There are quite a few hakama tutorials online and in print, but I was disappointed in most of what I found. Some were historically inaccurate, some were needlessly complicated and mathematical, and some were just on crack (“Just big skater pants”? Really? You’re kidding, right?!).
So I decided to combine the best of the tutorials and information I’d found, plus my own innovations and research, and write my own tutorial. This will be appropriate, with modifications, for hakama from the Heian to modern eras. See notes as we go! (Please don’t take my word for anything too critical — I don’t have a degree in historic Japanese costume, and I won’t be held responsible if the SCA votes you off the island because of something I wrote. That said, I’ve done my best to be accurate, and suggestions are always welcome!)
Let’s Get Started
Let’s start with choosing our fabric. Cotton, hemp, or other natural fibers are historically accurate, depending on era; I chose a linen blend because linen and hemp are very similar (enough that both are called asa in Japanese) and it’s readily available here. I also chose a fabric with visible, rustic weave because my character is not wealthy and I wanted an earthy feel.
Period Japanese looms were much narrower than modern Western weaving, usually only 13-14″. We’ll be cutting our fabric into strips to better represent this. (So if you choose a striped pattern, allow enough for matching.) This means more seaming overall, but a more accurate look and feel.
How much fabric will you need? Well, that depends on what era your hakama are representing and what social status your character is. My persona’s hakama reach only to the ankles, while others might need to skim the ground. Certain court styles had the hakama dragging well behind the wearer! Also, hakama in various periods and levels of society were of different fullnesses, varying among two, three, and four-panel legs (and did I actually see mention of a six-panel leg?!), and had different numbers of pleats.
Here, I’ll be making four-panel hakama (totaling eight panels for two legs), pretending a 13″ loom width, which run 39″ waist to ankle. Adjust your own numbers as necessary!
There are quite a few pieces to cut, but they’re all fairly simple.
- For four-panel hakama, cut eight panels, loom-width (13-14″) by preferred length (39″ for me, ankle-height on a 5′ 7″ woman). If you are a bit larger, use the wider loom width.
- Period width fabric requires an extra gusset for the crotch. For this, cut two half-panels, half loom width by your length (6.5″ x 39″ for me). This can be fudged short, if necessary, but don’t skimp this early unless you have to!
- For the himo, the belts or sashes which hold the whole thing on, you’ll want two strips, one at least twice the length of your waist measurement and one at least four times.
- I prefer a bit of extra length (better long than short!) and I’m not keen on more difficult mental math than necessary, so I rounded up to 30″. This gives me two himo lengths of 60″ and 120″.
- Cut these four times the planned finished width. (Because my character is of fairly small stature, I made my himo 8″ wide for a finished size of 2″, to make his clothes look a bit big for him. The hakama we made for a much larger character, also on a normal-sized model, featured 1″ finished himo to make him look correspondingly larger. An inch and a half, finished, is a good safe width, so you might cut 6″.)
- If your hakama are of a later period, you’ll want to save some pieces for the koshi-ita (the stiffened back support piece).
Because my fabric is 54″ wide including selvage, it’s easy to lay out my 13″ panels side by side. (You might find your fabric is used more efficiently with the panels running perpendicular to these, along the weft, and you may cut the himo from the selvage edges.) I have carefully folded my fabric here to give me multiple, smooth, even layers.
Remember, Japanese garments are typically constructed of straight lines. This should seem evident, but — cutting in straight lines, along the grain line, is critical to getting clean hakama with crisp pleats! Make sure your fabric is straight and smooth.
Now you can see I have cut eight 13″ panels, four for each leg. I will cut the crotch gusset panels and himo next. My fabric is long enough to piece these together; a cross-wise layout might be more efficient for you, with the himo underneath the leg panels. Experiment; different fabric widths and patterns will affect your layout.
It is fine to cut the himo of multiple pieces, if necessary, but try not to make it too patchwork. The seams aren’t terribly visible, but it’s nice to have them as smooth as possible.
Pin and stitch two panels together, lengthwise, and repeat so that you have four pairs of two joined panels. These will be the fronts and backs of your legs. I use a 1/2″ seam allowance because it’s very easy for mental math and I’m a wee bit lazy; use a modern 5/8″ if you’re more comfortable with that.
Physics dictated that my layout include panels on a long fold. There’s no need to cut these apart; just stitch inside to create the illusion of two 13″ panels seamed together. (If this stitch line is hard to see in the photo, great! I’m counting on that for later.)
Stitch the short ends of the crotch panels together and set aside.
Speaking of, many period hakama did not include sewn crotches but were merely open with overlapping center panels. Other hakama did not have individual legs, but were practically speaking large pleated skirts; umanori (“horse-riding”) hakama brought in separate legs. Most modern wearers prefer closed crotches, but the historical option is there!
Now we have to make our first concession to modern construction (aside from cutting our own period-width fabric). Because period fabric was woven on a 13-14″ loom, all the edges were selvage! and no finishing was necessary. No such luck likely here, though; you’ll have to finish your seams in whatever fashion you prefer.
Because I just happen to have a brand new, fancy-schmancy serger just unpacked, I’m going to serge my seams!
I’m working with white fabric on a white cutting mat on a light-colored table, so to help provide contrast for the photos (and to add a bit of fun), I’ll work on my tatami from here out. This makes rapid pinning a bit more challenging, but the photos look better.
Now it’s time to create the matadachi, the distinctive angles at the hips. The depth of this opening should be about one-third of the total fabric length, reaching to your mid-thigh or so; for me it’s right about 13″. You may want to experiment with how far over the fold reaches, but it will probably look best at 4-5″. There are two ways to fold this, pictured below:
This, on the left, is a straight fold, very simple.
This, on the right, is a “bamboo leaf fold,” which can be created by stretching the fabric slightly along the bias. It’s one of the few times you’ll find curves in a Japanese garment. I honestly don’t know when this type of fold came in, but it seems to be popular in modern hakama on the rear panels. (I couldn’t find much information on this, so please drop me a note if you can contribute!)
I really like the look of the bamboo leaf fold, but I’m already rather more curvy than the typical historical Asian body and I’d prefer not to add any more curves or emphasis, so I’ll use the straight folds.
Make a left and right fold for each side, or two pairs.
You can fold this edge under itself to finish, or I’ll simply fold it back and serge the trimmed edge. This could be slip-stitched or otherwise invisibly sewn, but I chose a fabric with a visible texture; I told you before that it was to fit my character, but that wasn’t the only benefit. It’s going to let me cheat like mad.
I’m going to edge-stitch this whole thing. On my machine, the sweet spot is three clicks down from the standard stitch length. Look, you can’t see the stitching line, can you? No, you can’t! Yep, yep, sharp edge and invisible stitching. Don’t hate me because I’m clever.
You can join the sides now, stitching from the base of the matadachi to the bottom edge (which is what I did, so you’ll see this version in the photos). Alternately, leave these open until the final pleating is done, which may be easier for handling multiple pleated sections at once. Your choice. Just remember that most of the following steps and photos will assume the sides are already done, but it’s not a big deal to finish them later!
Now it’s time to add the crotch gusset. Use a tape measure to determine the length of your ideal rise. (This is the length from waistband underneath to waistband; see photo.) Keep in mind that hakama should not fit like modern Western pants; remember, these were developed from a skirt- or kilt-like garment! They will feel “slouchier” than most Westerners are used to wearing. The crotch should strike somewhere between mid-thigh and just above the knee. For me, this was 36.5″ or so.
Forgive the imperfect photo; using a camera in this position is not as easy as you might think.
Now come some math. Don’t worry, this is probably the trickiest math of the whole project, and we’ll make it fairly easy.
total rise – width of crotch panel = X (or, for me, 36.5″ – 6.5″ = 30″)
X/2 = length of front and back panel stitching (30/2 so, for me, 15″)
In other words: the straight edges of the panel pairs will be sewn together now, creating the front and back of your hakama. Match top edges, measure down the result of your math efforts, and mark. Stitch this length only, leaving the rest loose. You should now have a roughly pants-shaped tube, enormous, with the crotch missing. Don’t panic! This is normal.
Match the seam of the crotch strip with the seam of the center front, right sides together. There should be excess at the bottom hem; don’t sweat it. Stitch. Repeat for the rear. You’ll end up with a huge pair of pants with tails hanging off the base.
Go ahead and trim the tails even with the rest of the legs. You should now have something resembling a pair of pants, if suitably sized for several circus elephants.
All right! You’ve made it safely thus far! Go stretch and grab a snack, and we’ll start the pleating when you get back.
Welcome back! You have some research and decisions to finish before you begin the pleats. (Well, hopefully you did this before you started….)
The number of panels in your legs and your social status (corresponding to the wealth you’ve spent on your fabric) will determine the number of pleats you’ll have; you’re just not going to get six pleats in a two-panel hakama. Also, the time period will determine the look; earlier hakama had two distinct legs, while later and modern hakama have overlapping pleats which disguise the individual legs. Check your references before you begin.
I will be making Meiji-era hakama, with six front pleats overlapping to look like five.
I was pretty sure of my hakama’s final length, and I wanted to keep my edges clean and easy to finish before the pleating, so I went ahead and finished my hem now. I rolled the hem for an easy, clean edge. You may wish to finish at the end, when you can size and tweak the hakama length, or finish in another style.
Now, determine the finished width of your hakama front. I held up some scraps and looked in a mirror. Be sure and leave plenty of room for your matadachi to gap at the side, however; you’ll probably want the finished front width to be about two-thirds of your body width (I settled on 13″ wide), but that’s a very rough number. Whatever you decide, divide that number in half, and that’s the width you’ll be pleating your legs into. So for me, 13/2 = 7.5″.
The more left-brained might want to measure out the pleats; I started by eyeballing and then used math to double-check anything which didn’t work out, which I found far simpler.
For the purposes of this tutorial, I am going to call the innermost pleat of a single side Pleat #1. Because I want six front pleats, three per side, I started this first pleat about a third of the way into the panel. Fold toward the center seam (so right pleats and left pleats will point toward each other).
It’s important to keep your pleats straight and on the grain line! I have seen some instructions recommend measuring points along the top and bottom of the fabric, and pleating between them, but I found this very difficult (especially with such large pieces) and potentially disastrous, as even one small measuring error would compound across the entire garment. Also, it didn’t help much in the middle of the leg.
Instead, I set a yardstick along the edge of my pleat and another straight edge along the grain of the fabric, and I used a ruler to gauge whether the two lines were parallel down the length of the leg. Note that I didn’t care what the measurement was, just that it was the same all the way down.
I pinned the pleats lengthwise for maximum security and to allow for quick checks against my body with more realistic fabric hang, but with the pinheads aligned in a stitchable fashion.
Once the first side was finished, with 26″ of fabric pleated into 7.5″, I started the other side.
I did use some basic math to simpify, comparing start points and depths of pleats to save experimenting and trying to visually match pleat widths. Here you can see that my Pleat #1 starts 1.25″ from the center seam and is 4″ deep on each side. (Note — your numbers may well be different! The point is that they match on either side of your hakama.)
Finish all of your front pleats, pinning in place. Last chance to check your references for period styles! If doing a later style of hakama, bring your pleats toward the center and overlap the two Pleats #1 by about 3/4″, leaving Pleats #2 and #3 to fill out the width of the hakama front.
Remember that Japanese styles always lay left (per the wearer) over right, so be sure that your left center pleat overlaps the right. As you face the hakama, the pleat on your right will cover the pleat on your left.
I have heard or read a variety of symbolic explanations for the number of pleats on hakama — honoring the three gods of war, or the five gods of war, or representing the five or seven sacred virtues of bushido, etc. I am reasonably certain that at this point no one is reasonably certain! Just match your pleating to a period-appropriate style.
Here’s a cool tip I got from Cat the Terrible — use a hair straightener to press your pleats in place right on the table. Nifty!
You may wish to hold up the hakama to your body at this point, checking for straight pleats and an appropriate width across your waist.
Now, remember how I could edge-stitch invisibly on this fabric for my folded edges? Guess how I’m going to keep these pleats straight and crisp forever? /smug grin/ (Note in photos above that my pins run in opposite directions on the two different sides; this is to facilitate edge-stitching.) Make sure your stitching is tiny and invisible and straight; you don’t want it to look as if it’s been sewn here.
If you stitch your pleats, you may have to manually help your feed dogs; this is a lot of fabric to move and edge-stitching means only one tread will be grabbing the fabric, which might pull unevenly. Keep your pleat straight as you stitch!
When your pleats are just the way you want them, run a line of stitching across the very top of your front, holding all the pleats in place at the waistline while you work on the back.
Congrats! You’re through the worst of it! Now we just have to finish the back pleats and himo, and maybe a koshi-ita. We can do this!
Again, check your period and references. Older hakama were the same width front and back, while modern hakama have a narrower back which is approximately two-thirds the width of the front. Older hakama have no koshi-ita, which appeared only since the Edo period.
I’ll be making four pleats in back, overlapping to show only one visible pleat, with a koshi-ita. As my front width is 13″, my back width will be 9″.
As in the front, fold two pleats on each side toward the center, check the grainline, and check to be sure they are even. As on the front, make sure the right overlaps the left as you face the garment. Again, pin, press, and check that you are happy with the result. Again, edge-stitch if desired and then stitch across waist to hold in place while we work elsewhere.
The pleats which show on the outside of the garment are Mountain Pleats; the hidden inside ones are Valley Pleats.
If you wish to edge-stitch these in place, too, flip the hakama inside out and use a ruler to tap out the stitched pleat edges to get smooth, flat pleats for pinning, pressing, and stitching. I did this on both front and back to keep pleats as smooth as possible and to make ironing easier in the future, without risk of losing my pleats!
Making the Himo
Ah! After all that pleating, we’re ready for an easy, mindless task, and this one is wonderfully simple. And it takes only a few minutes!
Fold each himo piece in half, lengthwise, and press. (Turn in ends 1/2″ to prevent raw edges.) Then open the piece, and press each side in to the pressed center line, so that the himo is now creased in quarters, lengthwise. Fold closed again.
If your fabric is rather light, you may wish to interface your himo, as they will take some strain. My linen-blend is perfectly fine without reinforcement, so use your own judgment.
You should now have two long sturdy strips folded into quarters, with no raw edges showing, and it should be able to open and close like a book.
If you’re making early-era hakama, you may skip this section!
My back width is 9″, so I’ve cut a 9″ wide piece for my koshi-ita. Some people like to use interfacing, EVA foam, stiffened cardboard, needlepoint plastic, polystyrene…. As much as I like being historically correct, I like modern machine washing better, and so I’ve cut a piece of vinyl flooring, which will provide sufficient stiffness and will also weather machine washing; and I can sew it in permanently.
Cut two fabric pieces to fit a stiffener appropriate to your body size, giving yourself seam allowance on all sides with at least a full inch on the bottom.
Lay a himo across the koshi-ita, one inch above the bottom edge. Mark the top of the himo on either side (I used pencil). Now stitch from the first mark, up one side, across the shorter edge of the trapezoid, and down to the other mark, leaving the himo‘s path and the base open.
Replace the himo and fold back the rear trapezoid so that you can stitch the himo in place through only the top layer of the koshi-ita trapezoid.
Cut two triangles to layer over the koshi-ita. These appear to vary slightly by period or style, so be sure to check your references again! They are a bit hard to see in the photo, so I have outlined one in red.
Press back 1/2″ of the triangles to make clean edges. I invisibly top-stitched the triangles on (through top layer only!) to keep them flat and smooth; you might also slip-stitch between the large piece and the pressed edges.
Stitch along the outside edges, with the non-triangle trapezoid safely folded out of the way, to secure the himo in place. The rear himo is the shorter of the two! Be sure to align the centers.
My photo is not quite right because I erred here; my himo should have run between the triangles and trapezoid, but I was doing this very late at night and mistakenly put it inside instead. It’s not a big deal here, but if you want a bit of himo peeking out between the triangles as some styles do, be sure to stay awake during this part.
Also, I have an extra layer or two in my photos, because I was using a white, coarse-weave fabric over a black stiffener and I didn’t want the dark color showing through or highlighting edges. But I think the gist is clear enough.
Press in a seam allowance on the remaining (non-triangle) trapezoid. In the end, you should have something that looks somewhat like this. (Yep, you’ve caught me using selvage in my seam allowance. Busted.)
Now we just have to attach the himo!
Back himo, if you have a koshi-ita
Place the koshi-ita against the hakama, right sides together (pleats against triangles). Pin in place, along with pinning the himo closed.
(Now would be a very good time to insert the koshi-ita stiffening material. Only a complete moron would do this late at night and forget the insert, finishing the hakama beautifully only to discover that she had to rip it apart because she had forgotten the insert. Seriously, don’t be that person. /facepalm/)
Edge-stitch the length of the himo and koshi-ita, stitching them securely together. Turn down the remaining trapezoid and hand-finish by slip-stitching, or edge-stitch invisibly if possible.
Front himo, or both if you don’t have a koshi-ita
The front himo is the longer of the two. Place the pleated waist into the fold of the himo, being sure to align the centers. Close the himo and pin in place, continuing along the length of the himo. Edge-stitch.
And that’s it! If you haven’t finished the bottom hems or side seams, do that now. Otherwise, your hakama are ready to wear!
Now all that’s left is to practice tying appropriate knots!