SuttaCentral

How did the early monastics sew their robes?

Someone recently shared with me a web app that was designed to help monastics figure out the pattern for sewing a robe of the proper size. I had seen something like this many years back and it got me thinking… If a complex calculator like this is needed to sew robes, then is it possible we are not doing it right?

Here is the app that was shared with me:

Now, I’m not criticizing the app or people who make robes this way. The calculations to do this are quite complex and an app can be a big help.

I’ve come to a personal conclusion, though, that this method of sewing in decorative seams was not a thing in the time of the Buddha. Instead I believe that the method now common in Sri Lanka makes much more sense. But first a recap and some background for those not familiar with robe sewing technique.

The Buddha established a pattern that robes should be sewn in, and there are even names for the different parts of the pattern in the Vinaya. The thin “dikes” are called kusis. Here is the basic layout:
Robe pattern

The standard way in Thailand is to take a single piece of cloth large enough to make the whole robe and simply stitch this pattern into the cloth by folding the fabric on one of the lines and sewing in about 2mm in from the fold. Then you open the fabric flat, fold over the little flap you’ve made, and then stitch this flap down.

You do this for the entire thing. Only when the fabric is not big enough would you piece things together, usually along the top to bottom seams.

There are some obvious problems with this method. First of all, it requires the complicated calculations that you see in the web app. Assuming you would have monks who had formerly been accountants to do these calculations, you need to draw the pattern on the cloth according to these complicated calculations. I highly doubt that the monks had access to measuring sticks that would have gradations on them down to the mm size.

What I propose is that the method used in Sri Lanka is much closer to what the monastics would have done. Instead of the fake/decorative seams, the kusis themselves are just large french seams.

What this means is that if you are dealing with a whole piece of cloth the right size, then you cut it long ways into a piece 1/3 and a piece 2/3.

Then you re-join it with a very large french seam, thereby hiding all the edges of the seam and creating in effect what is a double layer kusi.

Then you take this large re-constructed piece and cut it short-ways into five pieces, approximately equal with the outer pieces being a bit wider planning for the border.

Then you flip piece 2 and 4 around and sew everything back together with another wide kusi as shown above.

Tada! you now have a robe.

The beauty of this method is that you need absolutely no measuring. The 1/3 2/3 cut can be approximate, as can the cutting into five. You wouldn’t even need to draw the lines for these cuts on the fabric. Just fold and use a razor to cut.

But what really hit me as I was mulling it over recently is how this method is perfectly suited to the collection of scrap cloth. Of course this is pure conjecture, but hear me out. As one is collecting cloth, one comes across different sizes. Knowing about how tall your robe needs to be, as you gather cloth you can start to sew pieces together to form these two initial pieces, the 1/3 piece where you join the smaller pieces, and the 2/3 pieces where you join the larger pieces. Once either piece reaches the desired length, you can start cutting any larger pieces you find and add them to the 1/3 piece, or any smaller pieces you find you can join them together to form larger pieces you add to the 2/3 piece.

Then when both pieces are long enough you are ready to go. Join them in the big french seam, cut in five, flip #2 and #4, and then rejoin in another large french seam. There will of course be chunks that are longer than needed. those can be trimmed off and become the border.

No measuring needed, other than to know the size of the robe you are trying to make.

The kusis would then add strength to the fabric (not introduce stress points as the decorative seams do). They would also visually over ride any pattern, or lack there of, of the joining of all the smaller pieces with regular french seams.

All of this doesn’t answer the question of how a kathina frame would be useful, though. But it does explain how one could easily make a robe without a web app! And the method is much, much faster, so hand sewing a kathina robe in the required time makes more sense.

[some other threads on robes]

14 Likes

Fabric can move a lot while you are sewing it, especially if there are multiple layers. I guess the frame is to stop that.

There is a nice picture of a traditional Indian sewing frame (from Uttar Pradesh?) on p 49.

4 Likes

Oh my, that’s all quite complicated isn’t it?

I have so much respect for anyone who can sew!

Garment construction is quite challenging, especially for the uninitiated. Having just hand sewed a new sitting cloth from old robes, (it took a while and I lost a bit of blood, and a little of my sanity) I have immense respect for those who make their own robes and of course much appreciation for those who sew our robes professionally and all the kind people who offer them to the Sangha; much more convenient than having to work out the difficulties of fabric architecture!

Some monasteries still expect their postulants to sew their first robes, which is great if you’re learning from people who know what they are doing. I heard that there is a fashion for hand sewing robes at Wat Pah Nanachat at the moment, :+1: and no doubt a mountain of pre-sewn robes in their stores. :thinking:

My guess is the frame would make it easier to pin the various pieces in place, maybe the vertical kusis and the border were constructed first as a base and the rest built around that, this would make the seam work simpler? A frame also allows for more people to work on a robe at once, perhaps sewing individual sections and joining together. Certainly, it seems at the time of the Buddha, making robes was a group activity, which would transfer knowledge and make it much faster.

I imagine that back in the day the standard for robes were much less refined than our current ones, they are actually quite complex and detailed garments in a way. I use patches to mend my robes, which is easy because it’s worked over a base, and though it looks a bit rough it’s good enough for the holy life! From this I can see that a patched robe from rags would be a completely different aesthetic and sensibility- much less precious than the perfectly sewn robes of today, and maybe rightly so? Just robes after all…

Buuuut. Here’s my bespoke artisanal sitting cloth! :innocent:

I think a video that goes step by step would be a useful additional to the instructions in the app. Drawings and written communication leave so many unanswered questions in that moment of complete confusion when you just can’t get your head around the next step.

Sadly due to a generational shift, distance from Asia, and a different focus, many monasteries in the West often don’t have resident making experts, and we simply don’t have the construction knowledge or the sewing skills. Or the enthusiasm maybe? It’s hard to learn from a pdf. Having people who know what they are doing and happy to teach is the best way to keep this tradition alive.

7 Likes

No, this is for embroidery, which is a completely different animal from sewing. For embroiders, or any similar needle arts, it’s important that the single piece of cloth you are making the pattern on stays stretched out. Unless I’m missing something, this has nothing at all to do with sewing together pieces for robes.

Ajahn Thanissaro makes a conjecture that the frame was similar to what is used for quilt-making. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to understand how quilts are made! When I was a kid I actually sat around and watched church ladies sewing on a quilting frame. When most people think of quilting, they are thinking of pieces of fabric being joined together to make a pattern. However that is not the technical aspect of “quilting”. The quilting happens after that is all done and several layers (with the completed joined pattern as a top layer), possibly with a filling, are joined together by stitching top to bottom through the whole work, often making a stitching pattern that has no relation to the individual pieces that have been joined together. This gives the quilt that “pillowed” look. And again, this is not what is happening with robe making. (To clarify, one could make a quilt with whole pieces of fabric just layered together. The piecing together of fabric to make a pattern was done to make use of scraps. In fact some quilts are made with solid pieces of fabric simply to show off quilting technique. They are quite beautiful, in fact.)

For me, I can dream up ways that a frame might be used. But as a sewer, I know that none of them would make the process any easier and would in fact be needlessly complicated. I’ve made many robes in different ways, both by hand and by machine, and I never thought, wow I wish I just had a frame. I can see how a frame would be helpful if you were working alone trying to use a chalk line. But with the method I propose no chalk line is needed. And usually monks would not be alone anyway.

8 Likes

Reading sewing instructions is second only in difficulty to writing sewing instructions! Trying to make sense of commercial clothing patterns is often a mind-melting experience. But once you see the method I explain in detail, you would understand how it is far quicker than the decorative seam method.

Your sitting cloth looks great! It’s exactly what it should be. I’ve always believed that if you can critique the sewing of my clothes then you are standing much too close. :laughing:

8 Likes

Ahh imagine The Dukkha!
:joy::joy::joy::sob:

2 Likes

That’s interesting. I assumed when I saw the diagram at the top of your post that the pattern had developed out of the need to join lengths of cloth woven on a very narrow loom. (I’ve got a single bedspread that consists of three narrow strips of handwoven material side by side.)

The joining of collected rags makes good sense, but I still wonder how wide these rags were. Do you know anything about looms of the Buddha’s time?

I LOLed at the idea of the monks of old consulting their phone apps!!

3 Likes

Oh, that’s a really good point! Hadn’t thought of that. The story is always told that the cutting up was to reduce the value of the cloth since a huge piece would attract thieves. But now I’m foggy on just where that comes from.

4 Likes

Probably, that varies. See for example in AN 5.162:

AN5.162:3.2:
Suppose a mendicant wearing rag robes sees a rag by the side of the road. They’d hold it down with the left foot, spread it out with the right foot, tear out what was intact, and take it away with them.

5 Likes

We have a few ‘rag robe’ wearers here at Dhammasara. Basically people who have rummaged through all the offcuts and pieced together their robes. This kind of calculator is useful for this function, as you need to know what size the big, small and kusi panels are. I made a scalable SVG file to work it out, but this website is much simpler.

Our novices all sew their own robes. It’s hard to dye our robe colour and it’s a nice community activity, with many people helping out.

Generally we do the Thai method, but the Kathina robe we sewed this year we cut into 3 vertical sections and sewed back together and then attached the cut borders. In my opinion it took no longer to do it this way… unless you make a cutting mistake. We did. I managed to set a record for the slowest Kathina robe sewn at Dhammasara. No more sewing for me this year!

I vaguely remember hearing that Dhammadharini sewed robes on a frame. Maybe someone has more info?

While on the topic of robes I am very curious about a method of sewing the sanghati which I heard described in a talk by Ajahn Jotipalo. He said it was like sewing a ‘pillow case’ and that it was sew inside out and then pulled through a small hole which closed on itself??? Or something to that effect. I’ve found various differnt sanghati sewing instructions but nothing like this. Any ideas? I like to figure this kind of thing out but have been trying to ignore the niggling urge, while i work on my natural dye making project.

5 Likes

I have sewn a sanghati by this method. Personally, I would not recommend it. You end up with something that is a true marvel of sewing ingenuity. It’s quite awe inspiring. The method ensures that there are no visible stitches showing. However, other than bragging rights, I seen no benefit whatsoever.

I was living at a monastery where there were constantly new monks coming through the ranks, so the method was constantly in use by at least one monk. As I understood, the technique was passed on person to person, with those who had not done it in the last year quickly forgetting exactly how to do it. On top of that, it requires that both layers of cloth have exactly the same pattern drawn on, otherwise each section that was off would cause poofyness when completed. It also requires making internal cuts in the fabric that are easily done incorrectly. A wrong snip could botch things. And overall the method was so convoluted that making mistakes were inevitable, although unless they involved cuts, could be easily undone. Just demoralizing.

I’m happy to pm you the pattern and instructions I have, but I can say that even having done it myself once, the instructions make little sense to me and I’m sure I could not use them to make a robe easily. But you may have more luck!

This all kind of goes to the heart of my argument, namely, could the monks have really been using methods that required such a high level of skill? With this type of inside-out sanghati, it seems more like an elite practice that mostly serve to show group identity and not further spiritual practice. And if I am remembering correctly, I don’ think the method is well suited to rag robe construction. Personally I think the method I outline above for making a single robe is perfectly suited to making a double layer robe.

4 Likes

Thanks @Snowbird I would be interested if you have the instructions to hand. I found something with internal cuts (but not inside out) and there is NO WAY I could get my head around it, and even less chance that i will sew it. It’s just a ‘nerdy itch’.

The joining method described in ticivara’s instructions seem quite practical when combined with the rag robe style you are talking about and will be how I will probably sew my sanghati… whenever that happens.

4 Likes

I also made a sanghati and it’s all true. I was lucky to have a good sewing guide, Ven Mahanyano. I’d be like, “but why?” and he’d be like, “just do it” and I’d be like “oh yeah, that works. huh.” But I agree, it does seem like a decadent technique, even if the results are very pretty.

4 Likes

I don’t have experience of robes, but come from a sewing background. What really struck me most was that what the Buddha described could be seen as the first documented ‘rip-stop’ fabric construction, for truly enhanced durability :smiley:

If viewed from this perspective it adds a different dimension for calculating the ‘best’ method for how to construct and place the (reinforcing) seams.

6 Likes

Thanks for sharing.

I suppose the Sri Lankan method you described makes a bit more sense compared to the Thai method, as it uses less thread (and less time). I always wondered what the use of the kusi strips was, as it seems a lot of work for a tiny bit of robe, but perhaps they were originally the seams, as you illustrated.

You reminded me to post a small update in my old thread: Early monks' robes. Might interest you.

2 Likes

Yijing (7th cent) has a bit to say about seams in the Record of the Southern Seas, Nanhai Jigui Neifa Zhuan. He suggests that the proper way of doing the seams is like the Chinese style, but with the patches sewn down. (He is critical of the Chinese method). He states that this method is widespread in both India and Central Asia and doesn’t give any alternative method. To me, it sounds like just using the kusi as a large seam…

I reverse-engineered some commercial robes and I worked out that you can do the commercial-style double-stitched cut seams pretty quickly with a 2mm narrow rolled hem foot. But I don’t like it, because they are always the places where the fabric wears first, especially on a lower robe. Unless you have access to a commercial cutter, cutting kusis just doesn’t make sense to me. So thanks to @snowbird for raising this.

3 Likes

“closed patches”, I’m not really sure what it means, but it could be snowbirds description.

If memory serves me, the Chinese robes I have seen have kusis that are like flaps only sewn down along one edge. So they are basically like flaps. It’s hard to imagine from that description because it doesn’t really make much sense as to why they would be like that.

1 Like