Make your own: Japanese 'Boro' bag

Try your hand at crafting your own Japanese style 'boro' bag, inspired by the tradition of recycling and reworking pre-existing textiles.

Photograph courtesy of Susan Briscoe and We Are Studio

Download our step-by-step guide, designed by textile artist Susan Briscoe

This project can be found, including a stitch guide, in the V&A book Patchwork and Quilting: A Maker's Guide (2017)

Photography courtesy of Susan Briscoe and We Are Studio, line illustration by Eleanor Crow.

Tattered or repaired

Derived from the Japanese boroboro, meaning something tattered or repaired, boro refers to the practice of reworking and repairing textiles (often clothes or bedding) through piecing, patching and stitching, in order to extend their use. It is associated with the indigo-dyed hemp clothing traditional in Japan before the introduction of cotton. Worn areas of cloth are patched over or older garments cut up and joined, with running stitches or areas of sashiko (running stitches sewn through layers of fabric), used for reinforcement and to quilt layers of cloth together. This historical spirit informs the contemporary trend for 'distressed' or repaired-looking clothes.

Thrift and creativity

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, boro garments might be handed down through many generations of impoverished rural families, their making an expression of mottainai – conveying a sense of regret concerning waste. This is an extreme example of patchwork's association with thrift, but, as in other textile traditions, the joining of pre-existing materials to create a new fabric has generated a highly distinctive cultural product. Today, boro textiles, often futon covers, are regarded as works of art and a cultural record of homespun cloths, dyes and techniques. The most heavily patched side of a boro panel, prized for its spontaneous and abstract qualities today, is often the back or inside of the piece, as more care was taken to arrange fabrics on the side that would be seen.

One example of a boro garment in our collection is a utilitarian robe which would have been worn by a peasant farmer or fisherman in late 19th century Japan. It is made entirely of recycled fabric, pieced together, patched and further repaired using re-cycled indigo-dyed cotton. The result is a simple kimono that looks curiously contemporary to modern eyes, accustomed as we are to seeing more luxurious versions of this type of garment – either woven, printed or embroidered and often reserved for special occasions. As well as having a distinctive visual appearance, the garment reveals traces of the history of its use – the shredded end of the left sleeve, for example, suggests its last wearer was left-handed. The 'triangular' shaped sleeves are an unusual feature – this shape was perhaps dictated by the shape of the material available.

Robe, unknown, 1850 – 1900, Japan. Museum no. FE.27-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Susan Briscoe is a designer and textile artist, whose interest in Japanese textiles began when she was teaching English in Japan. She now lives in Perthshire, Scotland, where she teaches patchwork and sashiko quilting, and writes and designs for patchwork magazines and books, including, The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook: Patterns, Projects and Inspirations (2005), Quilt Essentials: Japanese Style (2013) and Patchwork & Quilting, A Maker's Guide (2017), which features more practical projects inspired by the V&A's collections.