What these lovely Japanese textiles reveal about the future of sustainable fashion

Several brands these days, from Patagonia to Reformation, upcycle their clothes to make trendy new designs. It’s a crucial development as fashion reckons with its astronomical environmental footprint. It’s also a practice that has a long, rich history, as a new exhibit at Manhattan’s  Japan Society makes clear.

Boro Textiles: Sustainable Aesthetics features more than 50 boro, traditional Japanese textiles that used tattered fabric scraps and hemp to create new life out of waste. This patchwork-style of clothing was created by mending together layers of old fabric scraps. Many of the garments lasted generations in peasant farming families.

[Photo: © Richard P. Goodbody/courtesy of Japan Society Gallery]

The pieces in Boro Textiles feature stunning handiwork, much of which sprung from economic scarcity. Hemp, more commonly found in 19th and 20th century Japan than cotton, was primarily used for warmth; the material was woven with various pieces of tattered cloth and dyed with indigo and other natural sources of color to create padded kimonos, work coats, blankets, and leggings.

[Photo: Kyoichi Tsuzuki/courtesy of Amuse Museum/Chuzaburo Tanaka Collection]

The show also includes contemporary designers who follow in boro’s tradition. Christina Kim, a South Korean designer, whose eco-conscious design house Dosa has prioritized natural materials since its inception in 1983, reimagined a vintage mosquito net using boro techniques. “A mosquito net represents something from my childhood . . . resources were really scarce, so I already had an understanding of natural resources,” Kim says. Mosquito nets are commonly used in Japan and Korea during the summer months, hung on home verandas to keep bugs out but allow breezes through. Kim’s hemp mosquito net, which dominates the dimly lit exhibition space, was mended with a textile she developed after realizing hemp was too brittle to withstand the intense repair process. Patches of translucent Korean silk, known as ramie, and handwoven, hand-dyed indigo hemp from India create a pattern of constellations and geometric appliques across the sheer, sand-colored tapestry. “Many times, it’s the time that allows us to create things that might be different,” Kim says. “If I spent 2,000 hours to get [the mosquito net] done, you can just imagine the amount of time it took these people to make those garments.”

[Photo: Courtesy Christina Kim/© Yoshihiro Makino]
[Photo: Courtesy Christina Kim/© Yoshihiro Makino]

Obviously, it’s not realistic for today’s fashion designers to spend 2,000 hours (or more) on a garment. But the larger takeaway—that limited resources can be a creative opportunity—has never been more relevant.

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