On the occasion of Scraps, Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse, textile expert Stephen Szczepanek, owner of the textile gallery Sri, has kindly agreed to share his knowledge about the remarkable recycling practices that were deeply embedded in Japanese folk culture.
MB: How did you start to collect Japanese textiles, and what specifically drew your attention to traditional reclaimed garments?
SS: Since I can remember I was interested in Japanese culture, and by that I probably mean Japanese aesthetics, in whatever form accessible to me when I was young. I was long fascinated by graphic images on kimono and they served as inspiration when I was a student at art school studying painting. The interest I have in traditional recycled cloth and garments is deep and goes back around 20 years. First, it’s the bold artistic impact upon first seeing a very good piece, as some Japanese folk textiles call to mind modern or contemporary art. But my interest goes well into the “micro” level as the fibers, dyeing techniques and age of a piece are all very important elements to consider. These every day textiles speak of history, and if you develop knowledge of them, they are incredibly evocative and informative of daily life in pre-industrial Japan: they contain a kind of “spirit,” as hokey as that sounds, but I think many people pick up on this and will agree.
MB: Could you tell us what attracts you in these specific objects?
SS: Yes, I became completely immersed in this world because each piece provides endless visual surprises. As the garments, futon covers and other quotidian pieces that comprise the world of Japanese folk textiles were all made for daily use, and as their patching and mending were for the most part purely functional and not decorative, the fact that randomness and arbitrary choices dictate the final aesthetic is a profound—and wholly modern—idea. It’s a fascinating study of contrasts.
MB: Besides boro, what are the other Japanese techniques using textile waste ?
SS: Boro is a general and recent term applied to this kind of patched and mended textile and it means “broken” or “tattered,” something like that. A running stitch to connect small pieces of cloth and to turn them into a larger area is one way rags and waste were used. Shredding old cotton and turning the scraps into yarn is called sakiori and the result of weaving this rag yarn is heavy and durable clothing and textiles.
Nothing was wasted in the 19th c. Japan, not even the dust and dirt thrown off from the production of hand-plied hemp yarn. Poor people would make very good quality hand-plied hemp (and other bast) yarn which they would usually sell. They took the waste from this plying process and spun it into a rough yarn that they would weave garments from: the garments are referred to as okusozakkuri and nowadays they are some of the most prized textiles from this time.
Bast pulp-based paper, which is kind of like a non-woven textile was also transformed into cloth. Pages from old books with paper made from mulberry bast were shredded into fine strands which were twisted and used as weft yarns for work wear: shifu as this woven paper cloth was called, was lightweight and as durable as hemp, ramie or cotton.
Mending and recycling of old clothing was commonplace in Japan and we can see many examples of futon covers or hearth covers (kotatsugake) which were stitched from undone cotton kimono: very often you’ll see the entire kimono refashioned into a flat, usable textile such as a furoshiki (wrapping cloth) and the like.
MB: What is the main reason for the prevalence of recycled textiles and garments in 19th-century japan?
SS: The reason is that almost all the cloth was hand made, often in the home. To repurpose this cloth was not just the most reasonable action given the labor and skill needed to produce one’s own yarns and to weave one’s own cloth, but also because the vast majority of the population at the time was peasants, so there was no excess of anything and all material needed to be conserved and re-used.
MB: Are there still craftsmen that continue to produce rag clothes in Japan according to tradition?
SS: In modern Japan, as in most of the developed world, mending is rarely practiced in the home from what I understand. However there are some Japanese clothing brands that are producing lines very close in spirit to, or inspired by, Japanese folk textiles and boro. We see playful and inventive pieces from Kapital, Visvim, Junya Watanabe and others who have based their collections very decidedly on boro cloth and traditional Japanese folk clothing. And in the case of Visvim, the company also actively includes the work of traditional artisans in their clothing, which promotes the craftsmanship and keeps the tradition alive.
Sri is a Brooklyn-based gallery specializing in Japanese folk textiles, highlighting indigo-dyed cotton fabrics and boro —patched and mended—textiles of old Japan.
About the Author
Magali An Berthon is a textile researcher and designer, focusing in particular on world textile crafts and sustainable fashion. After an MFA in textile design in Paris, she studied textile history at the Fashion Institute of Technology NY on a Fulbright fellowship in 2014. Since June 2015, she is a curatorial fellow at the Textile Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.