Japanese Vionnet book

[This post has been amended at close]
Those Japanese books I ordered came in. People who ordered are expecting theirs in the mail soon. The one I was hot and bothered to get was the Japanese version of the Vionnet book -and it didn’t disappoint.

If like me, you have the original Vionnet book by Betty Kirke and managed to traverse the instructions to recreate some styles, I have little doubt you were frustrated. Kirke’s instructions are -in comparison- awful. Not that I liked them before without the comparison. Kirke strikes me as a word person, not a spatial, can think in pictures and explain it, person, which you really need for drafts this complex (why didn’t she hire someone to help her?). The Japanese book is much better. You won’t even have to speak Japanese to understand what’s going on. Try doing that with the Kirke book -which you can barely follow in English.

The differences go beyond language and instructions. The Japanese book includes photos of styles made from the drafts. The Kirke book used a combination of illustrations (that I didn’t like either, too loosey-goosey technical wise) and original garments. Purists won’t want to hear this but the photos of the Japanese garments look better. And why wouldn’t they? They should; they’re new, crisp, never worn and haven’t been schlepped around like the originals. You be the judge, compare the exact same styles, first Kirke and then the Japanese book:

I liked the above style very much based on the Kirke version but the Japanese version piques my interest even more. Regarding instruction, this particular style -in the Kirke book- was a real thorn in my side. One shouldn’t have to endlessly ponder the significance of prepositions among other things, just to make the darn thing. The instructions were downright cryptic, beyond minimalist. Kirke’s instructions amounted to less than one half of one column on a three column page!

The Japanese version, while not singularly enlightening, were a far cry better. There was a much greater attempt to explain the process with text (not that I can read it of course) and copious illustration.

Another thing that’s always annoyed me about the Kirke book, was that she made it nigh impossible to trace off the drafts. If she didn’t want anyone to copy the styles, why did she bother to write it? It doesn’t look bad in the photo below, but just try tracing white lines on black background. It’s nuts! The Japanese book is crisp black and white lines with text. Thankyouverymuch!

Regarding the patterns themselves, the Kirke book had no scale indicated. I have banged my head endlessly wondering just what she could have been thinking. One needed to scale drawings by hook or crook. I used a combination of methods. One was using selvage edge to selvage edge as a guide to fabric width but that didn’t always work because Vionnet had some goods woven to her specs. The Japanese book imprints the scale in the background, making it much simpler.

One last thing sure to upset the apple cart. The drafts between books, while similar, are not identical. Someone who wishes to remain nameless but who was intimately involved in the Kirke book project, told me that the Kirke patterns are not exact copies. That in spite of the author’s claims to the contrary, the patterns were illustrated, not copied as drafts. Supposedly, a Japanese artist was hired to draw the pattern shapes. The actual shapes themselves were not transcribed and reduced for the print publication. After comparing drafts between texts (in addition to having to have redrawn lines from Kirke myself), I’m inclined to believe it. Perhaps this accounts for the differences between drafts. For what it’s worth, the Japanese lines look cleaner. Furthermore, they’re proven with the style rendition. Besides, anytime you take a garment apart to pull the draft from it, the lines are never quite the same. In proving the style, the Japanese author had to go through several iterations before ending up with her final pattern. At least, I’m assuming so. The Japanese author strikes me as diligent and dedicated to the task, plying her hand directly.

In summary, if you can work from the Kirke book without problems, that’s great, but there’s no denying that the Japanese version of Vionnet is a cheat sheet. If one could describe it as that anyway. I’m interested in whatever the Japanese author says but I can’t read her intro. I sent it to Teijo who (knowing his generosity) will translate it for us.

And not to suggest the Japanese version is perfect either. Sewing the mobius scarf the way it’s illustrated is a great way to drive yourself nuts, guaranteed. Don’t close it through the neck opening. Do it through one of the scarf end darts. You have more room to work.
Amended 1/31/08
Teijo has generously provided translations as follows:

Notes: The author of the VIONNET Companion volume – as listed on its cover and in the introduction – is (the) “Vionnet Research Group”. The book was compiled by a group of tutors at the Bunka Fukuso Gakuin (whose official English name is “Bunka Fashion College”, although a more literal translation might be “Cultural Apparel Institute”).

The term “rittaika” is used extensively in the original text (and Japanese sewing texts in general) to refer to the process of sewing a garment from a flat pattern. The literal translation is simply “to make three-dimensional”. In this translation I favored “construct” over “sew” while trying to keep some of the “three-dimensional” flavor of the original text…

In 1991 Betty Kirke published “VIONNET” – a book about the artist Madeleine Vionnet, who left an indelible mark on the history of fashion. It told us her story, and provided commentary, patterns and structural details for thirty-eight key designs chosen from the over 12000 Vionnet is said to have produced in her lifetime.

Upon acquiring this book, struck by Vionnet’s revolutionary cuts, we were driven to reconstruct her designs in actual size, and began as a group to investigate ways to achieve this goal.

Since it proved impossible to source the materials that Vionnet used from modern suppliers we concentrated on examining the structure of the garments themselves, constructing three-dimensional pieces from the patterns with just the explanations provided in the book as our guide. The labor of conjecturing scale from the drawings, calculator in one hand, resulted time and time again in a beautiful silhouette and a moment of enlightenment, and we began to gradually unravel the mysteries of Vionnet’s dressmaking technique. As we exchanged information on the pieces we had chosen to work on, we began to see what Vionnet had looked for, and this understanding provided additional motivation for each subsequent reconstruction. We realized that the process of actually piecing the designs together in three dimensions was essential to understanding her technique, and that it was the way that their structure (design lines) took into account the movement of the human anatomy, combined with a cut (geometric shaping) that took into account the nature (grain and drape characteristics) of the fabric that resulted in their beautiful silhouette and movement.

As we completed one reconstruction after another we saw that each one of Vionnet’s designs had much potential for adaptation in terms of both pattern shaping and fabric handling. Thinking this would be useful for learning design expression we incorporated the exercise into the school curriculum.

We were convinced that exposing students to Vionnet’s technique by letting them sew the flat patterns into their three-dimensional shapes would prove a very effective way to expand their design ideas.

We also felt that actual scale drawings and illustrated sewing instructions would help inexperienced pupils learning to sew the designs in a school environment to gain a deeper understanding of the subject – and thus compiled the results of our own reconstruction work into a “research manual”.

In May 2001 our reconstructed pieces were displayed at the Culture Academy gallery under the title “Madeleine Vionnet Research Exhibition.” The response from both apparel school and industry personnel was much greater than expected. We were very pleased that this exhibition allowed us to show the young students and other industry people some of the work by the great artist Madeleine Vionnet.

The actual size patterns and sewing instructions for the pieces were also displayed at the exhibition, and many of the visitors asked for copies. Hoping to fulfill their wish we contacted Tokai Harumi, the editor of “Vionnet”, and after receiving permission from Betty Kirke, the author, proceeded in April 2002 to publish this companion volume. The research group hereby expresses its gratitude to Betty Kirke and Tokai Harumi for understanding our motive for writing this book.

It is our sincere wish that this companion volume will be of use to readers of “VIONNET” who endeavor to study Vionnet’s ideas and way of thinking.

September 2002
Bunka Fashion College
Vionnet Research Group

Get New Posts by Email


  1. /anne... says:

    I’ve been waiting for your review of this book!

    I bought it a while ago from Amazon Japan. I agree; while I’d love to know what the text says (and I’d be willing to contribute if Teijo wants to do a translation), I don’t need to read the text to make the garments.

    What I’d like to know is if you already had the Japanese book, would you buy Kirke? Does it add anything?

    Thanks :-)

  2. diane carter says:

    voted! registered and filled out all the boxes-
    i hate all those questions,
    but i did it for you, kathleen.
    just kidding, hope,
    you get the recognition you deserve.
    reading and re-reading the book, still
    in the planning stages of my business,
    but know i am on the right path.
    would love to have time to test
    patterns in the vionnet book.
    thanks for sharing.

  3. Els says:

    Thanks for sharing this Japonese “Vionnet” book. It looks marvellous and I am sorry I forgot to order one from you on time.

    Also thanks to Teijo for the translations.

  4. Helen says:

    Sooo cool! Now I just need to learn Japanese. And Spanish, and Italian, and Portuguese, and brush up on my Chinese. Isn’t it amazing what a wealth of information is available if we are willing to be a little multilingual?

  5. Kathleen says:

    What I’d like to know is if you already had the Japanese book, would you buy Kirke? Does it add anything?

    I’m the wrong one to ask about whether I’d buy it anyway. That’s my default setting. These are two different books. The Japanese version is strictly technical, a tool kit, means to an end. The Kirke book is a survey of her work as well as a biography. If you’re a fan, you must have Kirke. If you just want the goodies, get the other.

    Since you don’t have the Kirke book so you don’t know, I think you would be disappointed with the technical portion of Kirke. Certainly don’t buy it for that. The photos on the pattern pages are often *not* of the garment patterns provided. When I got the Japanese book, I was surprised to see whole new designs I hadn’t noticed before amid the clutter of Kirke’s laid out pages. I’m sure her book would win some artsy awards (I guess) but being an idiot on all of that, the superfluous stuff on the pattern pages gunked it up, it’s confusing to know which style was even being rendered.

    Also, the Japanese book only contains 28 of the original 38. A thing that’s good to know, is that the Japanese book was well designed as a companion to Kirke. By that I mean, design 1 in the Japanese book is pattern 1 in Kirke and so on. It is difficult to find the pattern pages in Kirke, they’re not in the table of contents. Either you flip through it willy-nilly or you have to go to the index (in four point font!) to find their page numbers (annoying). What would have been nice (in the Kirke book) is a pictoral index (with page numbers) of the pattern styles. I plan on putting one together and printing it out to stick in the front leaves of both books.

    So, in summary. If you’re a Vionnet fan, save your pennies and buy both. I will stress (as I’ve said before, you really have to recreate some of these styles if you want to crawl inside her head. Speaking from experience, the intro from the Japanese book was NOT a lot of blather.

  6. Marie-Christine says:

    Sigh. You did tell us to shut up and buy the Japanese Vionnet, because you’d review it and we’d all want it. So we get what we deserve :-). I suppose I should wait till my pattern-magics-in-the-mail arrive before I break down.. I didn’t buy the Kirke when I found it in Paris because I figured I wouldn’t really be able to work from her drawings. So thanks.

  7. Susan W. says:

    The dress pictured is beyond elegant. The drape, shape, and swing of the skirt fabric would make you feel like you were dancing with every step. Vionnet was an artist who deserves much wider recognition.
    Is there’s any chance of an English translation of the Japanese book? The two together would make a wonderful, if pricey, boxed set.

  8. /anne... says:

    “I’m the wrong one to ask about whether I’d buy it anyway. That’s my default setting.”

    Sounds like me :-). The only reason I asked is because Kirke is rather expensive. Ever noticed in those home renovation shows, that most of the home owners have almost no books? Strange, strange people :-)

    Thanks for the review; looks like Kirke might make it into my next Amazon order.

  9. Dr Rekha Sharma says:

    On the subject of designers can anyone point me to publications about the techniques(in graphic mode preferably)the past designers used to popularize their apparel.

    I have looked at Milbank Caroline Rennolds’s Couture The Great Fashion Designers but wasn’t very pleased as the descriptions related to life histories of the designers.

  10. Des says:

    Hi, im located in Manila. japanese sewing magazines can be found in one of our local bookstores for about 2 US $ each. They usually have patterns included and instructions. By just looking at the pictures you can construct them. Most japanese sewing books and magazines are clearly illustrated with pictures and diagrams.

  11. Jasmin says:

    I have ordered now … hopefully it doesn’t take too long to arrive, and you get bonus points from the linkup to Amazon! I am looking forward so much to getting it, I have struggled with the Kirke book, lovely photos but rather difficult on the pattern front. Thanks Kathleen. I have a sneaking feeling amazon japan might end up on my regular shopping list now ….

  12. Dr Rekha Sharma says:

    Got the Vionnet book. What a smashing intellectual jump (Pattern Magic included) from ‘mundane’ sewing from patterns.

    Thank you Kathleen for introducing us to this book

  13. Ooooh….Vionnet. Happy sigh….

    A dorky n00b question: What do you personally prefer to use for pattern tracing–interfacing, kraft, tissue, manila, clear plastic, or….?

    I’m sure I’ll read something in the next five minutes which will make me regret this question deeply, but for now, here it sits, bald and unashamed. Thank you soooo much!

  14. Judy Wagstrom says:

    Is there someplace where I could see the photos of the garments in the Japanese Vionnet book. I have thus far seen only the cover. Thanks a lot for your time.

  15. Kathleen says:

    Mary: see this previous entry for sources to buy this and other Japanese books.

    Judy: Follow Mary’s link and make particular note of Tany’s and the stylebook site. Somebody from there created a flickr account with tons of photos.

    Narrator: I don’t trace the draft, I draft on manila using the scale grid as a guide.

  16. Paloma says:

    I am a textile designer who has branched into pattern-making. Would you suggest this book as a learning tool towards advanced pattern-making or are there better suited books?

  17. Kathleen says:

    Paloma, this is a fun book you learn something from but it’s not a first step. For personal development, see this entry but if you want to do it professionally, I strongly urge you to take classes and brush up on your sewing skills if you need to.

  18. amy says:

    This book is great and thank you for introducing it to me, but I still have a problem with the beautiful coat pattern. I just can’t seem to get it to work. Does anyone know about a English translation?

  19. marcel says:

    Hi Kathleen,

    I am a fan of Vionnet and found the Betty Kirke book a great read but patterns challenging, can you tell me if the Japanese book is still available and the cost, can you get a copy with translation.

    Kind Regards


  20. marcel says:

    thanks Kathleen for your prompt response concerning the Japanese Vionnet text. Has anyone used both Vionnet books and made patterns, if so what were your thoughts on each after the excercise?

  21. Paola Di Trocchio says:

    this is great. are you able to tell me when the Vionnet Fashion Research Exhibition ended? your entry notes it began in May 2001. when did it close? best, Paola

  22. Kathleen says:

    The portion of the entry that mentions the exhibition was from the introduction of the book itself as translated by our friend Teijo. I would have no idea when it ended. You could conduct a search to find out.

  23. marcel says:

    great info, im studying fashion in sydney and appreciate greatly the vionnet legacy, this is a good forum. About the japanese vionnet book: how many versions of this book are available ie. medium large etc. & are there anymore for sale? .
    Also how can i get the english translation, is there a leaflet that can accompany the pages that are written in japanese.

  24. Kathleen says:

    Marcel, you’ve already asked about a translation and where to buy it (dec 26, 2010). Please refer to my answer in comments. As far as I know, there is only one version and who can say whether it is medium or large depending on the point of one’s comparison.

  25. Marcel,

    In her post, Kathleen writes “You won’t even have to speak Japanese to understand what’s going on.”

    She’s right. Go ahead and buy it in Japanese, if it interests you. I did, and I made myself one of the dresses. I don’t speak or read Japanese.

    The book is expensive. You could try creating a “want” on abebooks.com if the money is an issue

  26. Lisa LaMagna says:

    Just picked up this book at an estate sale for six dollars. What incredible luck! Standard patterns… front bodice, back bodice, dart, dart, dart… seem so simple minded in comparison.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.