Repairing a 90-Year-Old Silk Kimono - part 1

(or, I Took Apart a 90 y.o. Rare Vintage Silk Fireman Jacket because I wanted to add in pockets)

Fuji Kimono - Cannonball antique fireman jacket

*Note: Not every robey Japanese garment is called a kimono, but I will use the term to make my life easier.
Also, if you're into kimonos, check out Fuji Kimono's website. Or, if you're close to London or Brighton, sign up for newsletter to know when and where she'll be next! Fuji's a lovely person who'll love to show you her unique pieces!

Take a look at my projects on Pinterest, and you’ll realise that I'm a sucker for most things Japanese, specially ukiyo-e and kimonos.

As a fashion designer, I end up buying the occasional kimono, telling myself that it'll be great research. If I’m totally honest, though, I actually buy them because I want to wear them, so I end up finding things to tweak. (Mainly, I add side pockets.)

A labour of impractical love

Kimonos are actually really, really impractical. And the vintage ones are not that durable, either: I usually end up damaging or soiling their very ancient, very delicate, hand-dyed and hand-printed textiles.

Since I'm more interested in indigo-dyed kimonos, and those are usually made in plain weave cotton, I've been very successful at keeping them clean by carefully hand washing them in cold water with minimal soap and lots of salt.

I couldn't get myself to do that to my silk chirimen fireman's jacket, though, which was not only very old and delicate, but also had a fair number of tiny holes all over it. Its construction felt overall very fragile… But yeah, like that would stop me from wearing it!

My continuing to wear it in such a state was only going to make things worse, to the point where I wouldn't be able to wear it anymore or—God forbid—I would have to throw it away.

The time came where I mustered up the courage to repair it.

This is not a DIY attempt at restoring this piece to its former glory using the traditional techniques of back in the day. Nor is this a piece bought for styling or research purposes only, like the design team at a fashion house might do.

Rather, I'm adapting it to my everyday, contemporary life that does not involve taking 40 minutes to get dressed in layers and layers of undergarments and sashes. (If you look up how to properly wear a kimono, it is quite the ritual. I’m not about to go perform tea ceremonies, though.)

My goal is merely to make it more robust by adding functional features from ready-to-wear tailoring, such as fusible interfacing.

Kimono repair - fusing placement

Yellow areas = areas that needed reinforcement

1. Taking it apart and washing it (carefully)

Kimonos are hand-sewn, usually with somewhat large stitches, so unpicking the seams was quite easy.

I noticed that some parts had been sewn using a light grey thread, and some grey dots showed in a few places. Good thing I could redo everything in black thread!

One of my issues with the jacket was that I could still smell a sweet mango-vanilla-coconut mess of a moisturiser on it that had rubbed off when I wore it.  I don't know if that was just me being extra fussy about artificial smells, or if indigo-dyed cotton is particularly good at holding this combination of oil + sweat + fragrance. In any case, I was really happy to finally wash it away.

Fortunately, once I took it apart, I realised that I only needed to wash the lining and the collar. There's something called 部分洗い (bubun-arai, or “partial washing”) in Japanese, meaning that only "strategic" places on a kimono are taken apart and washed, so as to not do damage to delicate fabrics - so I didn't feel too bad not washing the whole thing.

*This is a method also used in professional laundry and dry cleaning, by the way, to wash very delicate fabrics or garments with intricate embroidery with different materials.

Cleaning old textiles is always a gamble, as the color might fade quite dramatically or darker colors might bleed and spoil a printed design.

Luck was on my side this time, and with cold, salty water and mild laurel soap, I was able to go through the washing with no casualties besides the usual greenish leftover water from the indigo-dyed lining, and a reddish leftover water from the black collar.

Afterwards, I simply hung it flat on the drying rack and let it sit overnight. I was careful to put it in a shaded area, just in case I forgot about it the next day. Sunlight can fade colors and permanently 'trap' odors in fabrics.

2. Preparing to sew

Antique kimono, taken apart, after wash The kimono, taken apart, after washing.

Antique kimono repair - testing fusible interfacingTesting if the fusible interfacing (aka “fusing”) won't damage the silk chirimen.

Kimono - Adding side pockets

Deciding where to add the side pockets; pocket bags upcycled from an old dress (I added interfacing to the pocket opening, just forgot to draw it over the picture this time…)

Kimono repair - tiny holes

Tiny holes everywhere…I don't have spare fabric to fix them the traditional way, so I have to back them with fusible interfacing, too.

3. Assembling

Antique fireman haori - after repair

Head over to part 2 HERE.

Love kimonos, hate the maintenance?

If you don't have the same patience as me (not shaming anyone, took me ages to gather the courage to repair my vintage kimono and I actually like to get craftsy), I got you:

Long-lasting, easy to wash, easy to wear, made in a sustainable material... and with a unique print, of course - check out my kimono robe prototype, at a special price while I develop the final version with indigo-dyed lining.