Friday, October 19, 2012

Extreme Mending (Uber Boro)

Extreme mending

The traditional Japanese approach to mending called "boro" (which literally translates to "rags" or "scraps of cloth") means mending for life, with garments repaired throughout the owner's lifetime and beyond. Peasant clothing fashioned from hemp and cotton, often in shades of indigo, was repeatedly patched and extensively repaired for generations. Multiple layers of fabric were sewn together with "sashiko" stitching - a simple stitch that runs in parallel lines and may also be cross-hatched.

Sashiko stitching on my travel vest

While I am an avid mender and have invented mending techniques of my own (see Mend Writing), I always assumed that at a certain point you simply have to give up, until I encountered the art of boro and started applying it to my travel vests. While boro is usually shades of indigo, my travel vests are usually shades of green and are made of linen. Hard wear around the world eventually results in rotting fabric which I gamely try to patch - and patch and patch and patch.

Old vest with multiple patches and extreme rot

Close-up: multiple patches on pocket, which continues to distintegrate

The vest above lasted for a decade or two. Patching techniques included the clever strategy of snipping material from the inside pocket (which was then replaced with another fabric) and using the snipped material for patches.

Inside of vest, showing where inside pocket panels were removed and replaced with other fabric. Fabric from the inside panels was then used as patching material

 I grew so attached to this vest that even after I thought it was no longer salvageable I couldn't bear to throw it out.

My current travel vest, also green linen, has also begun to rot at an alarming rate. This vest was created by converting a thrift store linen jacket, which involved cutting off the sleeves and the collar. Material from the sleeves was then used to create a V-shaped panel in the back, and to create an inside security pocket (absolutely essential in a travel vest). Leftover material from sleeves and collar became patching material as the vest began to go the way of all travel vests.

Travel vest from a converted linen jacket

Back of jacket with added V-shape panel and textile art

This vest includes a panel of textile art on the back by artist Paul Nosa, which was a gift from a friend. Unfortunately, my clever strategy of salvaging yet more patching material by cutting away fabric from underneath the textile art backfired when the fabric edges began to fray as seen above.

The use of boro has changed everything, including my tendency to want to hide the patching by using identical material. Boro has taught me that the patching itself is beautiful, particularly when highlighted by sashiko stitching, and different shades of fabric can enhance the end effect. My poor old wreck of a vest that I couldn't bear to throw away has now been cannibalized into patches for my current vest. 

Boro in progress


I am learning that boro is like gardening; it requires ongoing maintenance. I hold the vest up to the light and can see where the fabric is so thin that it is about to give way and I add another patch. There is joy in knowing I will never, ever have to give up this travel vest. I will maintain it through my lifetime and it will then go to whichever grandniece seems the most adventurous. By then it should be absolutely gorgeous.

Back, with sashiko stitching in progress

For more about the history of boro cloth in Japan and to see some lovely examples, visit Kimono Boy.


  1. I was introduced to the concept of Boro by Jude Hill, in her blog Spirit Cloth. Since when I have searched out images to satisfy my urge to gaze upon these incredibly tactile textiles. I also incorporate 'boro' into my own mending where possible - I love your travel vests. I am wearig a lot of linen currently - looking forward to watching them begin to disintegrate in order to mend them!!

    Lovely to find your blog today, I shall spend some time reaching back into your archive!

  2. Beautiful and inspirational
    thanks for sharing

  3. What lovely information! You might try a muslin backing under the patched areas on the inside of the vest so they don't become more thin.

  4. By any chance do you remember the brand or where you got either vest? I have been looking for such a vest for ages and you seem to have found it!

  5. I bought this so long ago somewhere in Berekeley that I doubt this exists anymore. The brand is Threads. Good luck! At this point I just make vests, using or adapting patterns from travel-oriented pattern companies.

  6. I am a great-grandmother, usually a quilter and am so enamored with this boro mending! I'm taking notes everywhere of places to find more instruction. This mending reminds me of my mother and her mother before her and their frugality. I want to teach this to my family before i go the way of all the world.

  7. I’d love to see how you made that vest. I most recently am getting into needlework & it has opened up a world of sustainability and giving new life to old clothes. Your vest is so so beautiful. I could look at these photos all day

  8. Thanks so much Jordan and yes - upcycling old clothing is a fun problem-solving challenge and needlework is something that will bring you joy your entire life. Have fun, stitch away!


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