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 …