Kimono Disassembly

I’ll be back to posting the Caterpillar to Kimono series very soon. In the meantime I’ve been taking apart several kimono I picked up on the Japan trip, and it’s been an interesting experience.

Back when I first opened KimonoMomo in 2005 I spent a lot of time taking things apart. I am fairly adept at disassembly, which is more than I can say about my skill in following a pattern to actually make something.

Taking apart a kimono requires patience. It typically involves two hours or more to pick out every little stitch without ripping any of the fabric, and there are invisible layers of stitches that the kimono wearer will never see. My most popular class of all time was “Deconstructing Kimono” at SakuraCon several years ago. It was fun to stand in front of a room filled with kimono fans and tear an incredibly ugly kimono to pieces. I’d love to do it again.

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The houmongi (訪問着 – “visiting wear”) kimono I’ve been taking apart for the last two days is something of a challenge, however. It’s an early 20th century  piece, deep aniline purple with a printed design meant to look like yuzen. The silk is soft, delicate, and prone to ripping if I apply too much tension to the threads. This means I have to go slowly with the seam ripper and remove each stitch at a time, which is not as much fun as pulling a thread and having it slide out of several inches of stitches. It is meditative work, though. The stitches are tiny, match the silk perfectly, and are exceptionally even for being done by hand.

Some of the lining is a bright, soft cherry blossom pink silk and some is a crisp, undyed silk which has turned to a dull parchment color [edit: after consideration, I think this color may be original]. In a few places the lining is a simple coarsely woven cotton, which would have been an economical way to line an otherwise expensive garment. The story this kimono tells me is that the original wearer was probably not well-off enough to afford a really nice piece, but she did want something splashy and elegant. The kimono does make a statement with its radiant purple rinzu and bold floral designs accented by touches of gold paint.

The era in which it was made was one of social change in Japan. The West was highly influential in fashion and design, and new chemical dyes and synthetic fibers were striding confidently into the marketplace. This is not a high formal kimono as it bears no family crests, yet it is too dressy for everyday wear. This style would have been acceptable for wear to a wedding, but only by a guest and not a family member of the bridal couple. The construction of the kimono is sturdy, so it was meant to last. Did the wearer pass it on to her daughter, granddaughter, or other family member?

The sleeves are nearly two feet long, indicating that perhaps she was a young, unmarried woman, or she may have married, but if so it would have definitely been before WWII. Before WWII women’s sleeves were longer than would be acceptable today, as were the garment lengths of coats such as haori or michiyuki. During the war sleeves and coats were at their shortest in order to conserve fabric, but I have found a few kimono that had sleeves shortened by folding the fabric in and stitching the sleeve to an acceptable length rather than cutting the fabric off. That this kimono was not shortened tells me it was not worn during the war, and not likely worn after it, either. Sleeve lengths for married women have never gone back to the fashionable length they were before WWII, which I find unfortunate as I love wearing the longer sleeves but can’t wear furisode.

The majority of the thread is a purple that matches the fabric, but here and there are thick, white, silk threads used to anchor panels and layers together. This white thread is concealed so beautifully that you wouldn’t know it was there unless you took the garment apart. Every other thread was made to disappear into the finished kimono, but these stand out so boldly and have remained so white that I have managed to save a few lengths intact for future use. As for the purple thread, bits and pieces of it follow me around the house as I go from room to room with the kimono wadded up in my arms, carrying it from studio to living room or even outside to join Thomas out in the yard while he listens to the radio and does yard work. Last night as he wandered upstairs to bed I called out “I’ll be there in a minute!” and mumbled “…after I finish this row.” Suddenly I realized how much I sounded like my mother when she used to say “Just a few more stitches and I’ll tuck you into bed.” Most nights those stitches would go on for another hour and I’d already be asleep by the time she put her latest quilt to rest. Like her, I appreciate how quiet the house is at night. Like her, I have a small, warm dog beside me for companionship (actually, I have two). Like her, I stretch time for all its worth, edging towards exhaustion and bleary eyes.

After the deconstruction is complete and the kimono reverts into its original format of one long bolt of fabric, I will wash each panel, iron it carefully, then cut and package the pieces with others for sale.

I hope you will do something wonderful with these pieces of history. Your work adds to the story they tell and keeps it going for another generation.

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