Kiriko Made — Japanese Boro Scarves

Fashion

Words and Photographs by Ryan Fish

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Update: Kiriko x Meredith Adelaide

One hot August day in Kiriko Made’s studio, tucked away in a brick basement where passing MAX trains rumble overhead and the muffled thumps of a neighboring music venue linger, a large wooden table was being cleared off. Jordan and Yui, two design interns from Portland State University, were creating a new batch of Boro scarves. On the table they laid a long wooden measuring stick to dictate length and began searching through bins for a base fabric. They found a dark, solid blue-green fabric and, cutting it up into large pieces and placing them on the table along the measuring stick, created a foundation for the scarf. Small empty spaces were left in between the large pieces of solid fabric, and to fill those gaps Jordan found several kasuri—fabrics woven from dyed threads that make a pattern, similar to ikat—and Yui produced several scraps in shades of lighter blue. They cut and tore these filler fabrics, all of which began as one or two foot-wide squares, into even smaller patches and filled in the empty space. By the time several identical scarves were laid out, they had used the last of one of the filler fabrics and so that particular design’s run was limited, as most of Kiriko Made’s boro scarves are, to less than five scarves.

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During the process Dawn Yanagihara edited their choices. At one point, she placed her hand on a couple of striped fabrics and rotated them, changing the visual flow of the scarf, but then she pointed to the base fabric and vetoed it completely, saying “that fabric is too green! It’s almost aqua and it doesn’t look right next to the others”, and the three of them dismantled the design and began searching again, this time for a blue fabric that might work. Dawn, who wore an ocean blue shirt tucked into white slacks and brown oxfords. She was raised in Hawaii until moving to Los Angeles to work in advertising until 2012 when, after attending Portland State University and receiving a degree in design, she met Katsu Tanaka who was seeking a partner for a new accessory brand. After 10 minutes of meeting they realized a shared affinity for a similar aesthetic and style, and Kiriko Made was born.

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Boro is a term originating in rural Japan and refers to scraps of fabric, rags, or patches that are too good to waste. Boro textiles are commonly blankets or garments made from or incorporating the saved scraps. Farm workers in the late 19th and early 20th century, facing harsh outdoor working conditions, used Boro scraps to patch holes in the knees of their pants or thicken their coats for approaching winter months. Not having access to large amounts of cotton fabric (hemp fabric was more common but not as durable or warm), most repairs were made using scraps from local cotton mills or discarded rags from wealthier neighbors, resulting in an organic progression of design: kasuri, indigo stripes, tattered rags, and different shades of blue were sewn together side-by-side. Today, Noragi—these farm coats, vests, aprons and pants—are prized by collectors for their spontaneous collage of fabrics. The romantic images of Edo Period Japan invoked is also striking: of a farmer’s wife repairing by moonlight a coat passed down from one generation to the next, accumulating a hundred years of patches into a sort of family timeline.

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“Part of the beauty of Boro lies in the fact that it stems from resourcefulness, that it’s a utilitarian fabric and it fulfills basic needs”, Dawn said, removing from the wall a tattered, century-old boro blanket, “but it was still designed by someone and the placement of fabric was still deliberate and purposeful. That combination of meaningful design and necessity evokes a sense of awe, and that’s what we strive for when we design our contemporary Boro scarves.” She unfolded the blanket and my eyes followed a wide area of faded gray kasuri until coming upon a light blue striped fabric where a rich, deep blue indigo patch interjected. White-threaded sashiko—a running stitch commonly used to combine layers in order to repair or reinforce a garment—circulated in curves and straightaways like lines separating lanes on a road. The blanket’s texture was rough, created by tattered fabric sewn on top of tattered fabric. Through a hole in one layer I saw another pattern showing through: a beige with red and blue stripes running perpendicular to the stripes of the fabric above. And finally that big indigo patch, its perimeter was dark in color but its core was lightly faded.

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Blue cotton is one of the most signature characteristics of boro garments. Cotton fibers were notoriously difficult to dye except with the use of indigo—a crystalline compound today made synthetically, but once derived organically from the indigo plant. Before the 20th century, Japan had as much as 40,000 acres of indigo under cultivation. After the plants were harvested in late summer, the green indigo leaves were dried (at which point they turned blue) and fermented or composted, making their blue pigment water soluble. Dyers dipped cotton yarn in vats of indigo many times a day for many weeks until the dye adhered to the cotton fibers. The laborious process of an indigo fabric made it a luxury: dark blue cotton fabrics with almost-black stitching was more opulent than lighter fabrics and white threads.

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A wrist watch band of bourbon brown leather, fabric bracelets in red, yellow, and blue, and a silver phoenix ring with a heart of turquoise, Katsu’s style protracts all the way to his fingertips. His Hawaiian shirt with wooden buttons and exploding red and purple flowers reveals his style as laissez-faire in temperament while still wrought with gentlemanlike details, which suit him well as the retail shop he’s owned in Old Town for the last few years has made him a neighborhood notable: we didn’t walk one block from the studio when a group of stylish 21-year-olds outside one of Portland’s bar arcades waved with familiarity, “Hey Katsu!”. During Kiriko Made’s genesis phase, he and Dawn sifted through vintage Japanese advertisements, photographs, and magazines to develop their aesthetic. “We spent a lot of time thinking about what gives those old things their sense of timelessness, and then we tried to imbue that into the Kiriko Made brand,” Dawn told me as we ventured down the block in search for dinner, returning to the studio with pizza and PBRs, and while we ate I flipped through a stack of Free & Easy and Monocle magazines. “We also read a lot of those style publications,” Dawn continued, “but trends have a way of homogenizing and becoming similar, so more often than not those publications just help us to see what’s out there so we can do something different, or we riff on those styles and make our own reinterpretation of it, ending up with design details in a similar vein to what’s popular but something that’s truer to our brand, and more current and fresh.”

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Saying goodbye to the Kiriko Made crew, I passed a stock room full of product. A shelf of metal bins was full of scarves and fabrics, but I also saw bow ties, Boro straight ties, and indigo cotton backpacks with contrasting white stitching. “We’re growing our product line,” said Dawn as we ascended the stairs to the exit, “Boro wasn’t always a luxurious, fancy fabric like it is now, it was once the fabric of the average person, and so we’re producing accessories and garments that people actually need and can use on a daily basis. We’ll still use antique Japanese, vintage Kimono, and kasuri fabrics, but we’re creating line of apparel goods that will include more essentials like button up shirts and, well, more products that you’ll see soon enough.”

Visit the Kiriko Made Shop to see the Autumn lineup

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