with Us
Thank you!

Sign up to our newsletter and be the first
to hear about our products, events,
stories and exclusive online features.

Something Boro, Something Blue
Collecting Japanese Folk Textiles

A centuries-old patchwork technique from Aomori is finding new international audiences thanks to the dedication of a life-long collector, Chuzaburo Tanaka.


The remote and rugged Shimokita Peninsula at the Northeastern tip of Honshu can be a hostile environment. The winters are bitterly cold. With heavy snowfall and a general scarcity of natural resources, keeping warm with what’s at hand has historically been the key to survival – especially when it comes to clothing.

Owing to the cold climate, regular famine, and oppressive clan governance, cotton remained a luxury in Aomori until well into the Meiji period. This required the industrious women of Shimokita to rely on hemp fabrics for use in utilitarian clothing and household articles. The tremendous effort required to hand-spin, loom, weave and dye even small amounts of hemp fabric meant that all textiles were extremely precious and vital. So cherished was fabric, and so tied to livelihood that a local saying held, “To slash cloth is to slash your own flesh.”

To that end, even a small scrap of used fabric carried immense value. Not only as a recyclable raw material, but also for the cloth’s ability to hold memories of its use, including representing the labour and handiwork of its maker.

The technique of “Boro” was developed in Aomori as a method for extending the life of a textile or garment. Small pieces of the indigo fabric were stitched together to repair worn areas, and to create a layering effect for protection against the cold. Like a patchwork ‘landscape,’ each robe, jacket and blanket expresses the spirit of Mottainai (concern for wastefulness) and the aggregated memories of multiple generations of wearers and repairers.

With increased accessibility to cotton after the war, these heirlooms began to disappear from daily life. An enterprising ethnologist (and archaeologist) from the region, Chuzaburo Tanaka, began to collect pieces after realising their value as a distinctive textile art, fearing the loss of the stories and traditions they contain. Over the course of his life (1933 – 2013) he amassed a private collection of nearly 30,000 folk artefacts including many pieces of Boro, nearly 800 articles are designated as Important Cultural Properties.

Photography: AMUSE MUSEUM

While many of these pieces remain in the care of Tanaka’s estate – having never sold parts of the collection – a number of pieces were entrusted to the Amuse museum in Tokyo. Established by another Aomori native Yokichi Osato, the since closed museum now consists of a travelling international exhibition that aims to spotlight the traditional craft and to prompt a broader discussion regarding the value and sustainability of textiles.

Recently, Boro has found the attention of a number of high-profile fashion designers (such as Louis Vuitton, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto) who cite the textile art as inspiration. These collections certainly owe a debt to Boro for their resemblance to the aesthetic – such as the sashiko stitching and use of indigo dyed patches. But while current Amuse director Kiyoshi Tatsumi is enthused by this attention, praising the designers’ “deep understanding of [Boro’s] history and spirit,” the worlds of luxury clothing and utilitarian farm garments can feel at odds.

Although the collaged patchwork cloth of Boro can be appreciated in aesthetic terms, its greater value may be in demonstrating the creativity and human spirit that emerges in the face of adversity and the importance of textiles as cultural artefacts. The spirit of Mottainai, and its sustainable underpinnings, as well as the patina of a piece many generations old helps us to appreciate the value of textiles as vessels for emotion and knowledge. These precious threads hold together stories of human endurance, resourcefulness, and ultimately love.

Photography: AMUSE MUSEUM
text | Stuart Taylor