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About Fabrics & Kimono Terms

Here I would like to present some information about the fabrics used in the Vintage Japanese garments, and how to tell them apart.  The information is courtesy of my Japanese friends, so can be taken as fact directly from the source.

There are three kinds of kimono textile that look like silk.

(1) Silk

(2) Jinken (Rayon)

(3) Polyester, acrylic, and other synthetics.

Silk, as you know, is made from the cocoons of silk worms, so is therefore a protein-based textile.  It is one of the most indestructible natural fibers known, although it has a texture which make it seems so fragile.  Mummies that have been excavated after thousands of years have been known to be wrapped in silk that was at least semi-intact; in many cases, the silk was more intact than the body it wrapped.

Jinken was invented in 1884 in France, and entered commercial production in 1892 in England.  In Japan, Jinken began to be produced in Taisho 7 (1918), and after WWI, Japan became the largest producer of jinken.  Many kimono from pre WWII were made of jinken, and many other textiles were woven with silk and rayon.  For example, many maru obi from pre WWII were woven of jinken and cotton (or silk) and pure silk maru obi were rare. 

"Jinken" is the Japanese word for rayon, and it is defined as follows:  'jin' (human made) 'ken' (silk).  Jinken has a touch similar to silk, but it is sometimes stiffer or crisper than silk.  The most important point is that rayon is made of wood pulp, the same as paper.  It is considered more of a natural fabric because of this, and is not truly a synthetic.

Polyester was invented in 1941 in England, and mass production began in the 1950's.  This textile is oil based, and is strong, fade resistant, and also more wrinkle resistant than many fabrics.  After WWII, polyester was used for kimono, especially washable kimono.  Today's polyester feels VERY much like silk, and even very skilled professionals cannot distinguish it from silk only by touch.

To confirm textile content, a small piece is burned; usually a small piece of the hem from inside the hem fold; even a few stray threads will sometimes do.  The result of the burn tells you the type of fabric:

(1) Silk burns like hair.  It does not flame, and the burned material is a black wad, just as though you burned a few hairs.  It is rigid, and if you press the burned material between your fingers, it shatters, and it smells just like burned hair.  This is because both silk and hair are protein.

(2) Jinken burns like paper, since it is made of wood pulp just like paper.  When burned, if flames just like paper, and you have to blow it out, just like burning paper.  It smells the same as burning paper, and the ash is similar also, in that it does not hold together in a wad.

(3) Polyester (and other petroleum based textiles) flames and melts.  The burned material forms a wad which is usually white (although sometimes black), and the wad is very stiff and does not shatter when pressed between the fingers.  It is exactly like what happens if you burn a piece of plastic.

Identifying polyester by burn test is always easy, but sometimes determining the difference between silk and jinken can be more difficult; this is because many times silk and jinken are woven together.  In this case, you can authenticate this fact by burning the weft and warp separately.


Now let us move on to some common words used to title and describe kimono.  I will add to the list as the words are defined for me.

Botan: Peony.

Fukuro Obi:  12 inches wide and 10 feet or more in length, this obi is patterned only on one side, for about 60% of the length.  The section that wraps around the body is blank on both sides.  The Fukuro can be worn either formally or informally.

Fukusa: Covering cloth for food gift.

Furisode:  Most formal kimono for unmarried woman.

Furoshiki:  Wrapping cloth for gift.

Hakama:  A loose fitting pleated trouser for men, it is worn over kimono to make a formal ensemble.  Some are divided like trousers (originally only for riding horses) while others are not divided; more like a skirt.

Han haba Obi:  Han haba obi is 'half-width' obi, being only 6 inches wide.  It is less formal than other obi, and is the easiest to tie.

Hitoe:  Kimono without lining.

Homongi: 'Homon' means 'to visit' and 'gi' means 'wear'.  Homongi is formal wear for both married and unmarried women for visiting or at parties.

Hosyoguruma:  Wheels (in a kimono pattern).

Iro:  Without patterns.

Iromuji:  A single color kimono of satin, crepe, or tsumugi weaving.  It is for married and unmarried women, and can be worn formally when it has a single crest on the back.

Irotomesode:  Second most formal garment for married women, it is like tomesode except that it is not black, but light in color, and also has five crests.

Kasuri: Known as Japanese ikat, kasuri is a popular design of lines running parallel or crossed.  There are more complex kasuri known as the pictorial kasuri, where designs include pine, bamboo, cranes, tortoises, plum blossoms, etc.  Kasuri weaving is the result of threads being bundled and tied with cotton threads, and then dyeing the bundles.  Where the bundles are tied, the dye does not penetrate.  The bundles are then untied and loaded to the loom for weaving these interesting patterns.

Kiku:  Chrysanthemum.

Komon:  A small repeating pattern printed on kimono for everyday wear.

Kujaku:  Peacock.

Kurotomesode:  A very formal kimono for married women, it is black with large floating patterns along the bottom of the garment.  It has five crests and is worn with a white underkimono.

Maru Obi:  The most formal and expensive of all obi, it is 12 inches wide, and 12 feet or more in length.  It is fully patterned on both sides, with no blank section where it wraps around the body.  It is usually brocaded of either silk or a silk/rayon blend.

Matsu:  Pine.

Momji:  Autumn leaf (in kimono pattern).

Muji:  One color.

Shichi-go-san: 7-5-3 (ceremony of growth for children).

Shishi: Lion dog (foo dog).

Tabi:  Split-toed socks for wearing indoors or with zori worn with kimono.

Tomesode:  Most formal black kimono for married women, it is black with five crests.

Tsubo:  Vase.

Tsuru:  Crane.

Ume: Plum blossom.

Zori:  A flat wedge shoe with a thong for wearing with kimono.  They are covered in cloth or leather, and covered with brocaded silk to match kimono.