The History of Japanese Kimono Fabric

In our last blog post, we started talking about the history Japanese kimono fabrics. While we were going to cover all the fabrics used for kimono in one article, we quickly realised that silk needed to be its own article as there was just so much information to cover! Silk is the predominant fabric used in many kimono, but this certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t other fabrics that have their own interesting histories and processes! Silk is actually the very highbrow fabric of Japanese kimono. Due to its production methods and the labor-intensive aspects of it, it was something that was seen as a luxury and only the wealthy could have afforded it. The higher socio-economic groups weren’t only the ones who could afford silk, but during the Edo Period (1603-1868) they were the only people who were actually allowed to wear it. Using textiles as a way of showing social class created a whole new style of clothing as the lower socio-economic groups tried to express their individuality while still staying within the rules created for them. Being part of a lower class meant that most of these styles of fabric production not only conserved resources but were also extremely practical. Most clothing was made from natural plant fibres, often hemp or cotton.

cotton and hemp plants

Cotton and hemp plants in their completely unprocessed forms

Japanese Kimono Fabric Types

In Japan kimono fabrics can be put into two categories. Cotton and hemp are called Futomono(太物), which translates as thick materials, and silk is called Gofuku(呉服). Futomono can be broken down further into Momenfuku (木綿服), cotton clothing, and Asafuku (麻服), hemp clothing.

Japanese hemp farmers in their field

Workers harvest hemp at a licensed farm in Tochigi Prefecture. Photo by Junichi Takayasu

A short history of cotton in Japan

The Edo period edicts about clothing meant that cotton, which hadn’t been as commonly used until this point, had a surge in popularity. There were a few attempts at introducing cotton to Japan as far back as the 8th century but these were largely unsuccessful. Cotton in Japan really took off in the 15th century and by the start of the 17th century cotton took up almost ½ of the agricultural areas around Osaka. Cotton replaced hemp as it was easier to transport and process. Hemp required processing within a few days of the raw materials being harvested and didn’t transport well in its unprocessed state. 

Japanese worker picks cotton
Workers sorting cotton in rural Japan in 1890

The process of cotton production spawned the development of cottage industries in what was called the “putting out system”. Cottage industries, which are normally manufacturing-based, consist of many different producers working (often part time) from their own homes. The “putting out system” is a way of subcontracting work, a central agent or company will subcontract various tasks to small producers who complete them at home. Cotton needs to pass through many hands to end up as a useable product. An agent would travel around the country and buy raw materials, these were then delivered to people who would take charge of the next step in the process, let’s say weaving it into fabric. This fabric was then collected and passed on to the next place to be dyed. It then might go to be printed and finally it would be sold. 

Japanese farmers spinning cotton in their home

Japanese farmers spinning cotton in their home 

This system worked well for farmers as they had some flexibility in their working hours and were able to work around harvest times and could still earn a living in the winter. Since cotton prefers a warmer climate, it grows better in the southern part of Japan. This didn’t stop the northern parts of Japan creating their own weaving operations. When the north realised that cotton was warmer than hemp, they created trade networks to transport raw cotton from the south in order to produce their own fabrics. The development of these cottage industries represented a core element of the Edo periods proto-industrialisation process. 

woman spinning cotton in her home in 1914 in japan

A Japanese woman spinning cotton in her home between 1914 - 1918. Photo courtesy of A.Davey

Edo Period Fashion

Due to the ban on silks and bright colours in the Edo period, lower-class citizens had to be a little more creative in the way that they showed their own style. They were extremely innovative in the way they produced textiles. Sakiori is a style of weaving that involves tearing old pieces of cloth and then re-weaving them to make a new textile, often used as a rug or a throw.

edo period sakiori rug

Edo period indigo sakiori rug 

Sashiko (literally “little stabs”) was another way in which people managed to be not only extremely practical but also to create absolutely beautiful clothing. Sashiko involves intricate, interlocking stitches which are used to strengthen fabrics. It started out as a way to repair or reinforce worn or broken garments and also gave the sewer the chance to add something of themselves to the garment by their choice of thread colour or their style of embroidery. Traditionally the indigo dyed garments (see here for an explanation on  Japanese indigo) were embroidered with a white thread which is meant to recall snow falling on old farmhouses but people would also use other colours if they were available. 

Sashiko jacket from the middle of the 19th century

Sashiko jacket from the middle of the 19th century. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the Meiji period (1868-1912) sashiko was such an established practice in Japan that the northern farming communities would do Sashiko winter work when it was too cold to go outside. The stitching in sashiko embroidery is mostly geometric and there are 2 mains styles: 


Moyozashi - where patterns are made with lines of running stitches and the stitches never cross each other  

Moyozashi sashiko being sewn

Moyozashi embroidery in progress 

Hitomezashi - where a grid is used to create a pattern out of single stitches. Hitomezashi is often a smaller, denser design that can look a bit like weaving. 

Hitomezashi embroidery in progress

Hitomezashi embroidery in progress

Common Sashiko patterns include waves, arrow feathers, linked hexagons, and overlapping diamonds plus many others...

4 common examples of sashiko patterns

Some common examples of different types of sashiko embroidery 

Japanese Boro Fabric

Another interesting “fashion” in the Edo Period was boro textiles. Boro, which is derived from the Japanese “boroboro” meaning something tattered or repaired, is a form of textile made by mending or patching worn garments. Boro became something that signified someone's social standing as being from the lower farming classes. Out of necessity, farmers would patch clothing with scrap fabric. These scraps were normally sewn onto the garment with a visible running stitch and often there would be patch over patch over patch on one clothing item. Sometimes hemp or cotton scraps were stuffed under the patch in order to provide a little more warmth. Because fabric was expensive to buy and hard to make, patched clothing items were often passed down through generations of farmer families until they ended up as patchwork garments. Sometimes, to the common observer, after years of mending, it was hard to tell where the patch started and the original fabric began.

Traditional boro jacket

Traditional antique boro jacket 

Although boro was a purely functional way of repairing worn fabrics, it has come to exemplify Wabi-Sabi. Wabi-Sabi is the beauty in imperfection. Richard R Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple, says "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." Due to the multiple hues of indigo, the many textures from different fabric scraps and the prominent stitching, Boro fabrics exemplify these ideas and becomes something greater than its parts.

boro sleeping mat from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Wabi-sabi as exemplified by this child's sleeping mat from the late 19th century found in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

After the Meiji Period (1868-1912) there was a general increase throughout the Japanese population. To the farmers who had worn boro garments for generations, boro came to symbolise the former poverty that they had endured and they were more than happy to move on to newer clothing. Although boro is now an extremely sought after textile which can be extremely expensive to buy, after the Meiji Period many pieces were discarded and the government made little or no effort to preserve these textiles. Thanks to people like Chuzaburo Tanaka, Ethnologist and author, who collected over 20,000 pieces of boro in his lifetime this wonderful textile is something that can still be admired today. 786 of his pieces have now been named as important tangible cultural properties and around 1,500 are on permanent display at the Amuse Museum in Tokyo.

Boro exhibition at the Amuse Museum in Tokyo

The Chuzaburo Tanaka boro collection in the Amuse Museum in Tokyo

The process of Boro has been known to influence luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Junya Watanabe who featured boro style fabrics in 2013 and 2015 respectively. The rise in popularity shows an appreciation for recycling and repurposing, something that is never a bad thing!

Louis Vuitton and Junya Watanabe boro clothing collection

Louis Vuitton '13 and Junya Watanabe '15 boro collections

History of Japanese Hemp

Hemp (Asa in Japanese) has been cultivated in Japan since the Jomon Period (14,000–1000BC) and archaeological evidence has been found that shows that hemp was used for clothing and baskets and that the seeds were eaten. A neolithic cave painting from coastal Kyushu (carbon-dated to 5500 BC) depicts strangely dressed people alongside tall stalks with hemp shaped leaves. It’s thought this painting might depict Korean traders bringing hemp into Japan. Hemp successfully adapted to the climate in Japan was was a well established crop by the Yayoi Period (1,000 BC – 300 AD). The indigenous people, the Ainu, of the northern island of Hokkaido made clothing from hemp and bark in the 3rd century AD. Hemp and silk were the primary source of clothing fiber until the production of cotton took over in the 15th century.

Neolithic painting found in Kyushu Japan depicting hemp leaves and traders

Neolithic painting found in Kyushu, Japan from 5500BC depicting people and hemp leaves

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Daimyo (feudal lords) of Japan encouraged the farmers to grow hemp as it could be sold for a high value in areas where hemp was used to make refined fibers. The weaponry of Samurai was partially made from hemp, they wore an iron helmet (known as kabuto) which had an internal covering of hemp and silk. Armour was also often made with a combination of hemp, silk and deer leather with iron plates stitched onto the fabric with hemp thread. Kakishibu (a dye made from persimmon) was then used to make this armour waterproof and antibacterial. The Hemp farmers were given “rights and privileges” by the local Samurai, but in actual fact were kept poor and busy in order to constantly have to keep producing hemp. Because hemp was relatively difficult to produce and was very labour intensive, it became a more exclusive fiber which was worn by the upper classes with the lower classes trying to imitate hemp fibers with the simpler cotton. Hemp was a wonderful fiber as clothes made from it were cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Samurai helmets with hemp lining and Samurai armour with hemp

Samurai helmets "kabuto" with hemp lining and Samurai armour with hemp. Images courtesy of Samuraiantiqueworld

Hemp was used for a variety of things, not just fabrics. The straps of Geta (high wooden sandals worn with kimono) were made from hemp, along with things like longlines for eel fishing and ropes. Hemp was also used to make Washi paper which originally came from China but was refined and elevated by Japanese craftsmen.

washi paper being made with hemp

Washi paper, mainly for calligraphy, being made in Nishijima with a mix of hemp old paper, rice and straw

Hemp cultivation almost completely disappeared after the arrival of cotton and the ban on cannabis in 1948 by the American occupation. However, in 1989 when Emperor Hirohito died and his son Akihito was crowned, Akihito was required to wear a ceremonial gown traditionally woven with hemp. Since Akihito was seen as the “living entity of god” there was a special shinto ritual requiring him to wear hemp robes as hemp symbolises purity. The hemp used was gifted to him by some local farmers who had grown it illegally, and in thanks for this Akihito gave them a license to grow hemp on a small scale for the imperial family. Before the cannabis ban, there were almost 25,000 hemp farms, which is now down to 50 licensed farms.

Emperor Akihito in his ceremonial hemp coronation robes

Emperor Akihito wearing his ceremonial hemp robes for his coronation. He wore the same robes when he abdicated in April 2019

Hemp is an extremely important part of Japan's history, and the hemp motif is still commonly seen on many kimono (see here for more motifs). Funnily enough, folklore has it that Ninja used to use hemp plants as a training tool. Every day they would jump over the growing plants, eventually reaching incredible heights as hemp can grow very fast and becomes quite tall (up to 5m). The use of hemp seeds is still common in Japan. Ground or whole hemp seeds are used in Shichimi, seven spice, a common condiment used for udon noodles and ramen. Hemp is also still very important to Shinto religion (as seen by Emperor Akihito's robes), and bell pulls and ropes in shrines and temples are still made from hemp. Shimenawa (enclosing rope) were always be made with hemp before it became difficult to procure. Shimenawa were believed to ward off evil spirits and vary a lot in size, from a few centimetres to several metres long. The word for hemp in Shinto meaning cleansing and it is believed to hold the power to purify energy.

Shimenawa rope over temple entrance

Shimenawa rope over the  Izumo Taisha shinto shrine. Image by Takashi Ueki

Although a small hemp industry does still exist in Japan, marijuanna use has gone up sharply in the last decade so the exemptions for the last few hemp farmers left are being put into question. How sad would it be to lose this wonderful and historically important industry? Hopefully it doesn’t happen!

Japanese Kimono Fabric Bolts

Since we’ve talked about the fibers used in kimono, a quick note on how these fibers were used in kimono. Traditionally, kimono are made from a single bolt of fabric. This bolt it called “tanmono” and varies in size and shape depending on whether it’s meant for a mens or womens kimono. For women, the bolts are generally about 36cm wide and 11.5m long. One bolt is used in its entirety to make one kimono. Mens fabric bolts vary a lot more in length as sometimes they are made long enough to create a haori and a juban as well as a kimono in order to have a matching set. Kimono are all one size making them fit most different body shapes. Very tall or heavy people (like a sumo wrestler) would have to have specially woven fabric bolts made for them or else would have to join 2 bolts together in order to have a kimono made that fit them. Kimono are made with 4 main fabric panels, 2 panels for the main body part (front and back) and 1 panel per sleeve. Smaller strips were then used to add the collar. Kimono used be taken apart and then re-sewn together by hand when they were washed, meaning a standardised method of construction was required in order to easily sewn them back together. This pattern for kimono also meant that there was no fabric waste at all hence the bolt being used in its entirety. What a clever method of clothing construction! Waste not want not as they say...

antique kimono fabric bolt

Antique kimono fabric bolt

Did you know that hemp had such a long history in Japan or that cotton was relatively recent? Have you seen bolts of kimono fabric or boro fabric before? Do you have any favourite Japanese kimono fabric patterns or designs? Do you have any thoughts or questions? Feel free to DM us on Instagram if you do or send us some pictures of your favourite textiles and patterns!

 Modern Archive xx

Japanese Kimono Fabric for Sale

Modern Archive is an online space for textile lovers. We're especially obsessed with everything to do with Japanese Kimonos, Ai-zome and Shibori. We write about things that we like in our kimono magazine and occasionally host pop-up events. Find us on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook. Send us an email to hellomodernarchive@gmail (or blow us a kiss).

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