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Made in old Japan

Boro Textiles – the DNA of our Civilization


On the surface, it is a decorative, beautifully colored and patched piece of cloth. Often when people inquire about the fabric on my wall and find my keenness for this unassuming piece of mundanity curious, I mention that to me this fabric contains the DNA of the history of human civilization itself.

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Today we associate textiles with the consumerist fast fashion, buy and chuck-it-out culture. Textiles, however, are literally an intimate part of humanity. Rags to cover our naked bodies were the first artifacts that humans acquired, distinguishing us from our ape siblings. Together with fire making, this craft changed us physically into the ‘naked ape’. It was probably not long before our sense of aesthetics developed. The marvelous 40,000-year-old cave painting in El Castillo in Spain was made with the same simple pigment/oil mixes that the dyes used on the oldest colored clothes we excavated were made of. There is evidence that several thousand years ago rich dyeing cultures existed in India and the Middle East.

These 'boro' fabrics are part of a human tradition that lasted several millennia. They were spun and dyed until around 1880 when globalization was about to reach a whole new level: Global trade routes were being established and militarily enforced, the Americans were starting to dominate the world cotton market with cheap products, while the British sought to control all dye production worldwide within their massive empire. Even though there were counter-forces, the world was essentially becoming a large connected civilization.

 'Boro' fabrics are old Japanese fabrics with patches. They are mostly dyed with indigo and are nowadays sought-after collector's items found in museums and used as tapestery

'Boro' fabrics are old Japanese fabrics with patches. They are mostly dyed with indigo and are nowadays sought-after collector's items found in museums and used as tapestery

Region after region was sucked into this whirlpool, and in 1853 it was Japan's turn. Two black ships under American flag entered the port of Edo (present day Tokyo) and declared the emperor’s isolation policy obsolete. There was no resistance, just panic.

Boro fabrics were among the last plant-dyed natural fabrics, made with utmost sophistication, just a few years before cheap chemical dyes (invented by Germany challenging British dominance) would completely replace plant dyes. Textiles today do not last long before they fall apart, whereas especially indigo-dyed fabrics made in Japan were built to last. And that is why they are still around as rare collector's items.

Textiles were precious and needed a functioning society of some size: The cotton had to be planted and harvested; spinning required technical tools and learned craftsmanship; the dye needed plantation, fermentation, and labor. While water and food are essentially provided by nature, textiles require civilization. Textiles symbolize human society, human care, and human touch. They are as essential to human society as they have been regarded as extremely precious.

Textiles have been given for millennia as presents. They were passed on from parent to child, they were patched and mended. Sometimes women would wrap newborn babies in heavily mended and old textiles to symbolize that their ancestors were present. The baby was born into a functioning society.

As a healthcare professional, I find this one of the most touching symbols. Care is a significant part of our universal human culture. And thus, these blue “rags” carry this beautiful symbolism of where we come from and where we hopefully go to as a world society. 

Anyway, I enjoy sharing this story while sitting with friends in my living room. Not only does it make for good conversation, but I feel that the beautiful indigo boro cloth on my wall is a true statement about myself and what I care about.