Traditional Japanese Kimono Fabrics
Typically made from silk, kimonos are the traditional dress of men and women in Japan, although kimonos are often worn only for special occasions these days.
Kimonos are made from long pieces of fabric, usually sewn by hand along straight seams, with a collar attached to give a clean shape around the neck.
The fabric is not cut to fit the shape of the wearer, but instead folded and draped around the body, and held in place with an obi (a stiff, long fabric sash).
The width of the kimono fabric determines the size of the kimono. The standard width for kimono fabric is 14 inches (35.5cm), but wider fabrics for larger people are available.
The type of thread, weave, and dying techniques affect the surface, weight, durability, and drape of the kimono.
The type of weave, as well as the patterning and embroidery, dictate whether kimonos are worn formally or informally.
Kimonos for men and women are made from the same fabrics, but the dyes, patterns and embroidered details are reserved mostly for women's kimonos.
Women can also wear a wider range of kimono types on different occasions.
Silk Fabrics for Kimono
Silk fabrics drape and flow beautifully, and are difficult to crease. However, silk fabrics stain easily and are difficult to clean.
Although modern kimonos are commonly made from easy-to-care-for fabrics that are less expensive to produce, silk is still considered the ideal kimono fabric.
Silk may be woven and dyed in many different ways.
Chirimen fabric is a thick, heavy silk crepe, a crinkled fabric made by the weft threads being kept tighter than the warp threads during the weaving process. Weft threads are twisted as they are woven, resulting in an uneven texture.
This weaving technique was developed in Japan over 500 years ago. Threads may be dyed before weaving, or the fabric can be dyed using various techniques after weaving.
Chirimen fabric drapes beautifully, and it is difficult to crease. Therefore it is very popular for making kimonos.
In addition to a wide variety of kimono, many accessories are made using silk chirimen.
- small bags
- furoshiki (wrapping cloths)
- fabric kanzashi (hair ornaments)
- obiage (scarf like cloths worn under the obi)
Recently chirimen-style fabrics have been made with cotton, rayon and polyester as they are less expensive and than silk to produce. However, silk chirimen is still the most popular chirimen for kimono fabric.
Depending on the colours and style, chirimen kimonos may be worn for both informal and formal occasions.
Silk Kimono Care Tips
- Wash and dry your hands carefully before handling.
- Brush off dust in the direction of the silk weave.
- Avoid getting the silk wet or soiled.
- Hang silk kimonos to air inside, after each wear and once each season.
- Fold carefully along the seams, and store flat.
- Store in acid-free tissue paper (tatoshi).
- Store in a place away from direct sunlight and heat sources.
- Dry-clean only—preferably by a specialist in silk.
Recommended: give an antique silk kimono to an expert in kimono-cleaning. They will disassemble it into its fabric pieces before dry-cleaning, and then will resew it by hand afterwards.
When displaying silk kimonos, check regularly for dust, and vacuum with a low-powered hand vacuum cleaner, through a nylon mesh screen.
Kinsha is a fine and light, chirimen style silk crepe. Kinsha kimonos are popular in summer. Kinsha fabric is typically dyed after weaving using various dying and hand painting techniques. It has a smooth texture which results in crisp lines, perfect for painting or dying detailed scenes.
Meisen fabric was produced starting from around 1868, and were the first inexpensive kimonos available in department stores in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. At first dyed thread for meisen kimonos was produced by hand, however, the process was soon mechanised.
To make meisen fabric, threads are first loosely woven and then dyed using stencils. The warp or the weft threads may be discarded at this point and new ones woven in to create the initial patterns.
An alternative method, is to stretch the threads as if they were woven, and then tightly bind the design areas before immersing the fabric in dye. The bound areas resist the dye, and when woven, this results in a design with rough edges because the threads are not evenly aligned.
After the fabric is woven, additional hand painting, dying or embroidery is completed before assembling the kimono.
Meisen kimonos are typically bold in both colours and design, drawing from the art deco and art nouveau designs that were popular at the time. They very popular, and worn daily in the early to mid 1900s. However, these were and are not worn at formal occasions.
Kimonos worn by those at the imperial court used to be called omeshi , but these days, omeshi is the name of a type of heavy crepe silk fabric. The twisted threads are dyed and waxed before they are woven together strongly to produce the patterned kimono fabric. Hand washing after weaving releases some of the twist in the threads and produces the slightly rough surface of the fabric.
Both male and female kimonos may be made from omeshi kimono fabric. Omeshi kimonos are typically of a very high quality. New omeshi kimonos are difficult to find, as this fabric is not commonly crafted today. Antique omeshi kimonos are highly valued by sellers and collectors.
Rinzu is a silk satin damask fabric. After the threads are initially died, they are woven to form a geometric or floral pattern, a shiny, subtle repeating pattern on a matte background. Two different types of silk threads may be used to achieve the pattern. The fabric may then be dyed, painted or embroidered before the kimono is sewn. This forms a double design, with the dyed or painted design over the top of the damask pattern.
Rinzu fabric ranges from lightweight to heavy damasks. Rinzu kimonos may be worn for formal occasions, and rinzu fabric is often used to make wedding kimonos and uchikake (very formal over-robes).
Ro fabric is loosely woven from very fine silk threads, creating sheer, airy, summer kimono. Horizontal and vertical lines are shown by the gaps in the weave, created by braiding pairs of threads over one central thread. Patterns and designs are resist dyed after weaving, typically using stencils. Sometimes ro kimonos are hand painted and embroidered.
Ro fabric is not used to make formal kimonos. Recently, summer kimonos have been made from synthetic ro fabrics.
Sha is another woven silk gauze, typically used for unlined summer kimonos. Unlike in ro fabric, the threads are not braided, so there are no vertical or horizontal stripes caused by gaps in the weave. Sha fabric is therefore much stiffer. Different weaving techniques may be used to create a subtle pattern in the fabric, which is dyed or hand painted after weaving. Sha kimonos are not worn on formal occasions.
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Tsumugi fabric was originally made from threads harvested from hatched wild cocoons or from scrap threads from cultivated silk production.
Because the short threads are joined together so often, tsumugi fabric is time consuming to make and often expensive.
Once the threads have been assembled, they are dyed, and then starch is applied before weaving, to ensure the threads do not unravel.
Dying or hand painting may be done once the fabric has been woven, before the kimono is sewn.
Tsumugi fabric is rough and uneven, appearing quite rustic due to the uneven thread widths. It often has the appearance of cotton, but usually feels softer.
Tsumugi kimonos are worn informally and are prized for their individuality. They are durable and comfortable after the initial stiffness caused by the starch has disappeared.
Yuki Tsumugi—Silk Kimono Fabric Production
Wool Kimono Care Tips
- Hang to air after each wear, and once per season.
- Brush in the direction of the nap to remove dirt.
- Spot clean with a clean sponge and cool water.
- Hand wash carefully with wool wash and cool water.
- Steam gently to remove creases.
- Fold along the seams.
- Store in acid-free tissue paper, away from heat.
Important: always dry-clean wool kimonos that were previously dry-cleaned.
Wool Kimono Fabric
Wool is increasingly used as it is warm and supple, does not easily hold creases, can be sewn by machines and by hand, and can be more easily cleaned. An unlined wool kimono can be easily dry-cleaned without being disassembled.
Note: once a kimono has been dry-cleaned, it should always be dry-cleaned. The residual chemicals from dry-cleaning can react with water to cause stains.
Winter kimonos are made from heavier wool fabrics, and are lined. Unlined summer kimonos are made of a wool fabric that is light and allows air movement. The wool is dyed before it is woven, with the weight of the threads determining the warmth and transparency of the resulting fabric.
Wool kimonos are not worn on formal occasions, but are popular as every-day wear, both in winter and in summer.
Linen Kimono Fabric
A fine handwoven linen or hemp can be used to make durable but light summer kimonos (jofu). Jofu fabric was originally made in Okinawa and Oshima and worn by those in the samurai class.
Threads were originally resist dyed before weaving by hand, but now, with machines often used to complete the weaving, stencil dying may be used on the loosely woven fabric.
Jofu kimonos are not worn at formal occasions, and the patterns are often based on blue (indigo dyes), or white colour schemes.
Cotton Kimono Care Tips
- Before washing, test to ensure design is colourfast and won't run.
- Wash by hand or in a mesh bag in a washing machine, gently in cold water with a mild detergent, and spin dry.
- Shake while wet to remove creases, and hang on a straight dowel and air dry in the shade.
- Iron on a low heat, using steam only where necessary to remove creases.
- Hang to air after each wear.
- Fold along the seams.
- For long-term storage, store in acid-free tissue paper (tatoshi).
Cotton Kimono and Yukata
Cotton fabrics are traditionally used to make unlined yukata, informal summer kimonos. These are often worn to and from public baths, at summer festivals, and during a hotel or resort stay. The fabric is cool and breathable in summer, and to many, it feels less confining than silk.
Traditionally, cotton fabric for yukata was dyed with indigo. These days, cotton fabric is printed in a range of bright designs using modern printing techniques. However, other dying techniques, such as shibori (a type of tie-dye), are still used to create more traditional designs.
Under-kimonos (juban) were commonly made of a fine cotton muslin, but these days polyester or blended fabrics are often used.
Synthetic Kimono Care Tips
- Machine wash or hand wash gently in cold water using a mild soap, and spin dry.
- Hang in the shade to dry.
- Store folded along the seams, or hung on a kimono hanger.
- Store in acid-free tissue paper (tatoshi), for longer term storage.
Recommended: dry-clean silk blends.
Synthetic and Semi-Synthetic Fabrics
Synthetic and semi-synthetic materials are becoming more popular due to their durability and ease of cleaning. Synthetic fabrics are also often less costly and time consuming to produce.
Rayon Semi-Synthetic Fabric
As rayon is made from wood pulp fibres, it is often considered to be semi-synthetic. It can have a similar feel to silk, when woven into a fine fabric, but it is highly flammable. Rayon (jinken) was produced in Japan from the early 1900s, where it became popular for easy-care summer kimonos. Jinken fabrics are typically dyed after weaving. Jinken kimonos are soft, smooth, allow air to circulate freely, do not hold body heat, and are easy to clean, but are not worn on formal occasions.
Polyester and Other Synthetic Fibers
Kimono-shaped bath robes are often marketed as polyester kimonos. They are not true kimonos, and should not typically be worn in public. 'Real' kimonos, made from polyester fabrics, do exist, but not that common.
Polyester fabric is crease-resistant, durable and colour-fast. It is also easy to clean in the washing machine. However, it breathes less than natural fabrics, often feels like plastic and may be clearly audible when moved.
In kimono fabrics, polyester is more commonly used in blends with natural fibers, such as silk, wool and cotton.
Blended Fibers in Kimono Fabric
Synthetic and natural fiber blends such as cotton, wool and silk synthetic blends, are commonly available today. The synthetic component contributes durability, ease of cleaning, and a lower-manufacturing cost, and is often paired with silk (for its beauty and luxuriousness).
It can be difficult for even experts to tell if a fabric is pure silk or a silk-blend, unless they perform a burn test - something you do not want to do on an expensive kimono!