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.