Knit Kimono: A Brief Kimono History

Kimono style has evolved artistically over thousands of years. Subtle changes in shape have taken place, from the width of a kimono to the size of the sleeve opening. Fabrics changed continuously and no plant or animal fiber escaped notice. Bast fibers such as linen, hemp, and ramie, along with cotton, were primarily used by the common folk. Artisans in these social strata were masters in weaving and embellishing with simple tools and straightforward techniques. Functional as well as beautiful, these folk textiles have an unmatched depth of artistic character. For the royal court, silk in its various states of fineness was beautifully woven, either plain or in the richness of brocade. Silk was painted, dyed, embroidered, and in general manipulated with ever-expanding achievements in technical skill.

knit kimono

Modern knit kimono use embroidery to evoke the aesthetic of the Heian era.

Kimono was distilled from its Chinese influence to a fully Japanese aesthetic in the Heian period of history (794–1185 AD). For 300 years spanning the end of the first millennium, nature-inspired color themes were orchestrated as visual art in clothing. Kimono was the canvas on which artists painted—literally or figuratively—their aesthetic visions. The layering of colors was practiced to perfection, and what began as color sequences influenced by nature evolved into an elaborate list of colors dictated by tradition. Through this cultural process, distinct parameters were defined by which a person could display a personal sensibility of color nuance.

Color in kimono became known as definitive combinations called irome no kasane. Poetic names were given to color groupings that referred to nature’s characteristics. Color names often derived from plant names or from a plant’s dyeing properties, such as kihada (philodendron) for yellow, or for the color of a plant’s blossom, such as sakura (cherry) for pale pink. Color names also referred to the effect of one color overlaid on another, called awase-iro—translucent white silk gauze over a dark green produces a frosty green called willow.

knit kimono

White gauze was used over darker colors to create an effect called awase-iro.

From the early to late Heian era, the basic apparel of noble ladies evolved from an opulent twelve to twenty layers of kimono to a more manageable layering of five robes, called itsutsuginu. Specific colors were named for each robe, its lining, and the unlined chemise or under kosode, and the entire set was then given a specific kasane name. The Senior Grand Empress Tashi of this era referred to a detailed manuscript that documented ensembles of named color sets in appropriate fabrics for each season of the year. This is the equivalent of a fashion consultant artistically coordinating all of your clothing and making a record of all the combinations so that there are no errors in your choices.

In a symphony of color, meaningful distinctions were defined. Major tones were produced by the outermost robe or robes. Minor tones gave counterpoint with the innermost chemise. Color accents occurred on middle robes or on linings. Color themes that were similar for different times of the year were made appropriate for the season through the fabric choices. Heavier, more densely woven fabrics for colder winter seasons and lighter, more open fabrics for hot summers provided the foundation for the seamless migration of color from season to season.

knit kimono

With a purple base and an accent of pink, this colorway was inspired by plums. The designer’s historical inspiration can be seen to the right.

Even today, the nature-inspired Heian color sensibility is practiced throughout the world. We choose muted or saturated hues in dark shades for knit kimono in autumn and winter and light and fresh hues for spring and summer. There are not rules for how to use color, but there are exquisite examples of beautiful color arrangements. Creating a personal aesthetic can be as simple as following the lead of Japanese kimono color or as individual as observing nature’s guidelines and choosing those colors that satisfy your soul.

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