My husband has a penchant for well-worn, weathered, even rusty objects. If they are sharp and pointy, so much the better. He’s progressed from amassing millstones (used as garden stepping stones) to window sash-weights (used to train tree branches), to fishing spears (just the spear heads circling the top of our kitchen walls), to flax hetchels (too dangerous to keep out on display).
At the same time he has a passion for worn and weathered fabrics — a far cry from sharp and pointy. It’s a fascination that began when we saw an exhibit of the striking bedcovers created by the women of Gee’s Bend. From there, my guy quickly progressed to utilitarian indigo-dyed Japanese fabrics including clothing and noren (door curtains used in both homes and shop entrances).
But he reserves his deepest attention and appreciation for “boro” — the patched and mended folk textiles of Japan. To me, they are oddly reminiscent of the multi-patched denim clothes I made for myself during my younger days. But when it comes to boro the older the fabric and the more patched the piece is, the greater the charm and monetary value (below).
Initially boro textiles were considered a mark of poverty and thus viewed as something shameful in Japan. But, as with the Gee’s Bend quilts, contemporary eyes see art in the collage-like patchwork designs. Think of Rauchenberg’s painted quilt (“Bed,” 1955) in the collection of MOMA as a seminal crossover between art and textiles.
But boro textiles don’t have to be indigo dyed or even made of cotton as you can see by this piece that my husband recently discovered (below). It’s an “asa” textile, the term used for cloth woven from plants like hemp and ramie. It’s formally described as “A Length of Overdyed Indigo Hemp Mosquito Netting: Asakaya with One Patch” and dates from the early to mid twentieth century. It’s 72" long x 12½ wide. The source is the wonderful Sri Threads, founded by Stephen Szczepanek.
Stephen described the netting as “laxly woven, very coarse hemp fibers, dyed in indigo and overdyed either in turmeric or kihada, a yellow dye obtained from tree bark” and suggests it was probably part of a larger net tent. He also noted “it was thought that the color green would repel lightning, so apparently during storms, people would congregate under the asakaya, or the hemp mosquito net tents, which were ubiquitous in old Japan.”
The lone cotton patch is the telling detail and what makes it a boro textile but also what touches the heart. An ethereal fabric with an earthy story.
When he saw how we had the netting displayed, draped over a gold-leaf screen, Stephen noted that it was “incongruous from a cultural context” but worked in the overall scheme. It’s that very incongruity — and the quirky juxtapositions — that appeal to us in interior design. Boro patchwork meets Leonard Baskin bird print meets gold leaf meets worn Windsor chair. And a millstone displayed like sculpture to bring a bit of the garden indoors.