Japanese boro textiles. Courtesy Sri Threads.

A stitch can tell a story, weave itself into a galaxy of points, moments, and memories. Needle and thread can both meet a need and delight the eye. A perfect example of this can be seen in the beautiful boro textiles of 19th- and 20th-century Japan. During these periods, and for centuries beforehand, textiles were less prevalent than they are now, so stitches were used to bind, preserve, and extend the lives of household and wearable textiles. This practice is encompassed in boro, which is defined by the Victoria and Albert museum as the “practice of reworking and repairing textiles (often clothes or bedding) through piecing, patching and stitching, in order to extend their use.” 

Patchwork has existed as long as woven textiles have—thousands of years. Cross culturally, patching was initially a purely functional practice, before expanding to include decorative purposes in the second half of the 19th century, when textiles became much more abundant, economical, and accessible. Sarah Jean Culbreth, a fashion historian and former material culture curator at the Brooklyn museum provides further context: “The economic value of textiles was so high before the industrial revolution, textiles were the most expensive thing in your home.” It wasn’t until the early 19th century, when textiles became cheaper to produce, that patchwork transitioned into more playful territory. But more on that later.

Boro, as a facet of patchwork, is unique in world textile culture. “Boro is about addition—prolonging versus creating,” says Culbreth. Whereas, Western quilt traditions create something new from scraps, boro uses scraps to preserve. One of the biggest distinctions between Japanese boro and the Western quilt tradition, is that quilt culture in the West (specifically in the US) is centered around shared work and community. Boro is generally a solitary activity. Just as quilts are infused with the energy of the group (or generations) of women who worked on a single piece, boro offers information about the single individual who worked on an item. 

Courtesy Japan Society.

The Korean American, Los Angeles-based artist Christina Kim marries individual experience and identity with collaborative patchwork traditions in her work Kaya, which is part of the show Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics at the Japan Society in New York (the show is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic). Kaya translates directly to “mosquito net,” relating to the ones used in South Korea, where Kim was born. The heat of the region contributes to a serious mosquito problem and to cope, Kim’s grandmother purchased a large mosquito net for her home. “One year, my grandmother decided not to use [the mosquito net] inside, but to build a platform for it outside,” Kim tells the Japan Society. “Every summer from then on our mosquito net would be [placed] outside in our garden. We would all go inside itmy grandmother, my uncles, my sisters—and for an hour or two after dinner would spend incredibly beautiful, magical moments inside the net looking up at the sky. That’s where we heard all of our childhood stories.” 

Kim found the particular net exhibited in the Japan Society show on a trip to Japan with her mentor in 2001. It was an exact replica (down to the brand) of a mosquito net from her childhood. After roughly nine years of use in Los Angeles, the net was falling apart with the original indigo dye almost entirely faded, but avoiding waste is central to Kim’s practice, so she gave the net yet another life when she came to RISD to teach winter sessions a few years ago. Her and her students continued to mend the kaya that Kim had already begun working on, collectively spending 2,085 hours patching it (including the 502.5 of those hours Kim spent mending the piece independently).

“Kaya” by Christina Kim, on display at the Japan Society in New York as part of the exhibit Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics.

Along the side of the net, they stitched patterns mimicking the placement of the stars when Kim was born. “My birthday according to the western calendar is March 4, 1957, but my family registered my birth on February 3, [basing the date on] the lunar calendar,” Kim explains. After she immigrated to America as a teenager, her birthday could not be legally changed; the addition of astrological stitchwork serves as a map introducing Kim’s life and experience to the viewer. On the top of the net, not visible to the museum visitor, Kim’s lunar birthday is referenced as well. Here, boro serves as a chart of individual experience and development, while harnessing the labor and skill of a larger group.

Kim’s work is a unique contemporary interpretation of boro, but the practice was historically adopted by the impoverished people of rural Japan. Though boro blossomed in a lower economic strata, pieces created in this tradition have risen to a more prominent position in the arts and crafts market over the last 30 years. Steven Szczepanek of Sri Threads has collected and sold fine examples of boro for nearly two decades. The largest examples of boro within his collection are futon covers (which can be understood as duvet covers in the Western mind). One piece formerly in his collection, from the early to mid 20th-century, has over 40 patches varying in age. The plaid cotton base of the futon cover is not customary for traditional indigo boro, but the straight hand stitches are. Another example from the late 19th-century to early 20th-century is covered in roughly 45 visible patches, covering a lightweight cotton base, stencil resist dyed (katazome) with a repeating pattern of hexagons. The hexagons are meant to mimic the form of tortoise shells (kikko), which traditionally represents longevity in Japanese cultures. In both of these examples, patchwork and stitching done out of necessity unintentionally lend decorative interest to what was initially a utilitarian item.  

Elsewhere during the 19th-century, patchwork started to take on purely decorative purposes. The Victorians went wild with quilting—40 odd years after the end of the industrial revolution, the average, idle Victorian woman counted quilting as one of her few domestic pastimes. Diamonds, stars, and pinwheels in a myriad of colors crowd onto these late 19th-century follies. Decorative textile art of this nature was incredibly rare prior to this period. One unique example of early piecework is this Netherlandish women’s jacket, circa 1700, currently held in the collection of The Nordic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The jacket brings together over 15 different textiles for purely ornamental purposes.

The decorative tradition of patchwork continues in the West in the community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Descended from enslaved peoples, the women of Gee’s Bend have crafted precise and intricate textile masterpieces for the last 100 years. Skills were passed on, as seen in the women of the Pettway family. Beatrice Pettway’s quilts in particular occasionally share a resemblance to the indigo dyed boro of Japan. Patterns repeat and reappear within these women’s work, in the work of their daughters, their sisters, their sisters-in-law. Visual repetition pays homage to the generational wisdom shared within this community. The quilts of Gee’s Bend showcase a uniform level of quality and attention, almost as if the very muscle memory of these women is shared.

In antique boro, the patchwork of the craftsperson or people who worked on each item can reveal so much about the context within which the piece was made and used. How quickly an item became structurally compromised can tell you how many people used the piece, and why. A type of stitch can reveal how seasoned the person who rendered it waswhether they had been stitching for decades or days. The number of patches on a piece can tell us whether resources waned or grew within the family who owned the item. A single piece of fabric can actually include hundreds. The labor that goes into this textile work infuses personal and communal memory, telling the viewer a story through stitches. As Culbreth succinctly puts it, “It’s the things that we use everyday that are the most important to maintain,” for cultural and social gain.