Hidden Secrets and Mottainai

I have this gorgeous tachibana komon, that has some rather unfortunate stains, possibly soy sauce, in very visible areas on the front. As there was no way I could hide the stains when wearing it, I decided to take it apart and either test laundering the fabric and re-sew back into a kimono, or, the most likely scenario, repurpose the fabric in the event the stain doesn’t remove.

As I was unpicking the middle of the collar, I discovered a little secret. Beautiful, repurposed fabric!

Now, this is not the first time I have experienced this. I’ve taken apart many kimono over the course of the years and for most of the part, the fabric used for the inner collar reinforcement is a heavy white piece of cotton, however, I have come across repurposed kimono fabric twice before! The first time was an amazing piece of muslin coloured in vivid oranges and turquoises momiji and faux shibori, and the second was a more subdued indigo katsuri.

I also once discovered a long strip of antique muslin (multiple pieces stitched together) used to pad the hem of a kimono. One of the pieces in the strip was a floral pattern, and the other had baby chickens on it! Additionally, kimono sleeve are reinforced at the points where the sleeve is sewn to the body of the kimono with tiny pieces of cloth that are roughly 1cm to 1.5cm square in size. Usually, this cloth is a white cotton or muslin, or even the same fabric as the kimono. However, I’ve come across a number of older pieces that have had bits of other kimono fabric used. One even had tiny pink shibori squares.

Oh, gosh, I almost totally forgot the largest surprise I’ve ever had! I was taking apart a shibori obi — the obi had many holes in it and the fabric was starting to shred along fold lines. Inside, II discovered that the lining of the obi was a repurposed torso part of an old indigo dyed happi coat and a few pieces of fabric from a men’s kimono!

These discoveries brought to mind a few thoughts. One of them being the fear modern collectors have of repurposing any kimono. I understand and absolutely agree with preserving unique pieces of art and lost techniques. Especially since I have a good number of unwearable pieces in my collection that are quite unique that I keep for preservation purposes. Outside of that though, I also strongly believe kimono should be repurposed. There is so much wonderful fabric involved in a single kimono that if it’s just sitting there, in the dark of a closet never being worn or if it’s damaged to the point it can’t be worn as intended, why not give it new life? Additionally, repurposing kimono has a long history in Japan, a history that is as long as kimono have existed. Which takes me to my other thought, the Japanese word mottainai. Mottainai is an interesting word and there are articles that better address the concept than what I can, however, I will touch upon mottainai with kimono.

Briefly described, mottainai is the expression of regret over waste. It can be used in reference to physical waste, or even waste with regard to thoughts and actions. In English, the physical aspect of mottainai can be equated with “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”.

With regard to mottainai and kimono: in the days before the event of mass production and automation, the creation of woven cloth was a time intensive and tedious process done by hand on traditional looms.

The Weaving Factory

The purchase of this cloth was often expensive, especially for those of the finer varieties. That doesn’t take into account any additional techniques applied: dyeing, embroidery, shibori, yuzen, just to name a few. Therefore, kimono regardless of fiber content or class, whether it was farmer’s garb or a luscious silk kosode, were valuable and every part of the kimono was repurposed.

When the kimono was unable to be worn in its original state, whether the reason was due to changing fashions or damage to the garment, rather than just disposing of them like we are want to do with today’s fast fashion, there were numerous options available. One could sell their kimono or the fabric to a second-hand kimono dealer. These kimono dealers were available both in permanent physical locations, pop-up locations or would go house to house seeking garments.

Open Air Kimono Stall
From the collection of Okinawa Soba

Alternatively, and most likely the main course of action taken, one could repair or repurpose. The construction of kimono is unique in that not only are no curved cuts made to the fabric, but also only the absolute minimal cuts required are made. Therefore, if you deconstruct a kimono, you can stitch each piece back into the original tanmono (bolt) width and length in a process called arai-hari (洗い張り). The blog Koeda no wasai kōbō nikki has a great example of this method. Western clothing, however, is constructed vastly different and with the exception of voluminous skirts, there’s no way you can piece together a deconstructed garment to re-form the original bolt.

The repurposing of kimono could be as simple as sewing in tucks in the original kimono to shorten it to fit a child to deconstructing the kimono and repurposing the fabric to make a haori, juban, child size kimono, obi or even a dounuki. Medium to small pieces could be converted to handbags, pouches, tabi, doll clothing, household items such as zabuton, quilted together to forum furoshiki just to name a few. The tiniest pieces could be used for stuffing of toys, forming the base of temari, creating chirimen or tsumami zaiku or, as I discovered, padding and reinforcement for newer kimono. Later, when Japan’s doors were opened to the world, kimono fabric would also be repurposed into yofuku.

Japanese chirimen doll and kimono created from repurposed fabrics.

Japanese chirimen doll and kimono created from repurposed fabrics.















The scraps would continue to reduce in size, but always, a purpose was found. Also, it wasn’t just the fabric repurposed. The thread would be carefully removed and saved for future use, any lining would be repurposed and padding or fabrics for reinforcements would be saved for re-use with the same intent or other purposes.

This repurposing continued well into the first half of the 20th century, with books showing how to create yofuku (Western clothing) from repurposed kimono. And even today, books are still published for kimono repurposing.


And what happened to the barest of scraps in the past? Here is an interesting snippet from this article:

“Kimono are a good example [of mottainai]. In the Edo Era, as all fabrics were hand-made, the productivity was low. And kimono were therefore very valuable. Kimono was not only recycled as secondhand kimono, but also reformed as futon, zabuton (Japanese flat-type cushions), drawstring bags and so on. Cotton kimono were reformed as diapers or dusters and used up. The structure of kimono facilitates recycling as the fabric is cut straight at a standard width. In the end, kimono [fabric scraps] were burnt to ashes. Then, how were the ashes treated? In Edo, since almost all everyday items including kimono (except hardware or pottery) were made from plants, they were reduced to ashes of plant origin. The ashes were saleable; they were stored in boxes and sold to vendors. The ashes were not only used in the processes of saké brewing, paper manufacturing, and dyeing, but also were used as glazes for pottery, as agricultural fertilizer, as detergents and so on.“

Sadly, like many others, I am a wasteful person in this modern age and I freely admit reading up about mottainai during Edo era, I feel exceptionally guilty. I actually do take conscious and active effort to reduce waste, but I know I can greatly improve. With my kimono fabric, however, I literally keep every single little scrap as I am sure one day I will find a use for it.

How about you? Do you have any kimono items in your closet that are clearly repurposed? Discovered any wonderful little secrets while taking kimono apart? Repurposed kimono fabric yourself?  I would love to hear about it!

One Comment

  • nofixedstars

    September 14, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    i love the concept of mottainai. i suspect all cultures had such an underlying “waste not, want not” structure, back before modern manufacturing and synthetics and planned obsolescence and the disposable products era…

    i do have some old kimono with bits of re-used fabric in the areas that don’t show. i am not confident enough of my sewing skills to take apart and re-sew anything, but i have used fabric from items that were absolutely falling apart to make other pretty things (mats for tea service, things like that), and hope to do more in future.

    to me, it shows appreciation of the artisans’ work to re-use sections of garments that cannot be worn any longer. there are, as you said, some items that ought to be preserved intact; but the majority of kimono i have are not of that caliber or age. i have a few tucked away carefully, which are delicate due to age and so not worn for more than a photograph session, and i’d never want to cut them up. yet if some day, i found them literally falling apart, i’d preserve the beautiful embroidered sections in some way, definitely. by the way, old silk that is shredding and unstable makes fantastic wadding for quilted garments or bed covers!


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