Boro stitchery is the Japanese art of patching together rags with simple running (sashiko) stitches. This book presents a wealth of stunning photographs of hemp cloths from the Aomori Prefecture in the north of Japan. Including both garments and household textiles, the cloths were collected--starting in the mid-sixties--by Chuzaburo Tanaka, a self-trained ethnographer. Although the items are not dated, many of these cloths are several generations old, since this was a poor community and textiles were passed down until they fell apart. And even then, the tatters were re-used as patches, or cut into strips and used as wefts for rag-woven garments. Even the bare threads, if still viable, were pulled out and twisted together into rope-like headbands for field workers.
Because this region of Japan endures a very cold climate, it was impossible to grow cotton, and between the years 1600 and 1868 the use of silk was restricted to a few privileged families. After 1868 some cotton fabrics were brought up by train, but were scarce until well into the Twentieth Century. Therefore, the people made their cloth from hemp. The book describes the laborious process of growing hemp from seed, stripping the stalks, spinning it, weaving it, then combining two or more layers of cloth for warmth. The stitches held the layers together, as well as attached patches to worn out cloth.
Although many people in Japan associate boro textiles with the shame of poverty, there is a growing movement to recognize their innate beauty. For those who appreciate the aesthetics of ancient, hand-made, timeworn cloth, this collection of photographs will deliver many hours of happy contemplation. The detail shots show close-ups in which you can see the mesh of the rougher weaves, and it's fascinating to see how coarse and fine-woven, plain and printed, dyed (mostly indigo) and undyed cloths were combined into a unified whole.
The stitching held everything together, but also worked as a decorative element. This is not the neat, regular stitchery of old European samplers. It is often irregular and seemingly random, since the paths it took were structurally determined. And even when it is regular, it is not mechanically so. However, it always succeeds visually, giving each piece an organic, unplanned, integrated appearance. For anyone who loves old cloth, Japanese design, hemp cloth, or quilts, this book has much to offer. Several hours spent pouring over the pictures is like a mini-course in the aesthetics of art cloth.