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:
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.