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. When doing research there was not an abundance of sources on the history of boro, however the few sources obtained explained the depth of Japanese costume and different boro styles.
In the blog Boro: Japanese Folk Fabric by FurugiStar , it describes what boro is and the different types. Everyone couldn’t afford silk kimonos, so there were clothes that were crafted from cheaper materials which was boro. Boro is made up of rags or scraps of cloth, and the term “boro is also used to describe clothes and household items which have been patched-up and repaired many times.”
Being that boro is tattered rags and peasant wear this has to be maintained throughout the owner’s lifetime, or perhaps even longer. Boro garment would last long enough to be passed down through generations. If it was used on a daily it needed to be repaired frequently. Made up of scraps of old clothes over generations, the timeline of the family could be traced along its seams.
For peasant families,they were very innovative when it came to using the sources around them. Since cotton was scarce in Japan, there was an abundant use of hemp. Hemp was a locally grown and processed bast fiber. “Hemp would be homespun and woven into beautiful patterns. Cotton could be woven through the hemp fabrics to make it warmer.”
Household boro textiles give an intriguing insight into the lifestyle of the times. The whole family would lay on one futon. The donja is a very large, and extremely heavy sleeping coat. Then 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 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.”
In the article “A Short History of Japanese Textiles” it gives descriptions of the type of stitching used. The stitching for the boro is the sashiko stitch which repairs “common household items like futon covers, garments and pillows. Sashiko stitching is commonly found on boro futon covers, noragi clothing (jackets and vests), aprons, zokin dusting cloths and other Japanese folk textiles. Sashiko thread colors range from white to a deep blue-black. White sashiko thread was used most often with contrasting indigo-dyed cotton fabric.”
This type of clothing was worn by the lower working classes of Japanese society and carried with it an inferior social status of the communities. Boro/sashiko remained linked to poverty-stricken rural regions.
The choices of fabrics for use when it came to these garments were “locally produced, labor intensive, woven bast fiber materials (asa, mainly hemp) or remnants of discarded cotton fabric that seafaring traders carried northward from the warmer cotton producing areas of Western Japan.”
“Once large quantities of scrap cotton regularly began arriving in Northern Japan, it quickly became the fabric of choice among rural women because it was easier to work with, softer, warmer and generally more versatile than locally grown bast fiber materials. Soft cotton was favored for clothing because it was considered a luxurious fabric as compared to rough and prickly hemp.
Heavy winter-weight fabrics were constructed from cotton remnant fabrics that were attached to each other with sashiko stitching in patchwork styled layers; the more layers, the warmer and stronger the fabric.” Sashiko sewing to the repair gave greater strength to the material.
Another method to boro style is sakiori which is the looming together strips of old cloth. The origin of sakiori comes from two words “saki,” which means to tear or rip up, cutting up strips and “ori,” which means weave, weaving the pieces together. “With sakiori, the torn cloth pieces are rolled into 13 to 16 inch lengths and loomed together in weft (width) rows with cotton or hemp as the warp threads (length). Sakiori weavings were often used to make casual kimono obi, but sometimes they were also used to make other useful textiles, such as jackets, vests, and rugs.”
In the article Japanese Costume by Helen C. Gunsaulus it breaks down each costume of the peasant dress, ordinary wear, and courting costume. For the peasant wear, there are a lists of terms describing each piece of clothing and its purpose. For example, tight breeches are called momohiki, leggings are called kiaken, sandals (waraji), for men to shield the chest and abdomen and ties in the back is called haragake. To protect the forearms with half sleeve is a udeniki, and last but not least the straw hat is made of bamboo/straw plait is called a kasa. Some of these pieces of clothing show the boro technique.
Kasa Peasant Costume
Boro textiles revealed much about the Japanese family’s living standards and the nature of the economy of their time. Boro uses everything and wastes nothing. It was interesting to learn about this topic and do my project on it, something that was peasant wear and viewed as inferior is a style here when back then for them it was so much deeper. In a sense it was their life.