Creative Opportunities in Clothing Repair

Rather than concealing imperfections, learn about the traditional stylish stitchwork that adds flair to garment repairs.

Photo by Flickr/Saké Puppets

Textile arts are a great lens through which to view cultures around the world. When I started mending torn denim, I came across the Japanese form of mending known as boro, which translates to “rags” or “tatters,” but has recently become synonymous with the patched, stitched, and mended garments of Aomori prefecture in northern Japan. The history of boro is rich and complex: It evolved from the necessity to preserve the smallest scrap of fabric; add strength and warmth through patching; and use fibers such as hemp and cotton to withstand wide-ranging weather conditions, including very cold winters. The boro garments were mended with basic and utilitarian sashiko stitches. While modern sashiko has evolved into a more precise and highly skilled craft, traditional sashiko stitches prioritized utility over precision; the stitches were primarily meant to repair and patch garments while adding warmth, not solely to serve as decoration or embellishment.

Patchwork from the Past

Boro garments have recently experienced a global celebration, punctuated with exhibitions in Tokyo, London, Paris, and New York City, as well as the publication of Boro: Rags and Tatters from the Far North of Japan. When I first came across images of boro garments and white sashiko stitches on indigo cotton and denim, I was smitten. I adored the minimalist approach of a single color of thread on a single color of fabric, and the high impact of line, shape, scale, and size. The simple act of adding a few printed blue patches or varying blue and white thread creates endless possibilities. There’s a magnificent visceral beauty in original boro garments that tells a fascinating and complex story of the intersection of design, textiles, agriculture, economics, and the potential for striking aesthetics in artful invention.

Although similar in style to simple running stitches, sashiko is used for the resulting striking effect of white thread on indigo fabric, highlighting repairs while strengthening garments.
Photos by Flickr/Saké Puppets

I’m just as fascinated with boro garments and sashiko stitching as when I first started mending, but through this inspiration, I started looking to other cultures around the world to see how they mend garments. I came across the patched and stitched silk saris of kantha in India, the patchwork and reuse of fabrics for bedcovers in American quilting, and the various darning samplers and darning techniques used to mend knitted and woven fabrics throughout Europe — particularly antique, homespun, handwoven European linen and hemp. Not surprisingly, as I continued down the mending path across cultures and continents, I found that we’ve been repairing garments and household linens forever.

Sometime during the 1990s (arguably, even as recently as the early 2000s), people started embracing cheap, trendy, and disposable fashion, which, of course, meant mending was abandoned and landfills started filling at alarming rates. (For more about these statistics, see “Conscious Clothing Choices”) But prior to fast fashion, we simply mended our clothing because it made sense. Some expertly mended or darned historical garments are so perfectly matched and repaired that the stitching is nearly imperceptible, making it difficult for even textile historians to detect. While I don’t aim for this type of perfection or invisibility, I do have a very deep appreciation for this level of craftsmanship. It’s humbling and inspiring, not to mention truly gorgeous.

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