I like boro textiles because they are burdened with more than the “waste not, want not”, Great Depression-style resourcefulness I grew up with. The Japanese (from my limited understanding) have a more nuanced relationship with waste, repair, and beauty. That Wikipedia link above includes tangential concepts that are beautifully exemplified by boro textiles. For instance: kintsugi or the practice of repairing broken pottery with gold which has come to symbolize that history is what makes a piece beautiful. Or the exclamation “mottainai” which means “what a waste!” and comes from a Shinto belief that objects have souls. (Remember how Marie Kondo thanks her shoes for doing a good day’s work and some how–even though she knows it’s silly–it makes her feel better about herself and her possessions?) Westerners–especially this new generation of self-sufficient, economically/ecologically conscious ones– we may hate waste, but do we lament waste as a minor death?
Take a look at these boro textiles again and their sashiko stitching which both strengthens the delicate hemp cloth and beautifies it (we might call it wabi-sabi, perhaps). Did you know that sometimes, the Japanese would recycle thread from old clothes to do this? Imagine painstakingly pulling out each stitch so you could reuse the thread instead of simply cutting the seam apart.
So, as an artist, I got all fired up about the sustainability of hand stitching when my heater broke. True, it was an old heater, but if it was old, it should be simpler to fix, no? Just a matter of finding an expert. But I couldn’t fix it. No one made the parts for it, and I couldn’t get to the broken bit anyway. I was left with a blanket around my shoulders helpless to save the world from our booming landfills.
Then, I went on the internet and happened to discover planned obsolescence, or the strategy of shortening a products usable life by design. Sometimes this means aesthetically (clothes and cars do this since their materials often are more durable than fashion houses and auto brands would prefer. Although, don’t get me started on fast fashion: so shoddy that even Africa is starting to reject our secondhand clothes.) Sometimes planned obsolescence means simply designing things that can’t be repaired. Like clothes dryer drums molded to the machine so you can’t replace the part that breaks; watches and phones that are one piece so you can’t get inside to replace a battery without destroying them; or printer ink cartridges that lie about how much ink is left.
As an Emergency Manager and socially-conscious person, I’m trained to promote self-sufficiency and sustainability. We commonly think that it’s a matter of laziness; that if we can get people to care enough, they would make an emergency kit, build up a pantry, and stop living so wastefully. But I do care. I love boro cloth and I still can’t stop living wastefully.
Kate Fletcher wrote a paper about emotional durability. In it, she critiques our focus on durability as a product of good design, material, and construction processes and suggests that psychological factors also make a thing durable.
The logic goes like this:
- Some scientists have claimed that you can get people to hang on to goods longer if you cause them to form an emotional attachment to the object.
- That’s true, but usually people who form attachments to objects collect them and store them instead of using them.
- Fletcher did some ethnography and claims: “… while mending and altering were common, the physical durability of the garment per se appears less critical to the piece’s durability than a user’s habit of mind fostering long-term use” (p.231)
In other words, durability has more to do with how you treat an object than how long its materials last. Here’s an example Fletcher gives in page 232. I do recommend clicking through so you can see the picture:
A Life of Action “I call this my three stage jacket. It began about forty years ago as a very slim waistcoat that was given to me. I knitted a panel and put it into the back just to be able to fasten it together at the front, you see. And then about fifteen years ago I added sleeves and a collar and some trimmings. And then, only about five years ago, I became a bit too big to button it up so I added latchets across to the front so that I can fasten it.” (Figure 1)
She goes on to recommend (with others) that the fashion industry–and I would add, society at large–change from “ownership” to “usership”. Fletcher urges the fashion industry to design garments that require collaboration with the wearer; that can be used for more than one occasion or fashion period; that can be altered and passed down. I think that that applies to all objects. Before you bring an object in to your house, think about whether or not you would enjoy using it as opposed to whether or not you would enjoy having it. Changing your identity from an owner to a user opens up many possibilities for adaptation in the future.
Of course, it’s also your responsibility to develop (or find someone who has developed) the technical skills to make those adaptions such as knitting, gluing, composting, and hammering. It also means you are responsible for properly cleaning, maintaining, and storing your objects. This summer I was the recipient of a 50 year old cast iron pressure canner in near-mint condition because the original owner was meticulous about cleaning it. I mean: marine-level clean. It’s perfect. And now it’s my turn to keep it that way.
But it’s all worth it. Just ask any crafter how much fun it is to reuse a thing you thought was dead.