Learn the Art of Japanese Boro for Garment Quilting
Use this Japanese patching technique to sew eye-catching garments.
The Japanese art of mending, called boro, is experiencing a resurgence. Originally, the quilting technique was applied to extend the life of ragged and tattered clothes and household items by sewing patches in place with sashiko, a simple running stitch. Typically sewn in a pattern of parallel lines, the overall sashiko design was unique to each item. Years of patching and repairing resulted in a one-of-a-kind garment or item that told a story. Boro never became popular with the upper class, but vintage examples are now a collectible art form.
The word boro comes from the Japanese word boroboro, which means something tattered or worn out. Japanese women used the boro technique to repair clothing and other items so they could be used from generation to generation. In the early 1500s, used cotton textiles were taken from the western part of Japan and sold in the rural northern regions. Local peasants then recycled the worn textiles to make new, or repair existing, items including boro field clothing (noragi) or household items such as futon covers, pillows, or aprons.
Mending made chic
In today’s fashion, boro is being used as a style statement. It aligns with current trends, particularly the threadbare denim trend. Old boro, or mended, garments have now been featured in museum exhibitions and included in upscale fashion collections. Boro is an unpretentious technique, and I’d like to show you how you can use it to create a whole garment—or how to use the technique to patch one that’s in need of mending. I enjoy the process of creating projects in the boro tradition because it’s done by hand and it doesn’t have to be precise. It’s a creative way to use fabric scraps, and the finished pieces have a special hand that has structure, but is still supple and soft.
Select tools and materials
Boro calls for simple tools and materials. Look for fabric swatches and thread that complement each other while standing on their own.
Find interesting fabrics
Patch fabrics. Boro is about making the most of fabric remnants. As with any patchwork project, choose fabrics that work together aesthetically. Consider color, scale of the print or pattern, and texture. Plain-weave, light- to midweight fabrics that are not tightly woven work best.
Check colorfastness as well, especially if you’re using light and dark colors together and plan to wash the garment. I like to wash all the fabric pieces I’m using before starting the project. Since the raw-edge texture adds surface design to the piece, I want to “roughen” the pieces by machine-washing and machine-drying them. This process also can soften fabrics with a firmer hand, making them easier to hand-sew.
Inner and backing fabrics. As with any quilted garment, boro quilting requires three layers to achieve the depth and texture that results from multiple stitching rows: an outer layer of patches; an inner layer, where batting would go in a traditional quilt; and a backing layer. The inner layer doesn’t need to be traditional batting; a piece of thin, stable, plain-weave fabric will do. I prefer linen or a linenlike silk noil. Cotton muslin and flannel are good choices, too, as they provide depth without adding thickness or bulk.
Choose lightweight cotton, such as broadcloth or voile, for the backing. If you’re really ambitious, you can piece the backing. It will take time to control pieces on the garment’s right and wrong sides.
Choose thread creatively
Stitches, which are part of the surface design, should be visible, so I use a contrasting color and a thicker thread. Sashiko thread is the traditional choice. Embroidery floss, heavyweight cotton machine threads, silk, and linen thread work beautifully as well. I like to experiment with threads and test them with my chosen fabrics. For hand sewing, you’ll want thread that glides easily through the fabric layers.
Test needles for comfort
Sashiko needles, which are 2 inches to 2 1⁄2 inches long and stronger than betweens (sharp-pointed quilting needles), are traditional for sewing these running stitches. Test needles to find one that works for you. Use a needle threader to manage the thick thread, and wear a thimble to protect the finger that pushes the needle.
Hand-quilt the sections
After you have chosen fabrics and thread, layer them together and start the stitching, or boro, process.
1. Cut the backing layer and inner layer from your chosen fabrics.
2. Baste the backing and inner layers. Place each garment section’s backing pieces on a table, wrong side up, and cover them with the corresponding inner layer pieces. Hand-baste the layers together with long stitches; these will be easily removed when finished.
3. Select the patches. The patches can be of any shape or size. A rectangular-shaped scrap is the traditional style. Lay out the scraps on the inner layer side of each section. Secure them with pins when you’re satisfied with the design, but don’t use too many pins. You may change your mind as you work.
4. Sew the patches in place, working from the middle. Start stitching from the middle using a running stitch about 1⁄4 inch long, and work your way to the edges. You can use the shape of your patches as a guide for your stitching pattern. Stop the boro stitching lines 3⁄4 inch from the seamlines.
Conceal garment seams
Assemble the garment and extend the hand patchwork or add binding to cover the seams.
1. Sew the garment sections together. With wrong sides together, sew all the main construction seams, stitching through the inner and backing layers without catching the patches in the seams. Press the seam allowances open (A), trim them (B), then press them to one side (C). Extend the patches over the seamline and hand-sew them in place with the decorative running stitch to complete the boro (D).
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