Category Archives: kimono

The Ikeda Collection

It’s been a long time since my last post. Life has streamed by in a blur of cherry blossoms, rainy days and mad sewing sessions as I prepared for my annual trip to the American Embroidery Conference in Marietta, Georgia. And then of course, the return from my travels was followed by the inevitable battle with jet lag, but when I saw the announcement that the Kyoto Museum would be hosting a kimono exhibition from the Ikeda collection, my little soul just perked right up.

Shigeko Ikeda has spent a lifetime collecting the most beautiful antique kimono and now portions of her collection are occasionally exhibited in museums throughout Japan. One of my goals is to visit her gallery in Tokyo someday, but until then I savor any opportunity to see any portion of the collection that finds its way down to Kyoto for an exhibit.
women's kimono
One of the things that sets an Ikeda exhibition apart from others is that the kimono are displayed not flattened out like beautiful wall hangings in isolation from their context, but on mannequins fully accessorized in every glorious detail as they would have been worn by the very stylish people who originally owned these garments.

women's kimono
Not only is it possible to observe the choice of color combinations and coordination of motifs, but also the exquisite attention to detailed craftsmanship that makes each component of the ensemble a work of art in itself.

little girl's kimono with inset showing close-up of her little bird purse
This child must have looked just darling on some special occasion when she was all dressed up in her little kimono, complete with a bird-shaped purse that complements the bird motif on her clothing. A close up of the purse is shown in the inset so that you can see it a bit more clearly.

Purses, in fact, were a special focus of this particular exhibit. With many many glass cabinets filled with numerous elegant examples on which to feast my eyes.
kimono purse

kimono purse
The two clutch purses shown above could so easily be evening bags with any western outfit. I especially love the butterfly embroidered across the front flap of the purse in the lower panel.

But my embroiderer’s heart was really stolen by the antique wallets shown below. If you look back at the pictures of the woman’s kimono above, you can see how she wears one of these wallets tucked into the front overlap of her kimono just above the obi. In other examples, smaller wallets were tucked downward into the obi itself.

kimono purse
Notice on each of these how the embroidery on the band closure matches the imagery on the flap. This particular bag also has metallic butterfly embellishments.

kimono purseAnd here on this orange wallet, there is even a tiny detail trailing off the left corner of the flap onto the body of the purse.

kimono purse
But this one, I thought, was the pièce de résistance. Though I couldn’t show it here, the tail feathers trail across the top and over to the reverse side. And of course, those multiple tassels in metal and knotted cording are just amazing. I will have to follow up with some friends to find out whether these serve some particular purpose or are purely decorative.

All in all, I dream of trying my hand at replicating some of these little bags. At least, I think it would be so much fun to try.

A Mother’s Touch

Japanese sewing boxRecently I caught a lovely little exhibit called “A Mother’s Touch”, focused on the interaction between sewing and mothering across China, Korea and Japan.

Along with all sorts of lovely little toys and trinkets that women sew for their children, the exhibit included an assortment of sewing boxes and baskets used in various parts of Asia.

sewing basket The beautiful wood grained box shown above is one of the styles typical of Japan, while the heart-shaped basket at right is from China. The sewing tools below are from Korea.

Korean sewing tools
Whether a simple basket, a fold of paper or an elaborate wooden box, each of the displays reflected the attention women paid to caring for their needles and threads. And both the containers and their contents often revealed not only the cultural differences but also the cross-cultural universality of sewing.

handsewn Japanese cloth toys

But the main focus was on the wide variety of hand sewn children’s clothing and cloth toys women made for their children in the countries covered in the exhibit, hence the name “A Mother’s Touch”. Shown at right is a collection from Japan featuring pouches in various styles as well as a few traditional rag-doll babies, all made from an assortment of kimono remnants.

Below is a young boy’s kimono from solid and checkerboard indigo beautifully embroidered with elaborate sashiko designs showing the mother’s wish for her child to be blessed with both wealth and longevity. Note the use of white thread against the blue and blue thread against white.

A child's kimono with sashiko embroidery Sashiko is one of the Japanese embroidery techniques that has become better known in the west. It consists of small evenly spaced running stitches outlining the design and may be purely decorative, as shown in the example at left, or may be used to patch, repair, reinforce or quilt layers of fabric for use in clothing and housewares.

Photos of women stitching, like this Chinese grandmother, were sprinkled throughout the exhibit.
Chinese woman sewing

Chinese baby wearing an embroidered hatIn Guanzhong Region of China, infants and young children are adorned with fabulous little hats embroidered with animal faces. As in many agrarian societies, the mortality rate is high for young children giving rise to a mythology that when demon-spirits looked down and saw a beautiful child, these demons would become jealous and snatch that child away. Thus, the animal hats were an effort to disguise the children, to hide and protect them from jealous demons. Of course, knowledge of disease and medicine has supplanted such mythology, but the tradition of these cute little hats has continued, though I am told that it is, like so many other hand arts, on the edge of disappearing as technology advances.

Chinese papercut pattern for embroidery The individual hat designs are derived from papercuts like the one at right. Folded paper is cut freehand to develop a symmetrical design based a combination of abstract and natural forms. The resultant design is then colorfully re-interpreted with needle and thread making each work a unique piece of art.

Assortment of embroidered toys and children's clothing from China But the application of this technique is not limited to children’s hats. At left are a few more examples of little slippers, stuffed toys and pillows. It’s a beautiful folk art that I’d like to investigate further.

With each piece in the exhibit, you could feel the love that added with every stitch—a visual celebration of the bond between mother and child.

And with that thought, may I wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day!

and a Happy (belated) Girls’ Day!

March the third was Girls’ Day in Japan and as I said in my previous post, the occasion is marked by elaborate displays of dolls representing the Emperor and Empress and in the most elaborate displays, their full court of attendants on a graduated dais covered in red felt.  A full set of dolls displayed by a wealthy family might appear similar to that shown below.Hina Matsuri dolls
In a time when marriage was a woman’s only option, such displays were thought to encourage the daughter to aspire to a prosperous match. On Boys’ Day, celebrated in early May, helmets, armor and warrior dolls were displayed to encourage young boys to see the glories of military service as a man’s duty.

Since Hina dolls have been displayed annually for so many centuries, the historical collections of dolls being displayed in museums this month are a doll lover’s dream. While I’m not certain of the age of the pair of dolls shown below, the elaborate padded costumes are a beautiful contrast to the simplified faces.
Hina Matsuri dolls

Of course, not all families could afford the most elaborate displays and so these simplified dolls also developed. Details such as the hat, hair and tassels were added to the carved and painted wooden base. A display of dolls like these might have been accompanied by a flower arrangement or hanging scroll, but carried no less fervent desire for their daughter’s successful future. Note that the plum blossom theme has been incorporated in the painted decorations. Hina Matsuri dolls
This pair of dolls dates from the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan emerged from feudal society to the modern era. Although Japan had previously imposed limits on contact with foreign governments and cultures, Commodore Perry backed by the US Navy had successfully demanded the opening of Japan in 1853. In the years that followed, Japan underwent enormous social and cultural changes and these were even reflected in the Hina dolls of that period. Although the Empress remains in classical kimono, the Emperor doll is shown in western dress and the surrounding display elements mimic the western furniture being newly introduced at that time.
Hina Matsuri dolls

Subsequently though, dolls reverted to a more traditional appearance and the sets currently on sale in department stores appear much more similar to the set shown at the top of the post. But some displays have taken a very creative approach to replacing the red felt covered dais, as in this boating display shown below. Note that they’ve managed to include a few branches of plum blossoms in the background of the display.
Hina Matsuri dolls

Still others have taken a more humorous approach as with these chubby little dolls. Although there are no courtiers in this set, there is an offering of fish, a plate of rice balls and other props to help create that sense of prosperity. Note that the painted backdrop features a combination of pine trees and plum blossoms.
Hina Matsuri dolls

For those who can afford the most elaborate displays, as well as dedicated collectors, there are numerous precious details to choose from—miniscule dishes, tiny lacquered storage boxes and a whole range of precisely scaled musical instruments.
Hina Matsuri dolls
There are even sets of tiny dog dolls to romp through the royal court.
Hina Matsuri dolls

With such a rich tradition, Hina Matsuri has also become a theme for modern Japanese art quilts. Two such quilts are shown below. The first focuses on the family joy in setting up the annual display. Note again the plum blossoms in the upper corner of the quilt. These were beautifully done in 3D, adding great dimensional presence to the quilt.
Hina Matsuri quilt
While the image in this small quilt hanging is heavily abstracted, it retains the much more formal qualities of a full display of dolls.
Hina Matsuri qult

So for those of you with daughters, March is a month to give her especially big hugs. And even though women’s options have grown exponentially (thank goodness!), tell her how much you want the absolute best for her.

My goodness, it’s been a hectic month

kimono vendor's signI’ve had little time to keep up with my blogging, but at least I have finally been able to begin posting my lovely little collection of haori jackets for sale in my kimono shop. The first five were just listed, so do click the “Buy Vintage Kimono” on the menu above to drop by to take a look. They would make wonderful holiday gifts for yourself or anyone else.  I’ll try to add a few more every couple of days until I’ve gotten my entire stock listed.

As autumn begins…

higanbana blooming at Shokokuji temple The beautiful red O-higan-bana are blooming in the gardens of Shokukuji temple near my house. Known as “red spider lilies” in English, O-higan-bana translates literally as “the equinox flower” since it blooms suddenly but briefly, around the time of the Fall Equinox in late September. They spring up almost overnight in clumps and clusters throughout temple gardens and along the narrow paths through rice fields, a last showy gasp of fiery flowering color before the full onset of autumn.

Wendy Carroll helping to measure kimono widths The equinoxes, both of them — spring and summer, are national holidays in Japan. So Tuesday was a day off my normal work schedule and a chance to do a bit of catching up. Which means it was finally time to unbundle those bundles of haori that I bought a few weeks ago and prepare them to be posted on the Vintage Kimono section of my website. That involves quite a bit of work behind the scenes, so I was really grateful for the help of Wendy Carroll, good friend and dear heart, for spending part of her holiday helping me get started with the measuring and cataloging that needs to be done.

bundle of haoriWith a friend to help the task speed along, each colorful piece of this jumbled bundle was tagged and measured by the end of the day. Next comes the photography, trying to show the color, the details and making sure to identify any flaws. But making pictures of garments on a homemade scarecrow appealing must require a special talent, and thus far such talent has eluded me. But I will keep trying and soon, I hope, these lovely little kimono jackets will be listed for sale. blue haori kimono


It’s been so hectic these last few weeks that I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone open my beautiful bundles of haori that have patiently waited for my attention for almost two weeks now. But hectic as its been, I still squeezed in the time to enjoy the Kazari exhibition at Kyoto City Museum before the show closes.

jomon potteryKazari is a Japanese word meaning “adornment” and this exhibition was devoted to the history of the Japanese penchant for adorning object surfaces with beautiful and intricate designs and then arranging those objects to adorn public and private spaces. The world of Japanese design is so often renowned for it’s brilliant minimalism and yet intricate elaborations of surface design also play a strong role as shown by the items selected for inclusion in this exhibition.

The elaborate Jomon pottery shown at left dates back some 10,000 years to the earliest hunter-gathering societies of pre-historic Japan. Although its peaked and coiled form may defy practicality and its uses remain uncertain, this vessel is but one of the hundreds of such archeological finds from that era.

Arita porcelain jarIn contrast, the Arita porcelain jar shown at right was produced several millenia later in the 18th century Edo period, yet it reflects an equal penchant for elaboration. In this case, however, the form has been simplified while intricately painted glazes provide the design interest.

With dozens of examples in each category, there is of course no way to reprise the entire exhibition for you here on my little blog — pottery and porcelain, saddles, swords and armor, lacquered boxes, hair ornaments and altar pieces, each decorated exquisitely with painstaking attention to the finest detail. But of course, my favorite pieces in any show are always the textiles. Below are a few of the exquisite little embroidered pouches. The two sets shown immediately below feature bamboo and chrysanthemum designs, respectively, would have been used by a man to carry his tobacco and pipe in elegance and style. Japanese tobacco pouches

embroidered Japanese purse The purse at right might have been carried to Tea ceremony. Notice the the tiny carved bird that forms the clasp in perfect complement to the embroidered swallow.

And of course, kimono. With so many many many gorgeous examples it was hard to choose a favorite. This one from the early 20th century features birds among bamboo in the snow, dyed and accented with embroidery.

embroidered kimono But the intent of this exhibition was more than simply a display of beautiful relics. Rather, the emphasis lay on the transformative nature of Kazari. In the preface to the catalog, the curator writes, “We are delighted to be able to present to you the timeless world of kazari, where functionality, beauty, the sacred and the secular collide to form an unexpected unity. The act of kazaru (adorning) momentarily lifts one’s spirits from the everyday realm. Efforts to adorn (kazaru) have at times revealed a surprising disregard for practicality but have proven to be a profound motivating force in Japanese culture.”

And even though I had an insufficient amount of time to spend surrounded by such beauty, I went away uplifted.

Sunday was a wonderful day

furoshiki wrapped bundles of newly purchased kimono Sunday was a wonderful day spent in my favorite way — pawing through colorful silks, inspecting and selecting vintage kimono at my dealer’s warehouse. At right you see my bundles of purchases, wrapped in the traditional way in extra large squares of fabric called furoshiki. (So much more charming than a shopping bag!) You can see one of my purchases in bright turquoise silk peaking out of the top of one of the bundles.

Sunday’s shopping spree focused on a particular part of a kimono ensemble,haori. These are kimono jackets or coats. Haori can be made of silk, silk cotton blend, or wool and feature patterns that are just as lovely as those on kimono themselves. But since haori are jackets, they are much shorter — ranging from hip to knee length — and they look great with western clothes. Awhile back, I gave a lovely haori to a girlfriend in San Francisco and heard that she paired it with black silk trousers to make an absolutely glorious outfit that she wears to the opera.

Sadly though, this is Monday morning and I must trot off to work. My bundles must remain bundled till later in the week when I can begin cataloging and photographing them to post on my vintage kimono site. As I start to post my new acquisitions for sale, I’ll e-mail notices to those who have requested it. If you’d like to be on that mailing list, click on the “Buy Vintage Kimono” link on the menu bar above, then click the link on the kimono page to sign up for e-mail notices. You’ll be among the first to know when these treasures go up for sale.

Noh Robes

Noh kimonoWith temperatures regularly reaching 35°~39°C/95°~100°F and humidity between 60 and 80%, summer in Kyoto can be rough, which makes the archeological textile rooms at local museums a particularly favorable summertime outing. Not only are the rooms temperature and humidity controlled to preserve the ancient fibers, but also the dimmed lighting that protects the ancient dye offers a welcome relief from the summer glare. So of course, when I saw a flyer advertising an exhibition of Noh kimono at Sen-Oku Hakuko Kan, I jumped at the chance to see it. Admittedly, I’m an avid kimono fan who would have jumped at the chance in midwinter as well, but my little museum excursion did make a particularly nice respite from the afternoon’s heat.Noh kimono

Noh is one of several theatrical traditions in Japan and dates back to the Muromachi period (c.1400-1500 AD). It’s thought that Noh evolved from a complex performance of acrobatics, dancing, music and singing that blended both the public performances presented to commoners and the solemn music, dance, and ceremonial performances at the imperial court and aristocrats’ residences. Due to its immense popularity, Noh plays drew large audiences and thus the costumes tended to feature bold graphic designs that helped to distinguish the role being played by reflecting some attribute of the character being represented.

Many of the kimono on exhibit dated from the Momoyama period and as such represent prototypes from which the tradition evolved.Noh kimono Noh robes also tend to be quite voluminous with relatively small sleeves. To some extent that reflects the prevailing structure of garments in the Momoyama period, but presumably this loose fit also facilitates quick costume changes for performers playing multiple roles. And although many of the designs appear to be embroidered, quite often they are the product of an intricate weave that manipulates dozens of shuttles to float variously colored weft threads across the patterned area. Although some of the oldest garments show a loss of pattern on certain sections as these threads have worn away, it’s truly remarkable how carefully these treasures have been preserved in a climate as humid and changeable as Japan.Noh kimono

Another unique feature of Noh robes is the use of color blocking as part of the design. It was the friend I saw the show with that drew my attention to that. Neither of us could recall seeing other types of kimono with such bold blocks of color that seemed to form a large checkerboard underlying the pattern. Though the example shown at left features an overall cherry blossom pattern in the foreground, many of the robes used those color blocks to bridge the seasons by placing a spring/summer pattern on one color block and a fall/winter pattern on the other, allowing greater versatility in the costume’s use throughout the year.Noh kimono

As suggested by all of what I’ve written so far, Noh costumes are among the most elaborate kimono still made. Noh is a living tradition that continues to be well loved by the Japanese people. The fabrics for modern Noh kimono are still woven here in my neighborhood of Nishijin and a new Noh theatre was recently constructed a few blocks down the street near my home. Performers wear not only these elaborate costumes but also intricately carved wooden masks. Painted with pigment and burnished to a pearl-like sheen, it is said that there are 60 basic types of masks, representing specific character types: men and women of various ages, demons, elders, warriors, ghosts and sprits etc.Noh performer

Despite the elaborate costume and mask, very few stage props are used in telling the story. Thus, the full weight of characterization relies on the actor and costume. Colors and graphic patterns in the kimono and the type of mask worn, signal the nature of the character. From there, the story unfolds in the imagination of each audience member through movement and gesture, acting and singing. Each of the performer’s gestures and movements involves an elaborately ritualized choreography and it is said that the audience’s experience of the performance is dramatically affected by the position of their seating — not just closeness to the stage itself, but also whether the seat is positioned on stage left or stage right. As with so much else in life, each position offers a uniquely individual experience.

Dancing kimono

Recently my friend and ikebana mentor Kazuko Nishikawa was invited to arrange flowers for an exhibition of maiko kimono at the Some Museum (Museum of Dyed Textiles). black kimono Maiko are apprentice geisha and their elaborate kimono are much more ornate and theatrical than those worn by the average Japanese woman. As befitting a young woman, the kimono are furisode style with long sleeves. And as shown at the picture at bottom, the obi also has long trailing ends instead of the more common flat square knot worn by married women.

Since maiko are apprentices and have not yet developed the range of social skills

blue kimono exercised by fully trained geisha, their duties mostly involve music and dance performances, which accounts for the colorful theatrical style of their kimono.

maiko dressed in kimono Maiko kimono are of course frequently decorated with brightly colored flowers and butterflies, but literary motifs are also common as are symbols of a traditional lifestyle. The blue kimono above features decorated clam shells, representing the kai awase game that was popular during the Heian era in the 11th century. Similar to the card game “Concentration”, the game used sets of clamshells rather than cards. Matching scenes were painted on the interior surfaces of each pair of shells, while the exterior surfaces were polished to a smooth blank, making hard to recognize which pairs would go together when all of the clamshells were placed with the painted side down. Some of the older sets contained as many as 360 pairs of shells, though simplified sets of 54 pairs based on scenes from Tale of Genji later became popular.

There are about 100 to 150 maiko in Kyoto. Most live and work in the Gion or Ponto-cho areas on the east side of town. They are considered professional entertainers and tourists flock to the area to glimpse a “geisha”, just as Hollywood tourists might hope to see a movie star. Maiko dance movements are highly stylized and use the long flowing sleeves to add a graceful flutter. The dance often represents a poem or enacts a literary scene. Click here to view a brief performance.

obi by the dozen

In response to a request for pictures from my shopping spree the other day, may I present a dozen obi.
3 obi
3 obi
3 obi
3 obi
Of course, this is only a part of the collection….

What can one do with a dozen obi? There are a myriad possibilities. To jumpstart one’s imagination, I can certainly recommend Diane Wiltshire’s fabulous book, Design with Japanese Obi for home decor ideas.

And when it comes to handbags, accessories and wearables, oh my lord!, the sky’s the limit. They look fabulous patchworked with dupioni silk and they REALLY dress up denim…

  • By the way, a blog reader wrote to ask if I would be willing to sell any of these and as you can see, we struck a deal. So if anyone else is interested, please feel free to use the contact button in the menu bar at the top of the page and we’ll talk.