Edo Period Coat Restoration: The Beginning

Project 9, part 1 – How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?

Two samurai, late Edo period.

Welcome back to Mukashi no Sewing! Today finds us back in my favorite country, Japan, for a very exciting antique restoration! I’ve been wanting to do another restoration for a while, but hadn’t found anything that resonated with me (or if it did, that was within my budget, haha). Then I happened to be browsing Shibui Kotto on Etsy, and found a tremendous bargain on a traveling coat that I just couldn’t pass up:

It’s fitting, since “shibui kotto” (Japanese: 渋い骨董) literally translates to “cool antique.” 😀

The coat is cotton, for the most part, and it’s a men’s traveling coat from the late Edo period. It’s important to specify “late,” since the Edo period lasted almost 200 years, until 1868! As I’ve mentioned in the past, dating antique Japanese clothing can sometimes pose an issue since the styles didn’t tend to change much for certain garments – particularly men’s garments. The owner of Shibui Kotto has been dealing in Japanese antiques for the last 25 years, so I asked him a few questions about this garment and he was kind enough to elaborate on it for me.

Detail of the collar and fastenings. I’m *fairly* certain the button toggles are lacquered wood.

Condensed, his explanation was:

“Stylistically this type of traveling coat was popular at the end of the Edo period 1868. This we know from 19th century photography and wood block prints. It fell out of fashion by the end of the Meiji era 1868-1912 as western style and products filled the markets. Old traveling coats were not as weather proof as new products. Older coats were kudzu, cotton, hemp, and sometimes imported wool often lined with paper to keep the wind at bay. Another detail found in older coats specific to Samurai is a hole on the back left hip made to extend the sword scabbard though. 4 of the 6 dochugi I have in stock have that detail. The carrying of swords was made illegal in 1874. The specific coat you are asking about does not have that detail but it is the most worn of all the coats I currently stock.”

Did you know that black dyes used to be just really dark dyes in other colors?

Looking at the coat in more detail corroborates this. The toggles on the coat are padded with compressed paper or cardboard, and there’s even a rice paper lining in the collar!

I’m going to have to unpick each and every one of these, mark their positions, and then re-pad and reattach them later…
I’m actually ridiculously excited to find out what this says. My Classical Japanese education consists of one semester in college, though, so I hope it’s closer to modern Japanese!

There are a ton of really fascinating details on this coat, and I still have a lot of questions to answer. For example, you may have noticed that the bottom toggle doesn’t have a corresponding mate to close the coat at hip level like it does at the top. When I inspected the fabric, I can’t seem to find any indication that one was ever there. Now, this could be because it was removed a particularly long time ago, or because the stitches were fine enough to not leave holes behind. However, another idea occurred to me given the length of the cord on the hip toggle compared to the other ones:

Sensei, my thumb is on the tsuba, I promise! It’s just a weird camera angle!

Since this traveling coat doesn’t have a slit for swords like the seller mentioned (and as pictured in the extant photograph at the top of the post), could this toggle have been to allow access to a sword when desired? I’m 5’6″, and on me, at least, tying it to the top leaves the coat open at a perfect angle to access a sword – or two, if the owner was a samurai. Considering I’m right around the average height for a Japanese man of the Edo Period, this seems fairly compelling to me as an option!

I’m extremely excited about this for another reason – the reason I bought this coat in the first place! I often can’t wear haori from my collection to practice with my dojo during the autumn and winter because they’re silk, and shouldn’t be worn in the rain. I have one cotton men’s haori, but it’s not warm enough for the depths of winter. But if I could restore this coat, and then update it to make it warmer, I would have something to wear to night practices even in the snow!

Pictured: this coat, which is currently ALSO not warm enough for the depths of winter.

Overall, this is going to be a bit more involved than my previous restoration efforts! I’ll need to remove all the decoration and toggles, and clean the coat thoroughly. Then I will line it with new quilted batting for warmth, and repair/replace all the closures and decorations. I may even do some sashiko embroidery on the back and sleeves if I’m feeling adventurous. So join me in the next installment, when I try to remove all the paper lining and see just how dirty a 160+ year old coat actually is… 😀

Subscribe so you never miss a post! New adventures in history and sewing every Tuesday.

15 thoughts on “Edo Period Coat Restoration: The Beginning

  1. So fascinating, Rae how do you find these INCREDIBLE garments? What do you ask for?
    This one has so much potential, I’m anxious to see what all you do.


    1. This is the first time I’ve ever reached out to a seller before buying because I wanted to know more about the garment first, and I’m really glad he was so nice about it! I’m SO excited to have a warm coat for winter practice – I better hurry up though haha! 😅


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: