19th Century, 20th Century, Historical Sew Fortnightly, Sewing

Modern historical kimono wrappers

I know I already have two submissions for the Historical Sew Fortnightly ‘Modern History’ challenge, but I’m quite excited about showing you two more items, because they are my only HSF sewing collaboration for 2014, and they are also a far more interesting take on interpreting historical fashions for modern wear in any case.

These are Lynne’s modern historical kimono wrappers:

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

Lynne took the pattern from  an original Japanese yukata, but altered it to fit her figure and lifestyle: flaring the body panels for extra width, and adding underarm and shoulder reinforcements.

She did all the unpicking of curtain panels, fabric prepping, pattern drafting and cutting of the pieces (i.e. the hard part, where you have to think and probably end up, if not swearing a lot, at least muttering dire imprecation), and I sewed up the kimono on a week-long visit just before Christmas, sitting at a sewing table in her bedroom, watching the birds outside and kittens on the computer and cthunk, cthunk, cthunking along on her lovely Bernina.

Sewing, thedreamstress.com

Lynne is an extremely talented seamstress in her own right – responsible for the patterning behind the Greek Key Afternoon Dress  and lots of other amazing things.  However, Lynne  has ME/CFS, and she realised in cutting out the kimono that the extended sitting of sewing them up is just more energy than she has these  days.

ME/CFS is a constant balancing act: how much energy do you have in a given day, and how do you want to spend it?  If you spend an hour sewing, that can mean that you’ll be too exhausted  to make dinner.  If you go on a little outing to a cafe with a friend, you may have to spend two days almost exclusively in bed to recuperate.  Even something that seems restful, like handsewing in bed, can require  enough  mental concentration to wear you out for a day.

ME is the reason behind making the kimono in the first place.  Because Lynne has to spend so much time in bed, and because even simple acts like dressing in ‘proper’ clothes uses a lot of energy, she needed something she could put on quickly, and wear comfortably while feeling at least somewhat ‘dressed’ for visitors.  Regular clothes have buttons and fastenings that need to be done up, and snug fits that need to be wriggled into, and waistbands and other tight bits that bind and aggravate joint and muscle pain – all things which take precious bits of time and energy away from other things you might rather be doing.

So the kimono are the perfect solution.  Thrown over a loose frock or nightgown, they are cool, comfortable and elegant, and add dignity to an outfit.

There is a real historical precedent to such garments, from 18th century banyan, to 19th century wrappers, to 20th century bedgowns.  Such garments also served the same purpose historically: serving as easy to don, easy to wear garments that were permissible to wear around family and close friends, and publicly in an emergency.

Woman's wrapper American, about 1855, MFA Boston

Woman’s wrapper American, about 1855, MFA Boston

The pale green paisley kimono wrapper particularly tickles my fancy because paisley was one of the most popular motifs for mid 19th century wrappers, so, despite the very un-Victorian pastel green colour scheme, it ties very nicely back into that tradition.

The fabric actually has a nice vintage story of its own.  A Dunedin firm, Arthur Ellis & Co. Ltd, used this fabric, both in the green and in a pink, to cover eiderdowns in the 1950s.  Lynne remembers getting an eiderdown in the exact fabric for Christmas as a child.  Someone kept some deadstock lengths of it, and put it up for sale on Trademe, and Lynne was able to get a length.

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

The other kimono wrapper is also very interesting, because Lynne really wasn’t sure about the fabric in cutting it out, and I wasn’t sure about the fabric in sewing it up, but once it was done the very English Liberty fruit print, with cherries, blackcurrants, raspberries, redcurrants and gooseberries all resolved into a striking overall design that manages to be very reminiscent of actual Japanese kimono fabrics.

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

There is an extensive tradition of re-making kimono to fit Western tastes and body shapes, as with this furisode inspired dressing gown:

Furisode Kimono-Style Dressing Gown, c. 1885, Silk, FIDM Museum

Furisode Kimono-Style Dressing Gown, c. 1885, Silk, FIDM Museum

Both of Lynne’s kimono wrappers fit into that tradition, and into the tradition of wrappers and banyans.  Most importantly, she likes them, I liked making them, and they will serve her well, for sedate walks in the garden with Margaret Mary the cat (on a lead!), and cuddles in bed with books, or a spot of strawberry picking.

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

The kimono cut also has practical benefits, beyond just being easy to wear.  Lynne uses the sleeves as roomy pockets (just as real kimono sleeves were used), for a kerchief, or a handful of gooseberries.

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

The Challenge: #23  Modern History

Fabric:  3ish metres each of deadstock pale green & paisley vintage polished cotton, and vintage Liberty fruit print fabric, recycled from curtains.

Pattern:  self drafted by Lynne based on an original yukata

Year:  modern, but building on a tradition that goes back to the mid-18th century.

Notions:  cotton thread

How historically accurate is it?:  Almost  exact  versions of the pattern have existed since at least the 1880s (I worked with an 1880s kimono made in the Imperial kimono workshops in Japan, for the wife of a Western diplomat, which featured flared body panels to fit Western ideals), and very similar garments have been worn in the West since the 18th century, but this garment would probably best pass the  ‘would someone from in period recognise it and not think it was totally weird and bizarre’ test for  the late 19th and early-mid 20th century.

Hours to complete:  About 5 for the first one, and 4 for the second, though I was sewing very slowly, with lots of interruptions to look at birds and kittens and have chocolate tastings.  Lynne probably spent the same on unpicking the fruit curtain panels, washing, pressing, cutting, and prepping.

First worn:  Mon  Dec 22nd for photos, and (I suspect) many times since.

Total cost:  None on my end, Lynne spend about $50 each kimono on the fabrics.

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

These may be one of my favourite sews of the year, partly because collaborating on a sewing project is always so much fun, partly because they were such a fascinating exploration of the concept of ‘modern historical’ wear, and the tradition of wrappers (which modern bathrobes just don’t fill, and which has really gone by the wayside), and hugely because these two items will probably get worn more than all my other sewing put together, which is always a very good feeling!

Lynne's 'Modern Historical' kimono wrappers thedreamstress.com

Thank you Lynne for a lovely week, some great sewing, and another wonderful collaboration!


  1. A great idea, I particularly love the fruit print one. I received a kimono pattern for Yule that I plan to use as a base for making a wrap, I just have to find the right fabric.

  2. They’re lovely! And no doubt very useful. You piqued my interest with the description of the history and use – now I’m wondering if I should get myself a wrapper, too. 🙂

  3. Chanel says

    I got to admire them in person too, Leimomi – they are beautiful! And I love the lovely photos of Lynne wafting elegantly in her beautiful garden 🙂

  4. Jane says

    I adore the second fabric, where did that come from?

    • Lynne says

      Old stock from an eiderdown factory! I bought it on Trade Me, the New Zealand version of eBay. It is feather ‘proof’, so a lovely tight weave. The date is a little vague – a friend remembers seeing it in the factory in 1977, and our eiderdowns were bought in the mid 1960s.

  5. Siobhan says

    As someone who suffers from ME/CFS, thank you for that insightful description of the disease. Finding someone who has that level of understanding of a chronic illness is very rare. Lynne is lucky to have you as a friend. Sending you good thoughts and spoons, Lynne x

    • Lynne says

      butyoudontlooksick.combutyoudontlooksick.comThank you, Siobhan! I was sure I wouldn’t be the only one who reads this blog and has ME/CFS. Yes, I am lucky to have such an understanding friend. Even really close friends sometimes don’t quite get what happens.

      Good thoughts and spoons to you, too!

      Spoon theory is one of the best ways for the chronically ill to describe how it works. Here’s the original link…

      • Spoon theory is brilliant! Although the explainer needs to resist the urge to bludgeon the hearer with the spoons until they “get it” 😀

  6. Snap! I was half-way through writing a post on CFS (my husband, not me) when I read this.
    I love the wraps, and the inspiration pics. Very tempting!

  7. These kimono wrappers are so cool. They are practical and attractive, and I love the paisley fabric.

  8. Danine Cozzens says

    what a lovely account of true friendship! I too am fascinated by functional garments and found your background information enlightening. Those prints glow in the garden setting.

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