Buying Kimono Fabrics for Historical Costume

March 06, 2015

With the bustle event at the Japanese Festival firmly in sight, I've been trolling ebay trying to find the perfect kimono silk to use for my gown. In doing so, I have encountered quite a few curious pitfalls, so I thought it might be useful to write a "buyers guide" of sorts for those thinking of delving into the world of kimono silks.

Firstly, a lot of the sellers will list the Japanese names of fabrics, and just note them as "silk" in English. This is fine if you're already familiar with kimono fabrics, but if you're new to them it may end up being a bit confusing.  Here's a glossary to help navigate the term.

omeshi - heaviest silk crepe; the fibers are dyed and waxed before weaving, creating bold patterns. You'll rarely see this available on eBay.

chirimen - heavy silk crepe; quite common on eBay, has nice body but not extremely heavy.

kinsha - lighter silk crepe, popular in summer; rare on eBay

ro - sheer, airy silk, semi-transparent. Not as transparent as chiffon, probably closer to a georgette. Will often be hand-painted.

rinzu - silk satin damask, ranges from lightweight to heavy; usually if the listing says "furisode" or especially "uchikake" fabric, it's going to be rinzu silk

shibori - a tie-dye technique that produces a distinctive dot pattern, usually done with lightweight silks

sha - similar to ro silk, but smoother. With ro silks, the fibers are twisted before weaving, where in sha silks they are not. Sha silk is therefore a bit stiffer than ro.

tsumugi - a slubby silk similar to dupioni

jinken - rayon, NOT silk.

The second thing to watch out for is the size of the piece of fabric available. Kimono fabric is woven on narrow looms, producing 14" wide fabric. I've noticed a trend on eBay of sellers cutting these narrow widths down even further, sometimes to less than half the original width! Most sellers will list the width and length of the pieces they are selling, so you should be able to figure out how much you'll need, but be aware that you may be looking at doing a lot of finagling, especially if you have to do any pattern matching.

Some of the sellers won't list the length of the fabric in the auction title. Instead, they'll say something like, "kimono silk bolt for haori", or "kimono yukata bolt". They're really telling you how much or what type of fabric they have, they're just not listing exact dimensions.  Here are some guidelines.

Haori - A haori is a short kimono jacket that ends at about mid-thigh. These bolts won't have as much fabric on them as others. Generally, dimensions are 800 cm x 37.5 cm, or roughly 8.75 yards x 14".

Furisode - Furisode are formal kimono with long sleeves. They are often brightly coloured and have vibrant patterns and embroidery. These will probably be the longest bolts you'll find on eBay, but they only appear every once in  while. These bolts can range from 13 to 15 yards long, and 14" wide.

Tsukesage/Tsumugi/Tomesode/Iromuji - Various types of formal kimono, they're all going to be roughly the same length, give or take a half a yard or so. They don't have the long sleeves of furisode, so the bolts are somewhat shorter. They're usually around 1280 cm x 36 cm, so around 14 yards of 14" wide fabric.

Juban - A juban is an under-kimono, and is usually made of very lightweight fabric. They are usually in light colours, like white and pink, and very rarely, blue, or in a bright, vibrant red. Some very fancy juban can have shibori designs. Unfortunately, lengths can vary a great deal, so you can get anywhere from 8 to 14 yards long. The width can sometimes be a bit narrower, too, sometimes varying by less than an inch, and sometimes several inches. Be sure to check the description in the listing to get the exact dimensions of the fabric offered. Note: There are also men's garments called "juban", that are similar to regular kimono. These would be offered in the standard 14" width, with lengths around 10-14 yards.

Yukata - A lightweight summer kimono, very informal, (your jeans and t-shirt of the kimono world), always cotton. Lengths are roughly comparable to other kimono bolts, but the fabric will often be brightly coloured.

A lot of the time on eBay, you won't find full bolts of kimono fabric. Some sellers will cut the bolts into smaller pieces, or take apart kimono and sell each panel. Sometimes you'll get lucky, and a seller will have multiple listings for the same kimono fabric, so you can purchase longer lengths, and with some good piecing and matching, you should be able to have enough to make something out of.

If you don't want to brave the turbulent waters of eBay's listings, there are a couple of good online sellers that offer kimono fabric.

Ichiroya Kimono Flea Market
Ichiroya is a well-known online kimono shop operating out of Osaka. They have gorgeous kimono, and lots of selection on fabrics, and the prices are usually really good. A good chunk of my own kimono collection is from them, and everything I've purchased from them has been excellent.

Shinei Antique Kimono Store
This seller is new to me, but I stumbled upon their store while looking for kimono silk. They have some less-than-perfect kimono listed in their fabric section at incredibly cheap prices ($7-13!), but the shipping can add up, and quite a few of their offerings are listed as "synthetic" or even "chemical fiber" (acetate?). They usually have a link within the listing that leads to a chart of by-weight shipping prices, so you can see how much your purchase will cost to ship.

Just a note, if you're wanting a kimono fabric with embroidery on it, your only choice is going to be to buy a kimono and disassemble it. The kimono bolts are exclusively printed or painted, they are not embroidered, as embroidery would usually take place after the kimono was assembled.

Hopefully this proves useful for your fabric buying endeavours, and maybe I'll see you at the Japanese Gardens in October!

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