – a beautiful linen scarf that was originally grey with rows of sequins at both ends. I wasn’t sure how they would react in the indigo vat, but they emerged unscathed, twinkling like stars in the night sky. 🙂

linen mokune2


Out of office

I’m going away for a couple of weeks, to Hungary and Ukraine.

The trip is not my idea, but ESP’s – centred on food and wine in Tokaji in north-east Hungary.  But I’m hoping that away from the pig slaughter I might be able to track down some local textile traditions.

From this...
From this… this
…to this

In fact, indigo dyeing is a traditional technique in Hungary, using printing blocks or machines to apply the resist to the cloth before dyeing. I saw some Hungarian artisans demonstrating this on the South Bank a couple of years ago, and there’s a good description of the process on this blog.

hungarian indigo

Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down any museums or workshops in north-east Hungary, but there is a textile museum in Budapest that I hope to visit.

And embroidery is very popular in Ukraine.

Immediately I get back, it’s Lambeth Open weekend on 5-6 October, when I’ll be exhibiting with Women of the Cloth in Streatham – hope to see some of you there!