Stitching a yukata

When my mother moved to a nursing home several years ago, she gave me lots of her sewing treasures. Among them was this rather insignificant bolt of fabric …Of course, it isn’t insignificant at all! – it’s a Japanese cotton yukata fabric which I think she probably bought when we were living in Tokyo in the 1960s. There are some pictures in her photo albums of a visit to a yukata dyeing factory so I wonder if that is where and when she got it …?And when you spread it out a bit, you realise how lovely the patterning is …I’ve treasured this fabric so long – got it out regularly, stroked it – and put it away again. Too precious to use …

But, a month or so ago, I decided the time had come to make myself a yukata from it – especially as I had a lovely old Folkwear pattern to guide me …Yukatas have been a bit of a family tradition in my family, and we all have worn them/still wear them as outer night wear. 

I was born in Tokyo in the 1950s, a time when Western influence was not quite all-pervasive. The lovely ladies who looked after me (Takagi-san on the left and Mitsuko-san on the right) always wore kimonos and yukatas so that’s what I grew up with …The earliest photo of me wearing a yukata is when I was about 18 months old. I don’t look very happy but then my parents had put me in for a children’s fancy dress competition as we sailed back to England on board the RMS Carthage …In the next few years the family expanded, and of course there were yukatas for all us children …My father’s work took him to and fro Japan, so we found ourselves living in Tokyo again in the 1960s. To escape the summer heat, we would move for several weeks to a little holiday house in the cooler north on the shore of Lake Chuzenji (leaving my father behind in hot, humid Tokyo – no air-conditioning in our home, so he slept in the office).

It truly was a very special place to holiday. We had a little Japanese house with tatami floors and shoji (wood and paper) room partitions. Of an evening my father would light the wood fire under the boiler, and we would all troop into the bathroom, scrub up, and climb into the very hot bath. Then we’d put on our yukatas for an evening’s family fun of Mahjong  …Sometimes he would read us traditional Japanese stories – a favourite was  The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Quite terrifying – we didn’t sleep well after that! Perhaps this is one such occasion because my mother looks rather fed up! I stuck with the yukata tradition in later life. Here I am in hospital at the birth of my son, and of course, wearing my yukata …Three years later at the birth of my daughter, I’m wrapped in another yukata. A man’s one, I think – not sure where that one came from …And then my children as they grew up also wore yukatas …A couple of year’s later and Helen’s wearing that yukata and James has moved on to another one …Breakfast in bed with their grandmother was a treat, and she has another lovely yukata …Many years later (this is 1998) my parents still continued to receive gifts of yukatas from their Japanese friends. This is such a happy picture of my mother wearing a most beautiful iris-patterned yukata …So, now in my mid-sixties, I have rather a lot of very treasured yukatas – acquired from various sources. Some are gifts from travellers back from Japan, some I’ve bought on Ebay, and I’ve found some in charity shops.

This bank of yukatas was to prove most useful to me when I started to make my own yukata because each one has been made quite differently. Only one – the shibori one, third on the right, – has been made traditionally  …Traditional yukata fabric is woven to a very narrow width. My bolt is just 35 cm wide (and 1074 cm long). This is so clever because it means that a yukata can be made with the minimum of seam finishing.

First I laid out the fabric to see how I wanted the prints on the fabric to join. It was clear that I didn’t need to worry about this. The patterns are designed to marry into each other wherever they meet.

A yukata made of a traditional narrow bolt takes two widths of that bolt for the back …When I looked at my old yukatas, I was amazed to see how differently they were made. The shibori yukata was made of two narrow bolts which had been joined down the back with a hand-stitched seam …By contrast this very pretty yukata featuring Japanese ladies and cherry blossom had no seam down the back which indicates it was not made from traditional narrow-woven fabric …
You can see that for the traditional yukata, there is no seam over the shoulders – another economy of effort! A narrow piece of fabric (half the width of the bolt) is attached to the front pieces to add fabric to wrap around the body. The placing of this front piece (and the width of the seams) allows you to make the yukata to fit a larger or smaller person …I studied all my yukatas carefully, deciding in the end the shibori one fitted me best so I matched the widths of my seams to those of this yukata …The shibori yukata was all handstitched – really beautiful work …But though I toyed with handstitching mine, I decided in the end to machine it …There was just a little bit of handsewing involved …Where necessary I used French seams to tidy as is traditional. For just one small section I sank to the modern technique of zigzag machine edging …Most of the seams didn’t need edging because they were selvedges …The shibori yukata has an inner yoke of plain fabric to strengthen the area which gets most stress, so I copied that and cut up an old nightie for the purpose …My only mistake – and was I irritated with myself at this! – was the sleeves. You can see how the sleeve lengths vary here. I didn’t want a sleeve as long as the formal sleeve on the right so I cut from the shorter sleeve pattern on the left – and then found it was too short! Maddening! I had to add a piece in to make it a bit longer …All this time I’d been sewing from the unwashed bolt. I know this is not recommended sewing procedure, but there was a lot of dressing which helped with the sewing.

The time finally came to give the yukata a good wash – get rid of all those vintage years of sitting in cupboards unloved. After a good blow in the soft Northumbrian breezes, it is soft as soft …Now it’s proudly joined all my other yukatas …

Do I have a favourite? Hmmmm …. I’ll have to think about that …


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16 thoughts on “Stitching a yukata”

  1. How lovely to read about your Japanese heritage, Katherine! And what a wardrobe of yukatas! And now the beautiful new one too. The only thing missing is a picture of you in it which I was fully expecting to see.
    I hadn’t seen the photo of you with Henry before and it really touches me.


    1. I do indeed have a wardrobe of yukatas! I’m wondering if you’ve ever worn them? Sorry I didn’t model the new yukata – perhaps one day … hopefully the charming photograph of the three of us children posing in our yukatas will compensate. I think Marian is particularly sweet with her little pigtails 🙂


  2. I’d never even heard of yukatas and am now smitten and wonder how I’ve managed without one. What a lovely back story too. I love the graduations of colour on your fabric and can understand why you’ve been stroking and waiting for so long. Am off to investigate further.


    1. You’re not alone, Anne, in not having heard of yukatas – most people only know about kimonos. Kimonos are beautiful but they are very impractical being made of exquisite fabrics whereas the simple cotton fabric of the yukatas allows for much more everyday wear. And the designs are at least as fabulous as those on kimonos. I’m hoping to see that inspiration will lead you on to making … perhaps prints? always love what you make 🙂


  3. I too have sewn a yukata from that pattern, also a Folkwear happi coat. I love these simple, elegant and ingenious garments. Your collection is a reminder that the fabric is so very important! That shibori is a dream to look at, and I’m sure to handle.


    1. Now why doesn’t that surprise me, Maggie?! Bet what you made is really stylish. This Folkwear pattern is excellent with lots of ideas for embroidery. Now I’ve started I think I might make some more yukatas – perhaps with western fabrics. Though I agree with you Japanese fabrics speak truly beautifully for themselves. And yes, the shibori is really lovely – very very soft fabric, just beginning to wear a little, will need some boro stitching soon 🙂


  4. How lovely to find out you were born in Tokyo! I missed out on being able to say “I was born in Macau” by 4 years, but at least I too got to grow up in a very different culture from the one we live in today.
    That yukata is absolutely lovely and I’m so glad you finally got to make one out of some beautiful and correct fabric. Makes me envious my mother didn’t have any sewing fancies when I was a child, maybe I’d have some lovely embroidered silks to play with…

    Do make more, even if you’re just using western fabrics – that collection of yours is gorgeous and it deserves more friends 😉


    1. It is a lasting experience, isn’t it, to live when young in another country? Macau sounds incredibly exotic to me! Thank you for your kind words about my yukata – I’m greedy and wish there were more fabrics that my mother had brought back from Japan 🙂 but I do think you’re right, it’s worth making yukatas in western fabrics – if I can find the right ones 🙂


  5. This is my favorite post ever. I did not know you lived in Japan. I lived there for three years – it might be where I got my textile addiction in the first place. I just think it’s wonderful that your parents immersed you like that, and that your family took on wearing yukatas as a tradition. I only work yukata or kimono a handful of times, mostly because I am so tall, and with long arms, that they never fit. I always felt like a scarecrow or something, skinny wrists sticking out too much, and not enough length in the bodies. I went to Japan with my son three years ago. I’ve attached a photo of us reflected in a glass wall, in one of the hotels we stayed in. He was very happy to dress the part. Thanks for keeping up your blog. I have decided that next time I visit the UK I will linger in the northern counties for a bit. Frith

    On Tue, Oct 20, 2020 at 4:16 AM something from seaview wrote:

    > kaydeerouge posted: ” When my mother moved to a nursing home several years > ago, she gave me lots of her sewing treasures. Among them was this rather > insignificant bolt of fabric …Of course, it isn’t insignificant at all! – > it’s a Japanese cotton yukata fabric which I think” >


    1. Awww Frithany – thank you so very much for your kind words about this blogpost! I guess it will have been particularly relevant if you know the place well as you must do.
      I think yukatas are meant to fit all body types – that is their genius. My arms always stick out, and my husband’s even more so when he wears a yukata. In winter I wear a fine knit long cardigan under my yukata so that the stuck out arms are kept warm. I hope you’ll be encouraged to try again 🙂


  6. Hello! Sorry I am so late, have started several times but didn’t quite make it all the way to the blog! Which I loved. Had not heard of Yukata’s either and went upstairs to look at my books on making Japanese clothing…no Yukata’s mentioned! What I remembered was when I was living in Oakland I was in and out of shops in Berkeley California. There were rolls of woven fabric about 14″ wide and it was explained to me that they were for making kimonos. the houses being small didn’t have room for large looms and this width was just right for making kimonos. Read much later that the garments were picked apart, washed, stretched and re sewn. Am sure you know all this but it still fascinates me. The ingeniousness of these garments is just brilliant. You did a lovely job with that fabric. good for you attempting it and explaining the process.


    1. Intriguing how many of us have never heard about Yukatas – they are Japan’s private secret, I think! and even your books on making Japanese clothing don’t mention them! that said – I think they are the same as kimonos in make up, just made from cotton and not sumptuous silks. The economy of use is amazing – I wish I’d shown on my blog how very tiny were the bits of fabric I had left over. I’m loving wearing it 🙂 So pleased to hear you enjoyed reading about it – thanks for writing, Susan 🙂


  7. What a lovely story! I am so glad you seemed to enjoy sewing yukata. I am native of Japan living in the US. I brought yukata fabric bolts and a few of my old yukatas this summer. My daughters are now interested in wearing yukata after staying in old inn where we were provided with yukata as sleeping wears this past summer. I have learned how to sew yukata in high school. This was part of curriculum back then and we all thought this would be useless….. However, I later bought a book about kimono sewing to make Halloween costumes for girls! They wanted Tanjiro and Nezuko outfits from Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no yaiba). I am thinking of making another yukata for my daughter as she is too long for my old yukata. Who would have thought of making them again??….I have been too tall for any kimono and had to order custom made and it was just too much work and too expensive! But my mentor who bought me to the US made me realize how precious this traditional clothes are. Now I am so grateful for making me re-evaluate my tradition.


    1. I am so honoured to have your lovely comment on my yukata tale! Yukatas are a great tradition – the most comfortable nighttime clothing as the world hots up! Good luck with making those manga costumes for your daughters – I would love to see them, bet they’ll be wonderful. And I hope you persuade your daughters back to wearing the traditional clothing of your country more often 🙂


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