There is a lot of confusion among Westerners about this issue. We are accustomed to cutting patterns for clothing, quilts, and crafts from 42″-44″ wide bolts, so the idea that a bolt could be so much narrower–12″-15″–seems, well, foreign.
Considering the width of a basic backstrap loom, the narrow fabric makes sense. Backstrap looms are easy to build and use, and have been common throughout the world for centuries. So why do the Japanese still use this particular width when most of the world has moved on to bigger things and wider looms?
The kimono as we know it evolved from a 7th century Chinese robe. In the 10th century Japan cut ties to China and proceeded to develop its own cultural tastes. The kimono as we recognize it today has its roots in the kosode (“small sleeves”), primarily worn by commoners but later adopted by the gentry and elevated to height of sophistication in the Edo era. Kimono-type garments remained the daily wear of much of the Japanese populace until the late 19th century when Westerners arrived in warships demanding safe harbor and fair trade. Once diplomatic ties were set in place, the populace by and large began to accept Western wear as a curious novelty, but little else.
Men in the cities were first to cast off their traditional garb for suits, hats, and shoes with laces, but women held out much longer. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 caused a fire which destroyed storehouses and factories, burning looms, stencils, and other tools of textile manufacture. Women hobbled by kimono found it difficult if not impossible to outrun the ensuing fire, tsunami, landslides, and other devastation wrought by the earthquake. Marketers, always quick to take advantage of a crisis, presented the survivors with more modest and practical options including Western undergarments.
The death of kimono for daily wear was inevitable during WWII when so many textile mills produced fabric for the war effort, and women working to keep their families fed wore more practical work clothes, which had been common in rural villages for a very long time.
Today most Japanese only wear rental kimono for special events and no longer know how to put one on themselves. Modern kimono are regarded as very formal (weddings, graduation, Coming of Age Day), semi-formal (tea ceremony, cocktail parties, elegant dinners), or pleasantly retro (young women wearing kimono from the 1930s).
Brand new a kimono and obi set will cost thousands of dollars, and for good reason. They take a long time and a great deal of skill to make. Kimono are often handed down through the generations, and can be tailored to fit the next wearer. Here’s where that narrow fabric comes back into play…
A kimono or yukata bolt is called a tan, which measures roughly 14″ (36cm) x 12 yards (11 meters), give or take. In constructing a kimono the fabric is cut in a very specific way which produces a garment with no waste. When a kimono must be thoroughly cleaned, the stitches (kimono are always hand sewn) may be picked out, the fabric reduced to its component pieces, then washed, dried, and stitched back together. Mending and tailoring can be done at this time, as well as rearranging parts as needed.
It’s as if you could make clothing like building with Legos. How practical!
No curves are cut; the roundness you see at the bottom of a sleeve is sewn in, the stitches gathered to give the perfect quarter-circle curve. A sleeve unstitched becomes a rectangle again.
From time to time I have customers who complain the fabric they ordered is too narrow, and I have to remind myself that most Westerners really don’t know how a kimono (or as some say, “kimona”) is constructed, worn, or even properly folded. And that’s okay, we all learn new things as we go, right? That’s part of life. Yesterday you didn’t know something, today you do, and tomorrow you can teach someone else.