The Japanese Traditions of Sashiko & Boro: The Centuries-Old Craft That Mends Clothes in a Sustainable, Artistic Way

The state of our troubled planet dictates that disposables are out.

Reusables are in.

And anyone who’s taught themselves how to mend and maintain their stuff has earned the right to flaunt it!

A quick scroll through Instagram reveals loads of visible mending projects that highlight rather than disguise the area of repair, drawing the eye to contrasting threads reinforcing a threadbare knee, frayed cuff, ragged rip, or moth hole.




While some practitioners take a freeform approach, the most pleasing stitches tend to be in the sashiko tradition.

Sashiko—frequently translated as “little stabs”—was born in Edo period Japan (1603-1868), when rural women attempted to prolong the life of their families’ tattered garments and bedding, giving rise to a humble form of white-on-indigo patchwork known as boro.

While sashiko can at times be seen serving a purely decorative function, such as on a very well preserved Meiji period jacket in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, its primary use was always one born of necessity.

As Austin Bryant notes on Heddels, a news and education website dedicated to sustainable goods:

Over generations of families, these textiles would acquire more and more patches, almost to the point of the common observer being unable to recognize where the original fabric began. As they recovered after the end of World War II, to some the boro textiles reminded the Japanese of their impoverished rural past.

Keiko & Atsushi Futatsuya are a mother-and-son artisan team whose posts on sashiko and boro go beyond straightforward how-tos to delve into cultural history.

According to them, the goal of sashiko should not be aesthetically pleasing rows of uniform stitches, but rather “enjoying the dialogue” with the fabric.

As Atsushi explains in an Instagram post, viewers seeing their work with a Western perspective may respond differently than those who have grown up with the elements in play:

This is a photo of a “Boro-to-be Jacket” in the process. This is the back (hiding) side of the jacket and many non-Japanese would say this should be the front and should show to the public. The Japanese would understand why it is a backside naturally, but I would need to “explain” to the non-Japanese who do not share the same value (why we) purposefully make this side as “hiding” side. That’s why, I keep sharing in words. One picture may be worth a thousand words, but the thousand words may be completely different based on their (free) interpretation. In sharing the culture, some “actual words” would be also very important.

To try your hand at sashiko, you will need a long needle, such as a cotton darning needle, white embroidery thread, and—for boro—an aging textile in need of some attention.

Should you find yourself sliding into a full blown obsession, you may want to order sashiko needles and thread, and a palm thimble to help you push through several weights of fabric simultaneously.

You’ll find many patterns, tips, and tutorials on the Futatsuya family’s Sashi.co YouTube channel.

via Vox

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Cornel West’s Course on W.E.B. Du Bois, the Great 20th Century Public Intellectual

A giant of 20th century scholarship, W.E.B. Du Bois’ career spanned six decades, two World Wars, and several waves of civil rights and decolonial movements; he saw the twentieth century with more clarity than perhaps anyone of his generation through the lens of “double consciousness”;  he wrote presciently about geopolitics, political economy, institutional racism, imperialism, and the culture and history of both black and white Americans; we find in nearly all of his work piercing observations that seem to look directly at our present conditions, while analyzing the conditions of his time with radical rigor.

“An activist and a journalist, a historian and a sociologist, a novelist, a critic, and a philosopher,” notes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Du Bois “examined the race problem in its many aspects more profoundly, extensively, and subtly” than “anyone, at any time.” And there is no one more fluent in the vernaculars, literatures, and philosophies Du Bois mastered than Cornel West, who lays out for us what this means:

Du Bois, like Plato, like Shakespeare, like Toni Morrison, like Thomas Pynchon, like Virginia Woolf…. What do they do? They push you against a wall: heart, mind, soul. Structures and institutions, vicious forms of subordination, but also joyful and heroic forms of critique and resistance.

West begins his course on Du Bois—delivered in the summer of 2017 at Dartmouth—with this description (things get going in the first lecture at 3:15 after the course intro), which gestures toward the comparative, “call and response,” discussion to come. All nine lectures from “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois” (plus an additional public talk West delivered at the university) are available at Dartmouth’s Department of English and Creative Writing site, as well as this YouTube playlist.

The course follows the movement of Du Bois’ complex historical philosophy and pioneering use of scholarly autobiography—(what West calls the “cultivation” of a “critical self”)—through a number of themes, from “Du Bois and the Catastrophic 20th Century” to, in the final lecture, “Revolution, Race, and American Empire.” It begins with 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois first wrote of double consciousness and penned the famous line, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”

West puts close readings of that seminal work next to “subsequent essays in [Du Bois’] magisterial corpus, especially his classic autobiography Dusk of Dawn (1940),” the course description reads. The latter text is not only a Bildung, a “spiritual autobiography,” Du Bois called it, but also a critical analysis of science and empire, whiteness, propaganda, world war, revolution, and a conceptualization of race that sees the idea’s arbitrary illogic, in the “continuous change in the proofs and arguments advanced.” These ideas became formative for anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and Pan-African movements.

Du Bois first formed his “radical cosmopolitanism,” as Gunter Lenz writes in The Journal of Transnational American Studies, during his studies in Germany, where he arrived in 1892 and found himself, he wrote, “on the outside of the American world, looking in.” He returned to Germany over the decades and, in a 1936 visit, was one of the few public intellectuals who predicted a “world war on Jews” and “all non-Nordic races.” But Du Bois not only confronted the genocidal wars and helped lead the liberatory movements of the 20th century; he also, with uncanny perspicacity, both anticipated and shaped the struggles of the 21st. Access West’s full lecture course here.

West’s course, “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois,” will be added to our collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

“Voltaire’s goal in writing [his 1759 satire Candide] was to destroy the optimism of his times,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “an optimism that centered around science, love, technical progress, and a faith in reason.” These beliefs were folly, Voltaire thought: the transfer of faith from a providential God to a perfect, clockwork universe. Candide satirizes this happy rationalism in Doctor Pangloss, whose belief that ours is the best of possible worlds comes directly from the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Leibniz.

The preponderance of the evidence, Voltaire made abundantly clear in the novel’s series of increasingly horrific episodes, points toward a blind, indifferent universe full of needless cruelty and chaos. “Hope was, he felt, a disease,” de Botton says, and “it was Voltaire’s generous goal to try and cure us of it.” But as everyone who has read Candide (or read a summary or brief notes on Candide) knows, the novel does not end with despair, but on a “Stoic note.”




After enduring immense suffering on their many travels, Candide and his companions settle in Turkey, where they meet an old man sitting quietly under a tree. He tells them about his philosophy, how he abstains from politics and simply cultivates the fruits of his garden for market as his sole concern. Invited to feast with the man and his family, they remark upon the luxurious ease in which they live and learn that they do so on a fairly small plot of land.

Voltaire loved to goose his largely Christian readers and delighted in putting the novel’s parting wisdom, “arguably the most important adage in modern philosophy,” in the mouth of an Islamic character: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, “we must cultivate our garden.” What does this mean? De Botton interprets the line in the literal spirit with which the character known only as “the Turk” delivers it: we should keep a “safe distance between ourselves and the world.”

We should not, that is, become overly engaged in politics, and should devote ourselves to tending our own livelihood and welfare, not taking more than we need. We should leave our neighbors alone and not bother about what they do in their gardens. To be at peace in the world, Voltaire argued, we must accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and give up utopian ideas of societies perfected by science and reason. In short, to “tie our personal moods” to human affairs writ large is to invite endless misery.

The philosophy of Candide is not pessimistic or nihilistic. A happy, fulfilled human life is entirely possible, Voltaire suggests, if not human happiness in general. Candide has much in common with the ancient Roman outlook. But it might also express what could be seen as an early attempt at a secular Buddhist point of view. Voltaire was familiar with Buddhism, though it did not go by that name. Buddhists were lumped in, Donald S. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, writes at the Public Domain Review, with the mass of “idolaters” who were not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Yet the many Jesuit accounts of Eastern religion reaching Europe at the time circulated widely among intellectuals, including Voltaire, who wrote approvingly, though critically, of Buddhist tenets in his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. As the secular mindfulness movement has done in the 21st century, Lopez argues, Voltaire sought in the age of Enlightenment to separate miraculous legend from practical teaching. But like the Buddha, whose supposed biography Voltaire knew well, Candide begins his life in a castle. And the story ends with a man sitting quietly under a tree, more or less advising Candide to do what Voltaire had heard of in the “religion of the Siamese…. Meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Albert Camus’ Existentialism, a Philosophy Making a Comeback in Our Dysfunctional Times

When next you meet an existentialist, ask him what kind of existentialist s/he is. There are at least as many varieties of existentialism as there have been high-profile thinkers propounding it. Several major strains ran through postwar France alone, most famously those championed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus — who explicitly rejected existentialism, in part due to a philosophical split with Sartre, but who nevertheless gets categorized among the existentialists today. We could, perhaps, more accurately describe Camus as an absurdist, a thinker who starts with the inherent meaningless and futility of life and proceeds, not necessarily in an obvious direction, from there.

The animated TED-Ed lesson above sheds light on the historical events and personal experiences that brought Camus to this worldview. Beginning in the troubled colonial Algeria of the early 20th-century in which he was born and raised, educator Nina Medvinskaya goes on to tell of his periods as a resistance journalist in France and as a novelist, in which capacity he would write such enduring works as The Stranger and The Plague. Medvinskaya illuminates Camus’ central insight with a well-known image from his earlier essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” on the Greek king condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity.




“Camus argues that all of humanity is in the same position,” says Medvinskaya, “and only when we accept the meaninglessness of our lives can we face the absurd with our heads held high.” But “Camus’ contemporaries weren’t so accepting of futility.” (Here the Quentin Blake-style illustrations portray a couple of figures bearing a strong resemblance to Sartre and de Beauvoir.) Many existentialists “advocated for violent revolution to upend systems they believed were depriving people of agency and purpose.” Such calls haven’t gone silent in 2020, just as The Plague — one of Camus’ writings in response to revolutionary existentialism — has only gained relevance in a time of global pandemic.

Last month the Boston Review‘s Carmen Lea Dege considered the recent comeback of the thought, exemplified in different ways by Camus, Sartre, and others, that “rejected religious and political dogma, expressed scorn for academic abstraction, and focused on the finitude and absurdity of human existence.” This resurgence of interest “is not entirely surprising. The body of work we now think of as existentialist emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in conflict-ridden Germany and France, where uncertainty permeated every dimension of society.” As much as our societies have changed since then, uncertainty has a way of returning.

Today “we define ourselves and others on the basis of class, religion, race, and nationality, or even childhood influences and subconscious drives, to gain control over the contingencies of the world and insert ourselves in the myriad ways people have failed and succeeded in human history.” But the existentialists argued that “this control is illusory and deceptive,” an “alluring distraction from our own fragility” that ultimately “corrodes our ability to live well.” For the existentialists, pursuit of good life first demands an acceptance of not just fragility but futility, meaninglessness, absurdity, and ambiguity, among other conditions that strike us as deeply unacceptable. As Camus put it, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. But can we?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to Postmodernist Thinkers & Themes: Watch Primers on Foucault, Nietzsche, Derrida, Deleuze & More

For decades we’ve been hearing about the problem of Postmodernism. I suppose I get, in a vague sort of way, what people mean by this: moral relativism, mistrust of objectivity and scientific, religious, and other authorities, “incredulity toward metanarratives,” as Jean-Francois Lyotard defined the term in The Postmodern Condition in 1979.

Don’t we find much of this radical skepticism in the work of David Hume? The Cynics? Or Nietzsche (a Postmodern ancestor, but also claimed by Pragmatist and Existentialist thinkers)? A problem with blanket critiques of Postmodernism is that the word has never represented a cohesive school of thought (nor, for that matter, has Existentialism).

The term derives from an architectural movement of the 1960s that is, itself, impossible to clearly define since it intentionally grafts together approaches and traditions in experiments that celebrate kitschy excesses of style and that defy narrative coherence. Postmodern architecture gave us modern malls and multiplexes, aiding and abetting late capitalist sprawl. (But this is another story….)




Lyotard certainly fit the stereotype of the Postmodernist philosopher, with his lifetime of socialist activism and theoretical hybrids of Marx and Freud. He gets little credit, though he put the term in circulation in philosophy. Instead, Michel Foucault is often cited as a significant influence, though he rejected the categorization and thought of himself as a modernist.

Many a survey of Postmodern thought, such as this YouTube video series by Then & Now, begins with Foucault. The series covers other thinkers we don’t always see put in this box, like sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Nietzsche appears, of course, in two parts, as well as Eve Sedgwick, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

But in many ways, Foucault may be the best place to begin. As professor of philosophy Scott Moore writes:

If postmodernism is understood as a rejection of… an Enlightenment point of view… one that is characterized by a detached, autonomous, objective rationality… then Foucault is surely a postmodernist. Turning Bacon on his head, Foucault affirmed that it is not the case that knowledge is power, but power is knowledge. Meaning, those people who have power (social, political, etc.) always decide what will or will not be counted as “knowledge.”

Unlike, however, many later cultural theorists who inherited the cumbersome label, Foucault looked not to the present or the future in his work, but to the past, re-interpreting primary sources from ancient Rome to the post-WWI global economic order, through several different disciplinary lenses.

Then & Now creator Lewis Waller takes a postmodern approach to this series himself. In the video “Detachment, Objectivity, Imagination: A Critique,” he makes a case that Romantic historians like Michelet, Thierry, and Carlyle had a “better understanding of the reality of the historian’s craft than the scientifically minded did.” It’s a contrarian argument that begins with Sir Walter Scott and that may unsettle your preconceptions of what the catch-all term Postmodernism might include.

See more videos from the series above and watch all of them on YouTube. You may or may not feel like you have a better sense of what Postmodernism means in general. If we take it as shorthand for the loss of unchallenged heteropatriarchal power, then it is, I suppose, a problem for many people. If we take it to mean a mode of thought that “problematizes” seemingly simple concepts we mistake for the very structure of reality, then it “is also an attitude,” writes Moore, “and it has been most artfully practiced by Socrates, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and a host of others.”

Maybe Postmodernism has appeared in every period of philosophical and literary history. Only it hasn’t always been so… well… so overwhelmingly French, which could have had more than a little to do with its negative reputation in Anglophone countries. Put your metanarratives aside and learn more here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Orson Welles Narrates Animations of Plato’s Cave and Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Two Parables of the Human Condition

You’re held captive in an enclosed space, only able faintly to perceive the outside world. Or you’re kept outside, unable to cross the threshold of a space you feel a desperate need to enter. If both of these scenarios sound like dreams, they must do so because they tap into the anxieties and suspicions in the depths of our shared subconscious. As such, they’ve also proven reliable material for storytellers since at least the fourth century B.C., when Plato came up with his allegory of the cave. You know that story nearly as surely as you know the ancient Greek philosopher’s name: a group of human beings live, and have always lived, deep in a cave. Chained up to face a wall, they have only ever seen the images of shadow puppets thrown by firelight onto the wall before them.

To these isolated beings, “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” So Orson Welles tells it in this 1973 short film by animator Dick Oden. In his timelessly resonant voice that complements the production’s hauntingly retro aesthetic, Wells then speaks of what would happen if a cave-dweller were to be unshackled.




“He would be much too dazzled to see distinctly those things whose shadows he had seen before,” but as he approaches reality, “he has a clearer vision.” Still, “will he not be perplexed? Will he not think that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?” And if brought out of the cave to experience reality in full, would he not pity his old cavemates? “Would he not say, with Homer, better to be the poor servant of a poor master and to endure anything rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”

Plato’s cave wasn’t the first parable of the human condition Welles narrated. Just over a decade earlier, he engaged pinscreen animator Alexandre Alexeieff (he of Night on Bald Mountain and and “The Nose,” previously featured here on Open Culture) to illustrate his reading of Franz Kafka’s story “Before the Law.” The law, in Kafka’s telling, is a building, and before that building stands a guard. “A man comes from the country, begging admittance to the law,” says Welles. “But the guard cannot admit him. May he hope to enter at a later time? That is possible, said the guard.” Yet somehow that time never comes, and he spends the rest of his life awaiting admission to the law. “Nobody else but you could ever have obtained admittance,” the guard admits to the man, not long before the man expires of old age. “This door was intended only for you! And now, I’m going to close it.”

“Before the Law” describes a grimly absurd situation, as does Welles’ The Trial, the film to which it serves as an introduction. Adapted from another work of Kafka’s, specifically his best-known novel, it also concerns itself with the legal side of human affairs, at least on the surface. But when it becomes clear that the crime with which its bureaucrat protagonist Josef K. has been charged will never be specified, the story plunges into an altogether more troubling realm. We’ve all, at one time or another, felt to some degree like Joseph K., persecuted by an ultimately incomprehensible system, legal, social, or otherwise. And can we help but feel, especially in our highly mediated 21st century, like Plato’s immobilized human, raised in darkness and made to build a worldview on illusions? As for how to escape the cave — or indeed to enter the law — it falls to each of us individually to figure out.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to Jean Baudrillard, Who Predicted the Simulation-Like Reality in Which We Live

Each and every morning, many of us wake up and immediately check on what’s happening in the world. Sometimes these events stir emotions within us, and occasionally we act on those emotions, which raise in us a desire to affect the world ourselves. But does this entire ritual involve anything real? While performing it we don’t experience the world, but only media; when we respond, we respond not with action in the world, but only with action in media. We have directly interacted, to put it bluntly, with nothing more than pixels on a screen. This condition has pitilessly intensified in our era of smartphones and social media, and though philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard died three months before the introduction of the iPhone, nothing about it would surprise him.

Assembled in an ominous, vintage stock footage-heavy style reminiscent of Adam Curtis (he of The Century of the Self and HyperNormalisation), the half-hour Then & Now video essay above provides an introduction to Baudrillard’s ideas, especially those that predicted the world in which we live today, a “hyperreal postmodern” one filled with signs referencing little that actually exists. “In the run-up to the 2008 crash,” the narrator reminds us, “the real value of mortgages was hidden under layers of sign value, under deceitful insurance policies and financial ratings based on nothing.” On the news, “it doesn’t matter what’s real. What matters is how it’s said, who says it — the perspective, whether it will be provocative enough, whether it will entertain.” We live, in sum, in a “postmodern carnival” where  “things like reality TV, Disneyland, and Facebook define our lives.”




Baudrillard saw this happening nearly 40 years ago: “People no longer look at each other, but there are institutes for that,” he writes in Simulacra and Simulation. “They no longer touch each other, but there is contactotherapy. They no longer walk, but they go jogging, etc. Everywhere one recycles lost faculties, or lost bodies, or lost sociality, or the lost taste for food.” He credited Marshall McLuhan, fellow gnomic observer of late 20th-century society, with “one of the defining axioms of postmodern life.” When McLuhan declared that “the medium is the message,” says the narrator, he saw that “what mattered in this new world was not what was real and material, but what was represented as signs: in short, television, and now the computer screen, has come to dominate social life. Sign production has replaced material production as the organizing principle of political economy.”

What would Baudrillard make of a production like HBO’s Chernobyl, whose painstaking reconstruction of historical events we previously featured here on Open Culture? What made that show a spectacle, says the narrator, was that “the depiction was more real than the event itself: costumes, props, special effects, and the perfect angle, the Geiger counter mapped onto the score already overdetermined by signs.” And so, “in twenty years’ time we think of Chernobyl, will we think of the real event, or images conjured by TV studios?” But we need hardly look that far into the future. The very things our screens insist to us are happening in the world right now, far beyond the walls of the homes fewer and fewer of us leave these days — what do we truly know of their existence apart from this digital blizzard of signs? If Baudrillard were alive to hear our speculation about the possibility that we live in another being’s simulation, he’d surely point out that we’ve already created the simulation ourselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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