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  • Writer's pictureEmily

The Aesthetics of Boro, or rags, are the new thing, baby!

Whereas Marie Kondo desires to only keep those things that “spark joy” in the present, my mom is a master preserver and repurposer of things. She reuses Saran Wrap! She mends T-shirts. She actually made a pair of hard contacts last 20 years (under doctor's supervision--he was very impressed with her.) She was born in the early days of the Allied occupation of Japan and was raised by a single mom and her eccentric literary unmarried sister. They relied on welfare (yes, it exists in Japan!) They went to the sento (public bath) because their tiny apartment didn't have its own bath. They finally purchased a TV, like many of their fellow city people, to watch the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (by the way if you haven't seen Ichikawa Kon's Olympiad, you are MISSING OUT. GO do it now. I'll wait.)

This is Yoko, eating her favorite soft serve. She would be enraged that I've posted this but she won't know! Kondo is no match for her. She wears a visor, sunglasses, and a mask. That's terrorism-level accoutrement! Also she's adorable. I'd like to remind you all this lady was born in 1946. Asian don't crack!

Growing up in these trying circumstances, excess was never a concern. Instead, making use of the scarcity you happened to have, to multi-task, to survive one more year, to be spruced up so the shabbiness wouldn’t be betrayed—these were the concerns. The national motto at the time was about doubling people's incomes in only ten years.

Ah, the good old Japanese post-war! I feel a history lecture coming but I will save it for later.

And that may have been true for those at the top. But as a dweller below the middle, my mom’s concerns were more mundane. How do I get a dress for my coming of age ceremony that won’t be embarrassing? And as the stakes got higher: how do I get a wedding dress when I have little? (She rented. She's far too practical to buy something that will only be worn once!) What are the small things that remind me of these important moments? And how can they be repurposed and reused? This requires creativity and flexibility. And also a deep respect for the things around you as objects of potential that deserve to be treated well and should live long, useful lives.

Recently, I've been experimenting with ways that “boro," or more precisely, "boro kiji" (scraps) can in fact be repurposed into things of beauty, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mama, it’s that EVERYTHING has the potential to be useful at some point in the future. (I mean, I did have to set some boundaries with her and insist she could only keep as many margarine and peanut butter containers around as she would use simultaneously—to much grumbling—but I accept little victories when I can get them.)

So as I’ve been working on a range of more conventional projects with Japanese fabric exteriors and Scandinavian interiors, I've also been setting aside the bits and pieces that inevitably have to be trimmed away.

Some of my scraps.

These were all pieces too small to be incorporated into anything already designed, but too big to toss (at least in this Japanese/Swedish head). A few weeks ago, on the eve of my most recent trip to Japan, I realized I didn’t have my own pencil case even though this is a product I sell. I should use one of my own, right, to publicize my products? The only problem is that I am a snob, and the material I acquire is not cheap. It felt wrong making something using pristine material that could have been sold to someone else who could enjoy it as well. But then it struck me: I could make something using those scraps I’d been so diligently saving for months but with no specific intent. So 10 hours before I had to leave for my flight, I whipped up a pencil case just for myself.

And I loved it. I loved the softness of it, the playfulness, the combination of tiny scraps along with more thoughtfully organized pieces.

And then for another trip, I suddenly decided I wanted a little pouch to organize some things in. I went to my rag bag and pulled out a few things and ended up with this lovely zipper pouch.

With these two projects behind me, it occurred to me that a whole line reflecting the ethos embedded in these works was worth pursuing. I love how these look. But the most important aspects of these is more philosophical (and before you yell at me, I am an honest to goodness proud philosophy major (CMC ‘’99) and make no apologies!) There is an impulsivity possible with these pieces because they do not match in size or shape. They were originally cut to fit other projects—these are the foster children of my fabric, ignored and overlooked. But when combined with other unlikely pieces, the results, I think, are truly remarkable.

I love that there is no symmetry (while symmetry dominates my other work), proportion is just natural and accidental, with no use of rulers and ratios. These are all one of a kind, born of accidents from the production of other things. And they are about repurposing.

One of the more interesting lines of criticism of the "I am a Japanese sprite sparking minimalist joy" mentality of Marie Kondo is that her method leads to waste. So much waste! Downsizing is great and all, but what if we just didn't accumulate so much in the first place? What if we tried to use things until they could no longer be used, and bought with the intent of long-term use?

As long as I produce stuff to sell, I am part of the problem. I can’t deny that, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. But I like being able to use even these tiny scraps of fabric. It takes far more time to complete something with these scraps than with well-cut and organized pieces of fabric. Shapes are necessarily irregular, so I have to allow for some idiosyncrasy and unpredictability in the size and shape of what I end up creating. Ultimately, I want them to be objects that will be used by customers, so they are made to match certain standard sizes. But otherwise, there is quite a bit of flexibility.

All I know is that I want to be a good steward of all of these incredible and gorgeous fabrics I’ve been collecting, and make sure each one is incorporated in as many things and is as useful as can be.

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