Another tailoring: a small guide to Wasai and Kimono sewing

Why this guide

After almost a decade in Japan I have had the chance to sew myself and others quite the selection of 和服/Wafuku (Japanese clothing): from さみえ/samue, to underwear, to kimono, I have made it all. Recently, though, I started making proper kimono again, a turn of events powered by Yahoo! Auctions and a closet with enough suits. Plus, this is tailoring too, and I appreciate how different the entire concept of tailoring is between 洋服/Yōfuku (western clothing) and Wafuku.

In fact, 洋裁/yōsai/Western tailoring puts its emphasis on the body: how to achieve a certain silhouette, how to project a specific image, how to balance this or that feature. The body is central, and the garment is shaped and sculpted to enhance it. Yōsai relies on patterns, and once the fabric is cut, it’s very difficult to repurpose it later without resorting to either cutting up a much larger piece of clothing to begin with, to using patchwork. In 和裁/wasai (Japanese tailoring), on the other hand, there is no pattern, and most importantly the fabric is central, the person secondary to showcasing the textile. What’s more, kimono are sewn using a running stitch which is designed to break when under stress, in order not to rip the precious fabric. The cloth can be unsewn and resewed indefinitely, since nothing is cut away, the excess fabric neatly tucked as seam allowance. Historically, a bolt received as an small child is sewn into a kimono and the kimono tucked in specific places which are then let out as the child grows, and the kimono is used and reused and remade up to the point when only rags can be made out of it: such is the value of the textile itself.

Same kimono, worn at age 3, 7, and beyond. Photo from Yamamoto Gofukuten

After posting on IG one of my self-sewn kimono I have received many requests to explain how to cut a kimono and how to sew one “the authentic way”. I was a bit ambivalent about it as there are literally multi year courses one can do to master this craft, and blogging is not very conducive to explaining something as visual as wasai. On the other hand, I do want to share the love for wasai in English and who knows, maybe somebody out there will love it so much they’ll study it more and become an artisan themselves.

What is this guide

As I mentioned, I’m going to provide a very simplified explanation, emphasis on very and simplified, of how to cut, mark, and sew an authentic Japanese 単衣/hitoe/unlined kimono. I chose hitoe because of simplicity and versatility, as the same principles can be used to sew either a kimono or a yukata, and the lack of lining makes the process faster and less laborious. I want to stress this is a simplified version of knowledge you’d acquire over the course of a wasai course, or at least reading a few wasai books, and by trial and error. There’s a wealth of knowledge on the topic on the Internet in, you guessed it, Japanese. I also want to add that like in any other form of sewing there are many versions of the same actions, I just decided to use the ones that are, in my opinion, the easiest to transmit and replicate for the novice.

Who is this guide for

It should be obvious that posting this guide on the internet does not equal giving permission to anybody to make minidresses for halloween.

What is this thing even.

To summarize briefly a very nuanced topic, think critically of the reasons why you are approaching wasai before entering. A lot has been written on the topic of cultural appropriation, and while I don’t agree with 100% of what has been said as it sometimes borders on nazism and ignores features such as multiculturalism and cultural exchange, not to mention the difference between race, ethnicity, and culture, I do believe that just because you can access items from other cultures doesn’t mean you should do it uncritically. While cultures can and should be participated in, this should be done from a place of respect and understanding: a person who wants to sew a kimono because, for instance, they practice Sado (in Japan or elsewhere) and need to appropriate dress, is very different from a person wearing a nagajuban as a beach coverup (I wish I were joking).

Browsing the kimono hashtag on social media will still give you way too many results which are not kimono at all, from karate gear (which even has its own name, 道着/dogi or simply gi) to what I believe are actual robes? Just look at the pictures below for an insight into what 3 seconds of googling brought up.

I myself have interacted with several people who told me they made a kimono which then turned out to be a robe vaguely inspired by a kimono. While I don’t think we should gatekeep wasai, I do believe there has to be some effort made by people to understand the cultural context and proper form of something like kimono.

What you will need

Besides patience, you mean? Of course the serious wasai artisan will have quite an array of tools, but for the hobby sewist just getting their feet wet the list of gadgets is way less complex.

Kimono are typically sewn by hand, tho it is not uncommon to find wafuku sewn by machine these days. While I believe one should at least try some hand sewing, I think it’s a form of ableist gatekeeping to expect everyone will be able to sew by hand an entire garment. While there are advantages to hand sewing a kimono – chiefly, the seams will come apart when stressed, preventing the fabric from ripping – I have successfully experimented by using a wider stitch length and silk or even cotton machine thread and a sewing machine. In fact, I made 2 kimono completely by machine, so you can too! The steps are the same, just pick a suitable needle for your fabric, a natural fiber thread (so not poly, I do recommend silk or cotton, the latter works well but it does break faster). The stitch length typically used in wasai is 3 mm, with 1 mm between stitches, which is impossible to achieve by machine, so I generally revert to a 3.5 mm stitch.

Denim kimono from Kapuki, entirely sewn by machine.

If you intend to sew it by hand, the type of needle will depend on your textile (you don’t say). Because wasai features only straight sewing, needles are not flexible as in yōsai – at least this is what needle makers have told me lmao. While needle length is a preference, thickness is not, so you can follow needle manufactures instructions to pick the correct needle. If there’s enough interest, I’ll post some rough guide too, since threads and needles honestly deserve a post by themselves.

That’s it for today.

Happy sewing.

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