Making a Hakama

A number of weeks ago, a good friend of mine was wandering around Fremont. For those of you unfamiliar with Seattle, Fremont is one of the quirkier neighborhoods. It has a lot of off-beat shops and interesting personalities. In fact, the place reminds me a little bit of Eugene, Oregon, where I grew up. Every weekend, Fremont has an open market at which you can find a whole bunch of interesting (and sometimes truly bizarre) things for sale. It was at this fair that my friend found this.

Yes, that’s right. It’s a cross between a hakama and a pair of cargo pants.

For better or worse, my inner (or not-so-inner, depending on who you ask) aikido geek freaked out. A hakama that you could wear during the day? Off the mat? How cool is that? Well, before you answer for yourself, allow me to say that I thought it was pretty darn cool. After all, if people can walk around wearing utilikilts, why not a hakama?

As intrigued as I was, however, I do have a practical side, and the cost of purchasing a cargo-pant hakama ($220) was a little extravagant. (For the record, I don’t think the cost is unreasonable, since they’re made by hand, it’s just more than what I would want to spend on a “non-essential” item.) But the fact that they existed got me thinking: how hard is it to make your own hakama?

This thought then led to another: currently, there is only one place online from which you can purchase a custom hakama: Bujin Design. In fact, I think in many aikido circles they are the standard by which most hakamas in the US are judged. And well they should be! They’re of great quality, they last a long time, and they don’t take long to get. On the downside, I always worry about having only one source for an item (what happens if they decide to raise prices, for example) and it can be difficult to get your measurements right without some trial and error. There are other places that sell less-expensive hakamas, but these aren’t custom fit. And considering how much time you can spend in a hakama, its important to have them fit well. The notion of learning how to make my own hakama began to appeal to me: not only could I become less reliant on a single source for an essential part of my training attire, but I could really ensure that they fit me.

A little search on the Internet revealed the Round Earth company, which, among other things, sells sewing patterns for hakamas and other Japanese attire. I was particularly interested in the fact that the patterns they sell were designed for use on the mat, as opposed to being merely for show. The cost for a pattern is around $20, so I figured I had little to lose. Carol, the woman who I was in contact with, was extremely friendly and supportive. I admit, though, that I feel a tad guilty. I should have informed Carol of one little, somewhat important fact:

I don’t sew.

I mean, I’ve sewn patches onto my uniforms, and I’ve hemmed gi pants so that I don’t trip over them when I’m on the mat. But anything beyond that? Never. I knew sewing machines existed, but I had never used one. I have never followed a pattern before. In short, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I felt like a complete and utter white belt. Strangely enough, I felt great about having no knowledge of what I was doing. I knew that, no matter what, I’d be learning something new. And I was absolutely correct. When the pattern arrived, I spent a lot of time learning about the sewing terminology. Rightsides and wrongsides. Seam allowances. You name it. I learned how the sewing machine worked–and I learned that it’s a lot like driving a stickshift. I’d gently press down on the footpedal, start the stitch going, and then VOOOM! I’d press too hard and the thing would be off like a shot.

I learned a lot about ripping out stitches. A lot. I have also learned that stitch rippers (or whatever they’re called) are sharp, and will turn on you without warning.

All told, I’ve probably spent about 15 hours total creating my own hakama, and about 10 of those have been spent undoing mistakes and learning what the next step is. I can’t say that it hasn’t had its moments of frustration. More than once I thought I was doing everything right, only to discover that I had sewn through both sides of the hakama (not helpful) or that the needle got unthreaded and wasn’t doing anything except make a neat noise (also not helpful). Or that I had sewn the legs of the hakama together (REALLY not helpful).

(I’ve also learned that there is a SERIOUS bias against guys who sew. But I’ll save that for another post.)

But I have also learned many positive things, too. For example, I have learned that, despite the prominence the hakama plays in aikido (and other arts), I really treated it as a black box. For example, I had no idea how the pleats went together. Over time, those pleats start to wear out, and often I would just buy a new hakama because I had no idea how to fix the current one. I’ve also learned that most hakamas are made exactly the same way. I have about three hakamas made by three different companies. And all of them are about 90% the same, with the only differences being in the quality of the material and the customization of the fit. I’ve re-learned that going through the process once is the hardest part. Once you have an idea as to what you’re doing, it’s easier to do it again the next time. And I’ve learned that the material you need to make a good hakama will cost you maybe $25-$35.

At present, the hakama is nearly finished, and I have been really enjoying myself. Most of us who study aikido know the peaceful feeling you get when you’re folding your hakama after training. It’s a time for quiet reflection, or perhaps a time to chat with people you haven’t seen for a while. The feeling I’ve had in making this hakama is similar to that, but magnified. The fact that such an integral part of my uniform is made from my own hands adds a value to it that is difficult to describe. In many ways, it is like gaining insight into how to do a certain throw: the mystique disappears, leaving you able to appreciate its elegance, grace and economy of movement. Making this hakama has given me the chance to look closely at something that I’ve previously taken for granted, and I’ve gained a better appreciation for it as a result.

13 thoughts on “Making a Hakama

  1. Great blog, Dave. It is also interesting that one of my students, Don Eastburn has done just what you’ve accomplished. He makes his own hakama and has made at least 3, I think. You keep amazing me.

  2. Hakama appreciation is a Good Thing. My aikido and iaido teachers here are sticklers for proper hakama etiquette and I put in time folding my iaido teacher’s hakama. I hadn’t thought of the additional step of making one’s hakama, but it makes sense.

    And the detail is not just folding (which isn’t just etiquette, it is to make sure you don’t end up with some lumpy black cloth around your legs), but also on the proper way to sit in seiza with a hakama (so that the sides of a hakama form a triangle), as well as understanding how the hakama is put together and the reasons. Some of it may be a bit post hoc (like the notion that the 5 pleats in the front and 2 in the back correspond to the 7 samurai virtues), but other parts, like tying and wearing it correctly helps emphasize where your center is.

    Interestingly, my aikido teacher has now stopped wearing his hakama because he thinks that students need to see how he moves his legs, but when we have embu, he wears it.

  3. Yoko: Don’t be impressed yet. We’ve yet to see the finished product! But thanks. It’s been fun learning how to do something new.

    Berry-sensei: Your compliment means a lot. Is Don going to be at Summer Camp? It would be interesting to talk with someone who’s made their own hakama before.

    Joe: I can empathize with your aikido teacher! I have often heard said that the reason, in Kokikai, for not wearing a hakama until shodan is to ensure that the instructor can correct your footwork. Of course, the instructor is wearing a hakama, so seeing their footwork can be quite a challenge! I’ve often joked that I want a venetian-blinds hakama–a hakama on which I can pull a string to get the legs up so I can show where my feet are. 🙂

  4. Hey Dave!

    If those street use hakama become even half as popular as utilikilts, hakama vs. kilt flame-wars are inevitable. Since this is along the same lines as ninja vs. pirates, I will have yet another reason to give up the wired life. 😉

    That you are willing to take on that sort of project is impressive. Please, do share pics when your project is complete.

    BTW, I’ll be in Seattle in mid-August. May I train with you for an evening?

    Take care,

  5. Karen: Sure, I’ll definitely post a photo or two when (a) I’m done, and (b) I’ve confirmed that I made it correctly! It’s actually done now, but I may have mismeasured, because it’s not fitting right. 🙂 My respect for those who make clothes continues to deepen…

    Eric: Flame wars? Bah! The two groups should band together! Such an force would be unstoppable! 🙂

    And yes, please join us when you’re in town! Is it just you visiting? Email me and we can work out the details!

  6. I do sew but could not find a pattern that I trusted to make a gi for my karate class. I fournd material that is 97% cotton and 3% spandex to make the pants more comfortable. I used my ready made gi pants as my pattern and made the ones out of the new material. they turned out great…except for one thing…They are HUGE!!! And because of the gusset in the crotch area, you can’t just “take them in” like you would a pair of regular pants with a seam. That was about 6 months ago and the too-big gi pants are still sitting here waiting for me to rip out all the seams and start over. Or I could just lose weight to make my unstretchy ones fit a bit better…: )

  7. Martial Arts Mom: I think has a karate gi pattern… did you check that out? I don’t think I’m at the point where I am going to try to make a gi anytime soon… though the idea does have its appeal!

  8. I think that is the ONE pattern I did find but because I’m about 50 lbs. overweight, I did not want to risk making it from pattern and having it not fit. (But I was fine with starting with NO PATTERN at all! LOL I’m a goofball. I admit it. I really do want to rip the seams out of the ones I made but it will be a TON of work, so I procrastinate…

  9. My friend and I are working on making a hakama for my father (he’s an aikido sensei, and wants a hakama in something absolutely ridiculous, like Hello Kitty), so we just stumbled across your blog here.

    I applaud you for taking on such a difficult project without any experience using a sewing machine before! I know I’m refusing to do anything even vaguely difficult until I’ve practiced a lot first. In this case, I’m going to work on a matching gi jacket for his birthday. (Shh, don’t tell him.) Also: the ability to sew, even as a male, is a wonderful thing. Think how much money you’ll save in the long run, being able to mend things and make your own clothing instead of purchasing expensive, poorly made, brand-name products!

    That said, gi are much easier than hakama, so go ahead and make one. The fabric might be more difficult to work with at first, because it’s generally thicker (depending on what sort of gi you’re making), but the pattern and sewing is far, far easier. Note: gi don’t have pleats. (Making pleats straight scares me. I’m making my friend do that part because she’s the better seamstress… >.>) One thing on that, though: don’t use spandex. 1. It breaks down much more quickly, especially if you sweat a lot. 2. You have to make it much shorter because it’s stretchy, otherwise you’ll be catching your feet in it even more than the macho guys who wear their hakamas down to the floor…. (Even in 1% spandex denim jeans this happens) 3. It’s also more difficult to work with, because the stretchy material tends to bunch and stretch oddly so that no matter how careful you are you get funky ripples coming out of your seams. 4. Also, when one is thrown in a stretchy gi, it stretches (Cptn. Obvious!), and everything goes sideways.

    So yeah, don’t use spandex, especially not in the jacket, nor until you know what you’re doing with stretchy fabrics on the sewing machine.

    If you do, Martial Arts Mom, go ahead, but just a word to the wise.

    (Seamstress Friend talking…) As for gi patterns, first make sure that you have your measurements right for where your gi sits, where you want it to hang to on your leg, and the circumference of your thigh, for pants, and then chest, across the shoulders, and around your biceps on the jacket… I have nothing worse than a gi jacket with too tight sleeves… You might want to then go so far as to elasticize the waist on the pants, or put in a portion of elastic on the back (My current gi is elasticized, and while I preferred to be able to tie it to where I wanted it, it does reduce the worry that the knot will come undone in the middle of a throw…). Also, make sure you have the gusset sized correctly. Generally, to get a gi that fits perfectly and works properly, make the pattern pieces so that the finished garment measures about three inches larger around than where you were measuring. However, generally on the waist it should be the same measurement as the hip area. So if you have 45 inch hips (on your body), the waistline on your gi will be 48, and so forth. At least, that’s the way that I’ve done it on all the gi I have made.

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