The Working-Class Herstory of the Kimono

This piece appears in the book Putting on the Dog: the Animal Origins of What We Wear by Melissa Kwasny, published by Trinity University Press, May 2019. For more information, please visit

Cloth making—reeling, spinning, weaving, knitting—is historically “night work,” most often done by women, most often poor women, then and now, all over the earth.

In Japan until the late 1980s, farmers and fishermen in rural areas usually owned only one piece of clothing, made from hemp, passed on and patched from generation to generation and dyed a deep blue with fermented indigo flowers, a clothing that in the Aomori region was called boro.

“Dyeing the hemp cloth indigo blue and sewing the cotton threads into the loose texture for heat protection, retaining warmth and reinforcement were the skills of the women who tried to shine in their life of poverty,” explains ethnographic researcher Chuzaburo Tanaka in his work for the Amuse Boro Museum in Tokyo.

In the villages a hundred years ago, he says, needle merchants were much-anticipated visitors. In many cases, a poor woman’s cries heard in the streets were “simply due to the tragic case of a broken needle.” Even in areas where women stayed up winter nights reeling silk, it was too precious a material to waste on clothing because it could be bartered for food.

Damen bearbeiten neue Seide,” by Meister nach Chang Hsüan from the early 12th century.

“Not poor,” says Sensei Okonogi, when we visit her at the Koyato family’s traditional sericulture farm. “I don’t use that word,” she says. “I call them regular people. They were farmers and merchants. Farmers raised cocoons, along with rice, cotton, hemp, barley, but they rarely saw what they were made into.”

The sensei, as I have been instructed to call her, is a tiny, black-haired woman, perhaps in her eighties, a retired university history professor now involved in the Japanese renaissance of artisanal silk-growing. In the Shinto religion, she tells me, silk was dedicated to the gods. The Emperor would buy a bolt of white silk and offer it once or twice a year to a Shinto shrine. Silk was also used as a tax, and wealth was measured by it. Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the use of silk was restricted to samurai (military class) and wealthy merchants, then about twenty percent of the total population. 

And yet the silkworm sustained people in other ways. “During the Edo Period [1603 and 1868], in pre-modern Japan,” Okonogi says, leading me to a small wooden frame set up in the yard, “farmers saved the damaged cocoons and boiled them, making the collection of broken and small strands bind together into a material they could spread over a frame. They used this material as warm padding for clothes or blankets.”

She sits down at the frame and selects a cocoon soaking in a tub of hot water. With a few deft moves, she has opened it, removed the dried pupa, pinned a corner of the cocoon onto the frame and stretched it into a large, thin square. It resembles a window streaked with rain.

“Silk is a protein fiber, much like our skin,” she says, picking up another cocoon. “This method of using it was probably the first, the most primitive, like the making of felt.” Making mawata is not as easy as it appears, I find, and yet no matter how clumsily I manipulate it, the silk does not tear. We move next into a barn where a group of four women have already made mawata squares and, with one on each side, proceed to stretch them even further into panes four or five times their original size. They layer nineteen, twenty, thirty of them on top of each other until the barely-there material becomes something tangible, as well as something which could be blown away by wind.

When the pile is about ten inches high, the women slip it into a printed cloth, sew it shut and it becomes a baby blanket, something once passed through generations. “You don’t know how valuable this is,” the sensei says, “when you have nothing.” 

It is a long way from the plain mawata stuffed into the sleeves of a work jacket to the lavishly dyed, woven and sometimes embroidered silk we associate with the Japanese kimono. As Hirata suggests to me, it is the beauty of the silk that must have inspired the kimono in the first place. “The Japanese,” he says, “did not need to concentrate their fashion efforts on tailoring and design because of the striking material they were working with. This is why the kimono is so simple, as well as elegant.” 

The kimono evolved from the robe-like clothing of the medieval Chinese, and for centuries it was referred to as a kosode, which had smaller sleeve openings and was worn with a lower half-apron over it. Sometimes it was made of hemp, sometimes of silk. By the fourteenth century, it lost the apron and was secured with a sash called an obi. In the seventeenth century, the sleeves grew in length and width, creating the traditional butterfly shape, and the obi became longer, its tying more involved and prescribed, its weaving more decorative and textured. (There are different kinds of obis. For instance, geisha obi are 1.5 times longer than traditional fukuro-obis, at over twenty feet!) Chinese, Japanese and Western weaving techniques—chiffon, shot silk, brocade, organza, dupion, velvet, gauze, figured weave, satin weave, twill and plain weaves—exploited silk’s prismatic quality, how each triangular-shaped thread is able to absorb and reflect dyes.

It is the shimmering colors of kimonos that captured the world’s attention, transforming a piece of clothing into an art object, as well as a symbol of Japan.


Melissa Kwasny is the author of Putting on the Dog, six collections of poems and Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision; and is the editor of the anthologies Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry, 1800–1950 and, with M. L. Smoker, I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights. Kwasny's work has appeared in Ploughshares, the Boston Review and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. She lives in the Elkhorn Mountains outside of Jefferson City, Montana.