Friday, October 22, 2010


When I first started collecting textiles Takashi was surprised that it was the ragged, patched and worn pieces that appealed to me most.  But of course I'm not alone and in the years since then it's been interesting to see the price of these so-called 'boro' pieces (usually old futon covers) soar.  'Boro' has become a fairly common term in the textile world but in Japanese it literally means 'rags' and traditionally has very negative connotations . Some people in the textile market in Japan still prefer not to use it as it implies the piece is rubbish and dirty and the term could be seen as an insult to the person who brought it along. More typically dealers would call these pieces 'ranru' a less negative word which can also be associated with patched Buddhist textiles. Takashi thinks it's probably in the last five or six years that 'boro' has become a more acceptable term, no doubt because of the growing popularity of these textiles with international dealers. There's still a lot I want to learn about the connotations of  these and other words used to describe this kind of textile and also how 'boro' came to be the standard term in English.

Here are some 'boro' pieces from my collection. The first is a  futon cover. It was too big to fit the whole thing in one photo so these are details:

This futon cover (futonji) is typical of boro pieces that have been patched and re-patched over a number of years with whatever remnants were available. Most of the pieces we see today probably date from the late 19th - mid 20th century. Throughout this period  there were many in Japan still living in  utter poverty. People might have only one piece of clothing that they wore both day and night and there were plenty who didn't  even have the relative luxury of a futon to patch. People bought what clothing they could second-hand  and every scrap of fabric was valued and re-used  to repair clothing and bedding like this or as cleaning cloths and nappies. The appeal of these pieces isn't only aesthetic (and their random stitching  and patching has a wonderful rustic charm) but in the way they are imbued with the history of ordinary people. 

The next piece is an old kimono  (you can click on the photos for a closer look)...


And finally a very old pair of western style men's trousers patched with indigo cottons.  A more familiar and less charming reminder that boro was about poverty, necessity and making do.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In store...retro kimono fabric

Kimono silk off the roll is definitely the most popular item in the shop. I did a rough count a few weeks ago and we had about 800 rolls of silk out on the shelves and a couple of hundred rolls of other kimono, haori and yukata fabrics. In Japan you don't buy kimono fabric by the metre like this, instead you choose a roll of fabric at a specialist kimono shop which is then  made up into your garment. This is the reason that the  fabric is often  rolled in layers (which makes it awkward to cut) and usually with the pattern rolled on the inside (which makes it hard to display). If I had nothing else to do I'd  re-roll them a more convenient way.
The rolls we stock vary in age from a handful of pre-war children's fabrics through to the late-20th century and  the variety of patterns and textures is enormous. Some new customers seem surprised by fabrics that don't fit the idea they had of Japanese design,  but kimono fabric designs go through fashions just the same as western textile design and are similarly influenced by the wider art and design trends of their time. While very pretty fabrics with traditional floral patterns are always popular there are just as many of our customers who love the 'retro' designs from the 60's and 70's.  Sometimes traditional motifs have been given a modern twist  and sometimes the pattern doesn't make any reference to traditional design and is very much a product of its time, as with these first two silks:

This next silk is an interesting compromise with the modern design  printed on silk with a very traditional chrysanthemum pattern in the weave:

Some of the wildest retro designs we get  are on heavy wool and wool blend (often 96% wool and 4% nylon) fabrics:

This final woollen kimono fabric is a good example of  traditional motifs that have been given a 1970's feel. The cross design is based on a common kasuri (ikat) pattern enclosed in an equally common kasuri motif which is derived from the  shape of  the mouth of a traditional well and also the kanji character for well 井.

It's hard to imagine how some of these fabrics would have looked made up into kimono but this old  label from a roll of wool gives us an idea.  It's perhaps not the most elegant image in the history of kimono design(!) But for stitchers looking for interesting, sturdy and washable fabrics these wools are great value and definitely have their own charm.

Monday, October 4, 2010


This post is in celebration of cherry blossom (桜 'sakura') time in my backyard. Unfortunately my one tree was damaged when it was young and  has never grown more than a few feet high so even though it produces these gorgeous blossoms it's hardly big enough to sit under for the 'hanami' cherry blossom viewing picnics I'd been planning! I was going to dig it out this year and plant a new one and I'd actually got to the point of putting the spade in the soil but its blossoms are so beautiful I just couldn't bring myself to do it....

I thought in honour of its brief flowering I'd show you some kimono fabric cherry blossom designs but realised when I went through the fabrics in the shop and in my collection that I have surprisingly few.  Perhaps because we associate it as the national symbol of Japan we expect to find it more often on kimono  but I come across a lot more plums, chrysanthemums, peonies and other flowers (that I often can't identify). It turned out that the ones that I liked best are these two very simple old red and white designs. This first one is  simply printed on very old cotton lining. I sometimes come across these very humble fragments that have a wonderful warm character and make you wonder about the life they've had.
The second one is from a piece of old wool 'mosu' (Japanese muslin) which has probably been part of a juban undergarment. I love the realism of the freshly opened leaves which make this design a little more lively than the standard petal motif in the first picture.

The cherry blossom as a symbol has a long and complex history from sacred associations with rice in the ancient myth-histories through to being mobilised as motivation for kamikaze pilots. Cherry trees famously blossom gloriously and briefly and so are commonly seen to represent the beauty, fragility and impermanence of life, and in this sense it is also associated with the bushido spirit of the samurai.  It has an even longer history before that as a symbol of youth, love and courtship. ( For a detailed history of the symbolism of the cherry blossom I recommend the relevant chapters in Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney's Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalism; The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History)

I've noticed that customers often confuse cherry blossoms with  'ume' plum designs so I thought I'd post some plum blossoms for comparison. The convention is for the cherry blossom to have longer single notched petals while the plum blossoms (below) are always rounder without notches.