Boro: Japanese folk fabric

After buying a boro scarf at a Tokyo flea market I wanted to learn more about the scruffy, stylish fabric. I pulled at a loose thread and unraveled an interesting tale going back hundreds of years.

Boro was born of forgotten values of ‘mottainai’ or ‘too good to waste’. An idea dangerously lacking in the modern consumer lifestyle.

The charm of boro is not only the indigo shades and shabby street chic, or even its eco-friendliness. Sewn together over generations, family sagas are woven through the threads. click below to read on…

Boro is the clothing that was worn by peasants, merchants or artisans in Japan from Edo up to early Showa (17th – early 19th century). In feudal times, the majority were peasant farmers. Not everyone could afford the lavish silk kimono and vivid obi worn by the aristocracy. Clothes were crafted from cheaper materials, but were no less beautiful than those worn by the upper classes.

noragi (peasant wear), click photo to buy this item

Literally translated as rags or scraps of cloth, the term boro is also used to describe clothes and household items which have been patched-up and repaired many times.

Once clothing was made, it would be maintained throughout the owner’s lifetime, or perhaps even longer.

Cotton was scarce in Japan, but hemp was abundant.  Hemp would be homespun and woven into beautiful patterns. Cotton could be woven through the hemp fabrics to make it warmer.

The beauty of boro fabric is the highly sophisticated sewing and weaving techniques used by the women who made it.  For peasant families, each garment would last long enough to be passed down through generations. Daily use would require frequent repair.

The pattern woven into the fabric of these trousers is known as hishizashi. Women would invent their own designs and compete with friends.

Household boro textiles give an intriguing insight into the lifestyle of the times. The whole family would lay on one futon. Made up of scraps of old clothes over generations, the timeline of the family could be traced along its seams.

I am fascinated by the donja (below). It is a very large, and extremely heavy sleeping coat. Today, we might think this to inappropriate, but parents and children would sleep naked together inside it. Wrapped in layer upon layer of boro scraps and wadding, shared body heat would protect them from the dangerously cold winter.

The bodoko (below) is translated as ‘life-cloth’. On a daily basis, it was a bed sheet. However, it was also used when giving birth.Women would hang from ropes fastened to the ceiling and kneel on the bodoko. Layers of rags worn by ancestors would be the first thing the baby would touch.

Boro is a practical, utilitarian and cheap fabric. Each boro item is by its very definition, absolutely unique.

Now, it is valued as art and has become highly collectible. Boro uses everything and wastes nothing. The ‘beauty of practicality’ or ‘Yuyo-no-bi’ is a concept all but forgotten in today’s consumer society.


Should things be made merely to look at? To admire Boro is to appreciate practicality as an aesthetic aspect. Boro shows us the value of time spent, not money. Unfortunately, it also highlights the wastefulness of modern lifestyles. It sounds harsh but; boro also points out the comparative uselessness of some other forms of art we admire.

Boro makes me think about the richness of family history and ways it might be documented. A photo album speaks for itself, but a quilt of generations is a source of family legends, an endless bedtime story.

Boro reminds me to appreciate the value of spare time, something we often waste away along with our old clothes.

Next time you have free time and you are wondering how to spend it, don’t pick up your new smart phone, or turn on the TV.

Pick up something old and unused and see if you can make something useful. You never know, it may turn into something beautiful, perhaps even a family heirloom.

Take a look at the FurugiStar shop here.

(Except the first one, the photos are my own which were taken at the Amuse Museum Boro Exbibition, Tokyo, 2011. The exhibition featured the collection of Chuzaburo Tanaka. It is now closed but the link is available here )

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About FurugiStar

Look in my shop for Japanese antiques and vintage items. http://www.etsy.com/shop/FurugiStar View all posts by FurugiStar

25 responses to “Boro: Japanese folk fabric

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