Vintage and historical dresses always caught my affection, but I was also always a little more into Japanese things. I have loved kimono since my childhood, and when I finally made my way to Japan, I had the chance to live with a Japanese family. My host mother is a professional kimono teacher, and she introduced me to the world of kimono. As dressing a kimono isn’t easy, I spent years to bring my dressing skills to perfection, and I never forgot my host mother saying, “When you want to know everything about kimono, you also have to learn how it is tailored.”
I remember her sitting in the living room and sewing a new obi (a belt that is wrapped around the waist). She wasn’t a professional seamstress, but her love for kimono was so deep that she also had studied how to make them. I found out later that very few kimono teachers also know how to sew, and this makes my host mother pretty special. Even today she is my absolute role model in her passion for kimono.
After moving to another city in Japan, I started taking sewing classes, and a veteran kimono seamstress became my first teacher. I admired her “unshin (運針)” and did my best to master it. Unshin is a hand sewing technique that produces a running stitch and is almost as fast as a sewing machine. Professional seamstresses sew together meters of cloth with even and perfectly straight stitching in a few minutes—and of course, they don’t even bother to draw a line that would guide their stitching.
Whilst in other countries the back stitch is way more popular today, kimono are sewed with a running stitch because kimono seams are not meant to be durable. This has several reasons. One is maintenance. Kimono are usually made of two layers of silk and therefore can’t be washed. The most popular cleaning method until today is called “araihari (洗い張り)”. In this method, all seams are unpicked and the fabric is sewed together in its original form with a basting stitch. This is then cleaned, dried, and ironed to reduce any possible shrinkage. After this procedure, the kimono is sewed together again. To put this in other words: kimono seams are made for the purpose of being unpicked from time to time, and a running stitch saves a lot of work.
Another reason for the running stitch is the status of the fabric itself. While in “yofuku (洋服 western clothes)” — this is the Japanese term for clothing that is not kimono — the design is mostly considered as the essence of the garment, the essence of kimono is the silk. In the case the kimono should tear, the seam should rip and not the fabric. Unshin provides this rather loose but still firm running stitch that is needed to protect the silk from being damaged.
The deeper I dive into this art, these techniques and philosophies of “wasai (和裁 kimono tailoring)” fascinate me more and more. Every project I start in my sewing class gives me an insight into kimono, and a Japanese lifestyle and way of thinking that I would have never learned by just living here. Unfortunately, dressing and sewing kimono are skills that most Japanese today don’t know anymore and are regarded as useless, but I hope I can attract more and more people to study the art of kimono making by sharing my experience.
After studying Japanology in Leipzig, Germany, Billy Matsunaga moved to Japan to become a licensed kimono instructor and stylist. She has won several Kimono Dressing Competitions and has licenses from several kimono schools and institutions. She dedicates her life to sharing her knowledge about kimono and Japanese culture and history with the world. But her love for kimono making (wasai 和裁) will stay a pure hobby.
YouTube: Billy Matsunaga