Japanese rain capes

Today I visited the Textile Museum of Canada with my friend Anya. We gained free admission thanks to the Toronto Public Library’s system of distributing free museum and gallery passes to patrons.

I quite enjoyed one of the current exhibits, Eutopia, which explores social justice, politics, and grassroots activism through textiles. Featured artists include Christi Belcourt, Radiodress, Christina Zeidler, and Indian women’s cooperatives (apologies for not noting the names of these cooperatives).

A traditional kantha (embroidered tapestry), made by a women’s cooperative in India. The kantha depicts the spread of AIDS and shows women advocating the use of condoms.


Utopia Pillow, by Radiodress.

The museum also displayed Japanese male rain capes from the late 1800s. They are reversible travel capes, styled after 16th-century travel capes worn by Portuguese missionary priests. What intrigued me most is that these capes are made entirely of locally sourced and traditionally processed indigo-dyed cotton. Consider the idea of the fibershed, which emphasizes producing and manufacturing textiles in one location, and the fact that much of our cotton today is grown in one location, processed in another, and shipped far afield. Indigo is naturally pest resistant. Between the outer fabric and inner lining is a layer of windproof mulberry paper, also local to Japan.

Japanese male rain capes from the 19th century.

I love learning about traditional methods that might now be used as alternatives to plastic, and perhaps even surpass it in efficacy. I had no idea about mulberry paper as a windblocker, and wonder if other paper would bear similar results. Or if mulberry paper deflects or holds water, and would thus need to be dried out after a drenching. Compare newspaper, which dries fairly quickly and with minimal wear, provided it’s untouched while wet. Or cedar bark, which is used by indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest for capes, hats, and baskets, and when woven can be watertight.

A friend who also avoids plastic made his own rain gear by immersing a cotton jacket and trousers in a mixture of linseed oil and beeswax. It definitely kept him dry while biking in a rainstorm, but he stunk to high heaven due to the linseed.

I am quite fond of capes and was considering replacing my old MEC raincoat with a Cleverhood cape. Apparently they’re the best thing going for city riding in inclement weather. They’re also $250 plus tax, so they’re not in the budget right now. Plus the best practice, or at least the one that appeals most to me, is hanging onto items, treating them with care and repairing them until they are no longer serviceable in their current use.

In my final year of undergrad, I made my sister an orange fleece cape. I recently reclaimed it while visiting her in BC, and love its lines and warmth. Perhaps I will try recreating this Japanese rain cape with upcycled cotton, mulberry paper (if I can find it), and the indigo dyeing kit I received for Christmas. I imagine this indigo is synthetic, though, so it wouldn’t have the same pest-resistant qualities. I quite like the look of these 19th century capes, with their embroidery suggesting paths on the exterior, and finely embroidered motifs on the inner lining, plus the collar at the back. But I doubt they would dry enough after a ride to the office to make donning them, heavy and damp, at the end of the day a pleasure.

I’m also curious about who would have traditionally made these capes, intended to be worn by males, presumably those who had the privilege or need to travel, perhaps for work. Would women have made them, or male tailors?


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