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 …

Christmas gifts – and wintry weather!

December knocked me flat.  I feel quite ashamed to admit this because in retirement we enjoy a leisurely and simple Christmas.  No longer are there small children to delight and exhaust, no longer are we heavily involved with parish church festivities, and no longer do we have working schedules that get more and more chaotic as Christmas approaches.  I look back on those times with amazement – and wonder how we did it all?

This year, it is only now – as Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the end of the Christmas festival, approaches – that I have recovered sufficient mojo to look back on December reflectively.

Of course lots happened.  But for the purposes of this blogpost, I’m going to concentrate on homemade Christmas gifts.  These made me very happy – and I hope they gave the recipients pleasure too.

I just love the small furry animals devised by Kerry Lord, the talented brains behind the Toft alpaca story. They are so cute – so quirky – with so much character – surely, I thought,  they would be acceptable gifts to our very grown-up children?

The first Toft creature I made – a bunny – was crocheted using Toft’s own alpaca yarn.  I’m not a crocheter and found the pattern very hard to master so I was just pleased as punch when I finished her.  Isn’t she a sweetie-pie?Toft BunnyA wintry day in December found me up in my woolly workroom, with Poe, our cat, putting together some more Toft creatures.  I didn’t have enough of the Toft yarn to crochet more creatures, so dug into my stash for some hand-dyed homespun. A single strand of Rowan Kidsilk Haze added to homespun  gave the Toft creatures a soft furry finish.

The trickiest part to making these Toft creatures is the stuffing – they need to be tactically understuffed. I’m getting better at this – not easy.   But it is the sagginess that adds to the character. Each creature also has a little bag of “ballast” sewn into their belly to help provide core stability.working on Toft animalsThese two were meant to be Siamese cats but they do not look at all feline to me. No, they are foxes, surely – little Fennec Foxes, I think!Toft Fennec FoxesHere’s my Toft gang before they set off bearing Christmas love and good wishes. Most of them went to new homes, but three little ones (the darker ones – my earlier attempts) keep me company and stay here.  As it is cold and wintry, they all got stripey scarves to keep them warm on their travels.Toft animal collectionSome Toft creatures found themselves making new furry friends in their new homes … Others got Christmas cuddles when they arrived …Hats were my other focus this Christmas.  Browsing through old Designer Knitting magazines, I found this two-colour cabled hat designed by Cully Swansen in the Winter 2009/10 issue.   Just a great pattern – and excellent for using up smaller amounts of yarn.  I changed the pattern slightly, adding a wide-ribbed headband in place of the garter stitch of the original pattern.  All the pompoms are alpaca and were purchased from the Toft alpaca shop – I can’t tell you how lovely they are: soft and furry and very fluffy.Cully Swansen's hat patternMy first attempt was this green and white hat. The white is the leftover yarn from the Toft bunny above, and the green is homespun mixed fibres yarn (wool, silk, and mohair).  I picked up a small ball of what I think is Noro Silk Garden in a charity shop and put a strand of that with my homespun.  This added to the variegated effect and the softness.Hat for BarbaraI was really pleased with the green and white hat – so made another. It took me a long time to work out the colours. I knew I wanted grey – but what to put with it. I tried red – no, too obvious. But khaki golden yellow? Hmm – yes, that looks very promising.  I think its what is called Grellow in knitting circles these days.  The yellow is left over Rowan alpaca colour (a gorgeous soft silky yarn) and the grey is two strands made up of Lang Donegal and another grey yarn (name and details lost – oh dear, system slipping).Jam's Christmas hatWe had perfect weather over the Christmas period for the wearing – and modelling – of the new hats.Jam & Barbara in hatsI made three of these hats as Christmas presents. This last is more a beanie because that’s what my husband wanted.  He didn’t think a pompom was for him …   (The black is Debbie Bliss Fine Donegal combined with my own homespun, and the name and origins of the red scrap is lost in history – but it is a lovely thick flecked yarn.)Stephen's cabled beanieAnd now I’m making one for myself. I found it very difficult to restrict myself to two colours so with my own hat, I’ve allowed myself to use three colours. I know it doesn’t show off the clean lines of the cabling, but the colours work well together. One of the yarns is a beautiful hand spun merino yarn my husband brought back from South Uist.  It’s red and orange and brown and yellow – Uist Landscapes – Peat Stack is the name the spinner, Denise Bridge, has given it.  So evocative.  The variegation confuses the cable pattern further, of course, but I don’t think that matters.  The homespun merino is like little flames in the green and brown, isn’t it?  (The green is a Rowan Tweed, and the brown is my own homespun combined with a strand of dark purple Rowan Kidsilk Haze.)Katherine's cabled hatMy son asked for the present we all want – more time.   And this is what my clever Stephen gave him – why, of course, let’s up the hours in a day from twelve to thirteen!  That’s 8.3% more time a day … Look how pleased my Jammy is!  The secret of this time cook-up lies with Stephen, but I can let you know that there were cheap Homebase clocks and Excel broadsheets involved …13 hour clockThere were a couple of new GiveWraps for these presents.  Both went to cat-loving ladies. I think these Japanese ladies work very well with the cats – for some reason …Japanese ladies and cats GiveWrapAnd this GiveWrap went to a lady who loves cats and Mexican Day of the Dead images  and Moomins – and those scratchy cats of Alexander Henry’s keep up on cropping up everywhere …Even an old child’s pillowcase has started a new life as a GiveWrap … happy memories …  Mr men GiveWrapI was given the most generous of gifts – gifts to feed inspiration.  There were books and fabrics and yarns ….

Perhaps you read my blogpost about dyeing fleece, and my undisciplined methods?  This year I am going to learn how to dye properly – thank you, Gail Callahan!Hand dyeing bookThese wonderful Japanese fabrics were a gift from my daughter.  They are such an amazing vibrant colour – and the patterns!  I sort of have the seeds of an idea for another quilt – and perhaps these would be part of that …Christmas fabrics from HelenMore fabrics from Stephen. This is an entire sari – silk, of course.  It is vintage – I guess that means somebody threw it out?  It is very soft, both in texture and in colour, and I will not be throwing it out any time soon.  There is enough material to make a full length dress, but my seventies days are over, and I’ll probably be making a tunic to wear over leggings.  Gorgeous to wear in the summer.recycled sariFrom another Ebay website, Stephen got these silk sari scraps.  These are the good parts from old, damaged and worn-out saris.  They will make some beautiful GiveWraps.recycled sari piecesLots and lots of inspiration there.  Now the days are grey and dark, windy (very) and miserable.  I learn from a Brittany instagrammer that the Celts call this time Les Mois Noirs.  Apt description indeed.  We look out on wet puddled fields …view from window and wild seas …Spittal beach promenadeOnly the seagulls seem not to care …Seagull soaring over wavesOur lane is eroding as water forces new pathways …View down our laneTime to put all the lights on so that I can actually see some colour, and get playing with all this gorgeous new stuff!

(I must add that although the weather here is very wet and windy and generally horrible, we have not been flooded.  Many homes in the UK have experienced awful flooding troubles over the last few weeks.  There are some poor souls watching and waiting as I write, fearing they will be flooded soon with this continuing rain. It’s been a heartbreaking Christmas for many.)