Boro: The Necessity and the Asymmetry of Resourcefulness
For most of Japan’s history, textiles were woven from the fibers of indigenous plants and trees categorized as “bast fibers.” They were derived from trees and plants such as linden, elm, wisteria, hemp, and ramie. Though there were certainly others. The time- and labor-intensive work of collecting and processing fibers for weaving was mostly done by women. Japan’s diverse range of climates each sustained textile traditions related to local plants which varied from region to region. In the southern subtropical climate of Okinawa, banana fiber, known as Basho-fu, was popular for its fine and glossy appearance. In the northern temperate region of Tohoku, the linden tree was foraged for its fibers. To extract fibers from the linden tree, its outer bark and its wood are separated to reveal an inner layer of fibers. These fibers were peeled and removed, then boiled in ash and fermented. Linden fibers were woven into cloth for garments, mosquito nets, and, of course, bags. The texture is more coarse than other bast fibers and, unlike cloth woven from wisteria or elm, it doesn’t soften over time with use. These fibers were not particularly comfortable, or protective against harsh winters, especially in the cold northern climates. The introduction of cotton was a welcome innovation to these regions.
Cotton is a crop that is not native to Japan. It was introduced from China and Korea around 600 CE but wasn’t widely cultivated until the sixteenth century. Until the nineteenth century, cotton was a luxury that most common people couldn’t afford. The crop was grown and processed in the southern and western regions, where the warmer climate could support farming it. Unable to produce their own cotton, northern regions depended on the trade of cotton fabrics from the south. Due to cotton’s scarcity, cotton pieces were rarely thrown away. Cotton fabrics were traded in the form of scraps, garment fragments, and fabric lengths. These coveted pieces were sold directly at the ports, or by rag merchants who would collect scrap fabrics, pack them into bags, and peddle them throughout neighboring villages. Often, multiple families would collectively purchase a bag of scrap cotton and divide the pieces among themselves. These worn pieces would be used to mend or create new textiles and garments.
Rag merchant’s bag containing sakiori balls, 1873, Photograph by Randy Dodson.
This rag merchant’s bag offers a glimpse into Japanese textile historical culture. This type of bag, made of bast fiber from a linden tree, is known as tsunobukuro, or horn bag. The manner of closure at the ends draws the fabric to a point that looks like horns and make the bag easier to caarry. Until cotton came along all horn bags would have been made of bast fiber. Although horn bags were typically used to transport grains or beans, this tsunobukoro holds the fabric goods of a rag merchant. The bag is constructed from a single length of cloth that is stitched along the bias. This construction conserves material and also allows the bag to stretch. The substantial stitching and patching on the surface of the bag indicate that it was likely reused, and repaired, extensively. The bag contains 97 balls of yarn made from ripped cotton rag and twisted recycled paper. It originated in the Akita prefecture of the Tohoku region in 1873. The surface is marked “Meiji, Akita, March 6” in sumi ink. This bag sits at an important juncture. If even made a decade later it would likely be made of cotton and not bast.
Detail of sakiori balls, 1873. Photograph by Randy Dodson.
Long cotton strands, also known as rag yarn, would have been woven into sakiori. Rag yarn was sourced from the fabric of worn kimonos. Lengths of kimono fabric were torn into strips by hand to create long, thin strands for weaving. It’s important to note that Japanese kimono are constructed entirely of rectangular lengths of cloth. Through folding and tying, shapes and silhouettes are created without producing excess waste. This minimalist design structure allows for simple recycling processes as entire rectangular cloths of kimono can be torn into lines of rag yarn.
Detail of rag merchant bag, 1873. Photograph by Randy Dodson.
“Saki” comes from the Japanese verb saku, meaning to tear or cut, while “ori” comes from the verb oru, to weave. Rag yarn would be woven as a weft with a bast fiber or cotton as a warp. The contents in the rag merchant’s bag would have provided ample materials to weave sakiori textiles. This method of weaving produced durable and thick textiles that provided sturdy protection against the elements. Sakiori textiles were used to create coats, jackets, aprons, and other garments such as the two vests, meant to be worn for outdoor work, in the Museums’ collection. Because of its durability, sakiori was common workwear for farmers, lumbermen, fishermen, and other outdoor laborers. As in the United States, their heavy woven cotton garments were workman’s clothing. Denim. Boro. Sakiori. These garments would be worn out until they were further transformed into new pieces.
Vests (sodenashi), late 19th century Japan 2013.44.2; 2013.44.3.
This long history of reusing materials exemplifies the Japanese notion of mottainai. The phrase translates roughly to “waste nothing.” It’s still a common exclamation today that could be used to scold a child into eating the rest of their dinner or to save the wrapping paper from a gift. For many Japanese who grew up in less affluent times, this phrase is not easily forgotten. Prior to the economic boom of the 1980s and 90s, Japan was not a wealthy country. People made do with limited resources by preserving what they had. Recycling was an essential mechanism for survival.
This term mottainai comes from the Buddhist term “mottai” which denoted “the essence of things.” But more than that it suggests that objects do not live alone but are linked to one other, relational, kinned, twinned, woven and stitched together. Warped and wefted. But even in this understanding the negating term “nai” is the suffix which adds a griefstruck cast on the word “mottainai” having the sense of the grief at the disrespect when this essence has been wasted.
This notion of humbled respect toward things is framed within the personal and economic necessity of frugality, but it can also serve as a global concept to address the negative impacts of mass production and hyper-consumption today. In the current era of two-day shipping and mega sales, the allure of newness and the cutting edge is always around the corner. Taking the time to care for those pieces already in our care, by mending or recycling these belongings, opens a reimagining of ecological and ethical relationships with consumption through a more sustainable framework.