On the Appeal of Visible Mending

Boro textile from Japan with sashiko
Image credit: Karl Zetterström / CC BY 4.0

There are a good number of contradictions that characterise my relationship to clothing. I have a habit, for instance, of acquiring far too much of it all while agonising constantly about paring things down. I’m drawn in by concepts like ‘basics’, ‘essentials’ and ‘timeless classics’ all while harbouring a conflicting weakness for gaudy statement pieces and the excesses of high fashion. I love banging on about bargains and affordable clothing all while quite happily spending hundreds and conceivably thousands of pounds on high-end goods like suits, overcoats, and watches. So while you would discover upon opening the doors of my closet what looks to be a fairly organised collection of garments, the impulses and thought processes that led to its assembly are a complete, jumbled mess. 

Just about the only certain truth about my taste in clothing is that I have always loved old things. In fact, the one abiding principle I can apply to just about everything I own is that there’s a direct correlation between the age of a given garment and the attachment I feel to it. This is naturally the case with a family heirloom or any article that has been passed down to me, but it has proven equally true of the older garments I’ve bought over the years. Various pieces of military clothing, for example, my vintage sweaters, second-hand work jackets, or some pairs of old-man corduroys. Ditto the bits of vintage jewellery I’ve accumulated, or, most recently, a well-loved Fay 4 Ganci coat I picked up second-hand.

What’s more is that generally the more obviously worn and beat-up a garment is, the greater the appeal (Hence all those photos of Doug Bihlmaier on my phone). I am, of course, by no means unique in this regard. Menswear’s love affair with raw denim, crumpled Barbours, fraying Oxford shirts, and taped-wrapped shoes is writ large wherever you look — as well it should be.

It will likely come as no surprise, therefore, that I’ve long been fascinated by old Japanese fabrics and designs, the best-known of which are boro or sashiko textiles. These are characterised by conspicuous running stitches used to join together recycled bits of fabric to repair, reinforce, and generally prolong the life of a garment. It’s also a means of including various decorative elements, although it was originally born of thrift and necessity. 

Japanese sashiko jacket with decorative boro stiching
Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0 1.0

During Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868) when clothes were made from homespun fabrics that were hard to come by and labour-intensive to produce, women in rural communities had to repair and recycle domestic textiles for as long as possible. This meant that poor families would often patch and mend clothing, bags, and bedding sometimes over the course of generations, thus giving rise to the colourful, richly textured palimpsest-like patchworks still known today. While these textiles may once have been a source of embarrassment for their association with poverty (the word ‘boro’ originally implied something ragged or tattered in Japanese), they are now seen as a tangible part of Japan’s history and are highly prized by collectors the world over. 

As Japan began to industrialise, the art of sashiko receded in popularity. It was only revived in fashion circles in more recent decades, beginning in the early 1970s thanks to Japanese designers like Issey Miyake and with other brands from the region like Kapital and Koromo following suit. Today the boro aesthetic has become an obsession for a broad church of enthusiasts, including wabi-sabi adherents, crafters, sewers, and clothing aficionados alike. 

While I’ve tried my hand at boro-inspired visible mending over the years, I hope to get my hands on the real things someday, perhaps on a visit to Japan or from dealers like Brooklyn’s famed Sri Threads gallery. I appreciate that there is some irony in fetishising an erstwhile symbol of hardship, though at the same time there seems to me no denying the beauty and sense of care evoked by these ancient fabrics. Plus, as a philosophy, the idea of wearing and repairing a garment not simply throughout one’s own lifetime but for generations to come feels revolutionary in our own time despite the idea being borrowed from centuries prior. In this sense, as Meghan Racklin noted at Vox, in a contemporary setting sashiko can feel just like ‘the antidote to fast fashion’. To celebrate old age and hard work while not seeking to hide imperfection or a need for repair feels both like a welcome approach to clothing and a resonant lesson on how we might conduct ourselves in the world.

Boro sashiko stitched denim with visible repair
Image is my own / All rights reserved