Doing SCA Rapier in Japanese Style

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One day not all that long ago, a high born Japanese lady was accosted by one of the Nambanjin from the southern seas. He was charming for a barbarian and somehow convinced her to try her hand at learning to use one of the odd Namban swords they favor. It’s even true.

In short, I have a Japanese persona and have learning to use a rapier. It’s absolutely, positively, COMPLETELY anachronistic, but I wear Japanese dress and comport myself accordingly at events and tourneys. I assume if you’re reading this, you are interested in doing the same. 

Society Rapier Standards can be found at http://www.sca.org/officers/marshal/docs/rapier/rapier_handbook.pdf Please reference the section on protective gear if you are not familiar with it. If your Kingdom has different rules, you should likewise make yourself familiar with them and incorporate any modifications from Society standard as needed.

THE SHITAGI: I spent my first fencing event in a modern nylon fencing jacket under one of my existing linen kosode and a pair of linen hakama. While I liked having something that could be worn on its own for practice or under event clothing I already had, nylon does not breathe. 

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I decided to make something modeled on a samurai’s gusoku shita or shitagi, a sort of shirt worn under armor and the precursor of the traditional martial arts gi. While the illustration from the Tanki Yoriaku (left) is more than a century out of period, the garment didn't change all that much. More importantly, with slight modifications, it would work perfectly for what I had in mind. 

Society armor standards for rapier require puncture resistant material covering the entire torso (chest, back, abdomen, groin and sides up to and including the armpits). Female fighters must have puncture resistant groin protection. A modern fencing jacket with a between-the-legs strap satisfies that, as would putting the hem of my shitagi at mid thigh. (Men need to add rigid protection, such as an athletic cup.)

I used unbleached natural 7 ounce/yard linen (4C22) from fabrics-store.com, as two layers of it passed the required droph test. Undyed and unbleached meant a smaller likelihood of chemicals compromising the durability of the fibers. Whatever you decide to go with, it must pass a drop test either by itself or in combination with something you plan to wear over or under it. If you’re unsure whether your fabric choice(s) will pass, see if you can buy a small swatch, have a marshal drop test it and then go back and make your fabric purchase or choose something better suited. Remember, if the fabric and the layer(s) you plan to wear over/under are enough to stop the tester, it's considered safe. I know someone who fences in a heavy cotton tunic with a particular long sleeved tee shirt under it because in combination the tunic and tee shirt stopped the tester from punching through. Be aware that fabric wears over time and your rapier armor may need replacing or refurbishing when it gets to the point it will no longer pass. (Click to see a video on how drop testing is done.

Linen breathes beautifully, but how do you determine this when you see something you like at the fabric store? Pick up the loose bit off the corner of the bolt, hold it to your mouth, blow through it and see if you feel anything coming out behind it. If you can feel your breath, it will likely breathe well. If not, it will probably be a heat trap.

Measurements you need to consider:  How long do you need it to be? Mine falls to about mid thigh, which satisfies the requirement for puncture resistant coverage of the groin. The shitagi in the Tanki Yoriaku print falls to just below the knee. Choose a length that suits your purpose and get a friend to help measure you from the nape of your neck to where you want the bottom hem. Don't forget to add 1/2 inch for the hem.

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My Kosode page shows how to take measurements for your collar strip, and your “wingspan” to determine the width of your body panels. The pattern sketch assumes a panel width of 16 inches, which is what I normally use for constructing my kosode. If you’ve made your own before and know your measurements, use those. We will be referring back to the Kosode page for portions of the construction as this is a similar garment. (Bookmark the page now if you need to so you can find it easily.)

A samurai's shitagi did not need full length sleeve, but rapier armor does. Measure from the point of the shoulder to wrist for sleeve length, and add an inch.* My sketch allows for a wrist opening of 7 ½ inches if you assume 1/2 inch seam allowances. If you have large hands, measure the circumference of your closed fist and add 1 inch for your seam allowances. The sketch also shows a tapered sleeve, but there’s no reason you couldn’t go with a rectangular one. I find the taper fits a bit better beneath my gloves. *Because of the width of the body panels determined above, the shoulder seam will fall along the upper arm rather than the point of the shoulder. Check the length after you've attached the sleeves and shorten as needed.

The body is constructed of four body panels: two sets of two to form double layers sewn back to back. As the garment overlaps in front, this means there are four layers of linen covering parts of the front of the body. This might sound like overkill, particularly if one is concerned about heat reduction, but it’s a lot simpler than having to try to sew patches to the spots that don’t overlap and need that second layer. You don’t have to worry about anything ripping out as you move either, as the layers are all properly anchored at the normal seam lines.

If you look at the sketch, you’ll notice that the body panels are not perfect rectangles. Japanese garments cut from bolts of fabric that are only 14-16" wide need to have half-width pieces sewn into the front so it overlaps. However, if you're working from a wider bolt of fabric and include the overlap when you cut the body pieces, you have fewer seams to sew and fewer potential weak spots in your shitagi. (Would such seams be vulnerable to a broken blade? I don’t know, but figured it couldn’t hurt.)

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I cut out my fabric in such a way that I put the selvage along the center back seams. I sewed back seam, side seams from bottom to 10” from the top fold and did the same for the second pair of body panels. I then turned them seam sides out, lined up the seams with each other at the bottom and sewed the bottom edges together. I turned all this outside-in again so the inner and outer layers were nested with the seams between the two.

Each sleeve is a single layer, with a square patch sewn over the inner seam starting at the armpit, to comply with the puncture resistance requirement for the brachial artery “kill zone” under the arm. Fit the top of the sleeve into the shoulder, sew it in, sew the bottom sleeve seam and finish your seams, then pin the patch in place and stitch it on top of the seams. The photo above shows the shitagi turned inside out with the armpit patch.

(Yes, that's all hand sewn. I prefer working by hand, but you do not have to! I use running stitch on my seams, fold the raw ends in on themselves and sew them together. It’s held beautifully after a year of wear. However you chose to go, finishing your raw edges will lengthen the life of your garment, particularly if you use linen, which loves to fray along cut edges.)

The collar piece should be folded in half widthwise, centered and pinned at the top of center back seam, then pin from there and sew down around the neck on each side to the bottom front. Turn it under and sew to finish the bottom edge. sewn around the neck, down each side to the bottom front and turned under to finish off the edge. If the finished width of your collar is more than 3”, it’s likely to create bulk under your gorget. 2 ½” finished width is workable and should not get in your way.

Closures: I sewed interior ties at the waist – one from the left side seam, the other where the right body panel meets the collar seam. I also used a small ojime bead I had and some satin cord to create a toggle button at the neck opening (my gorget covers it). I use a strip of bias tape as a himo (sash) if I’m wearing it under garb, or with one of my obi if I’m wearing it by itself. I have not had problems with things springing open, even with the occasional blade catch on the overlap. It would not be difficult to hide a strip of velcro under the right side of the collar where it overlaps the body, should you choose to do so.

(Bottom right, photo by D.J. Goodeats.)

My obi are about 3 ½” wide and long enough to go around my waist twice before being tied in a simple square knot or a half bow. It holds the shitagi closed without things slipping, and I can tuck a dagger or fan in it. (See the Kosode page for information on making your own obi.)

Because it complies with the necessary protection standards, I can wear the shitagi under any of my existing Japanese garb. Hanging kosode sleeves and underarm vents are not a safety issue. I authorized in a silk kosode I’d hand dyed and decorated. I’ve fought in hakama and kosode, hakama and kariginu. I can feel incoming blows calibration-wise. I haven’t snagged any blades on garment openings. As long as I’ve got something long enough on top to provide coverage under the hakama’s “doorknob catchers,” I’m good to go. If anything, my clothing is far more at risk from rolling around on the ground from a theatrical death. 

MASK AND HOOD: While it looks cool, kendo armor is a post-period development, so I decided not to try to imitate that look. 

I did eventually change out my original "tailored" hood drape (see above)for something I knocked together for Estrella War in kingdom colors, including a stylized representation of the West Kingdom populace badge on the back. I used a curved carpet needle to sew it directly to the mesh at the top and sides of the mask using heavy duty thread, then tacked it to the bib. You can see the stitching in the photo below.

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Side view of my current half circle hood. Photo courtesy of Elashava Bas Riva who caught me here at Gulf Wars in 2019.

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All that blank space on the back is a great place to display heraldry! West Kingdom populace badge embattled was gifted to me by King Hans von Wolfholz. Below it is the Mists populace badge. Go Seapuppies! 

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Knowing what a dirt magnet white is, I covered the bib with a piece of green and brown shibori fabric which I'm fairly sure is a print and not real shibori.

After a great deal of dithering, I decided to continue with my "Here, hold my teacup" approach with naysayers and paint my mask. It's based on a Noh mask for a female character and was done in craft acrylics. 

GORGET: Any rapier legal gorget will do. My first on (above left), was whacked out at a gorget-making party: leather over rigid plastic heated in the oven and formed to the shape of my towel protected neck) with a bit of mouse pad lining the inside of the neck.

Last year I traded my garb-making skills for this beautiful guruwa by Yagyu Tametomo (Andy Wise) of Atenveldt. I usually wear it over the gi (and under whatever else), and the front plate neatly overlaps the plastic chest protection I favor. Photos by Joel Schonbrunn.

GLOVES: I started out in a pair of leather and suede rose gardening gloves from my local hardware store. My gi sleeves are tapered to fit beneath them. I'm currently in a pair of gloves from Darkwood Armory.

For cut-and-thrust fighting with katana, I use a pair of kendo kote. The kote are not unlike boxing gloves and lace at the wrists, so I wear a pair of cotton kote liners with velcro at the wrists over my gi sleeves, then the kote go over that so there are no gaps.  To comply with the rigid protection requirements for using a two-hander, I added a floating layer of hardened leather to cover the backs of my hands and stitched it to the padding. 

CHEST PROTECTION: Whether you feel you need additional protection is up to you. I'd been fighting three weeks when I ran myself hard onto my opponent's sword. I thought about how much worse it would have been had it hit me in the sternum and decided I wanted a chest protector. We try not to hit hard in this game, but hard shots happen. In any case, I'm comfortable enough with mine that I volunteer - or get volunteered - to work with newer fighters whose calibration skills are still developing.  

I’m in a model that looks like a rigid plastic sports bra. It's a sweat factory: I wear it over a tee or tank top, keep a clean, dry shirt to change into after fighting, and hit it with a wet wipe after use. There are other types of protection available, including plates that can be inserted inside a special sports bra, or could presumably be sewn into one’s gi.

BACK OF HEAD PROTECTION:  This is a must if you are fighting cut & thrust.  I use the SPES Vectir Occipital Overlay. Warning: Absolute Fencing has changed the configuration of the straps on their masks and it caused fit problems with this type of plate when a friend tried it. Do your homework, ask around and find something that works for you. 

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FOOTWEAR: At events I fight in jika tabi with rubber soles. They're not period, however, they add more to my impression than any other pair of boots or shoes would, they're safe, the soles offer good traction on a variety of surfaces while still being thin enough I can feel what's underfoot. Some models are about as supportive as a pair of Converse Chucks, but can be improved with a pair of good cushioned insoles. Marugo "jog" tabi are built on an athletic sole and I love mine. Jika tabi (and cotton socks to wear inside them) can be found through martial arts suppliers or on the internet, usually in black, navy or white.  If, like me, you want to get a bit fancy, you can cover a plain pair with an appropriate print fabric (see the dragonfly and cherryblossom prints here for example. 

MY WEAPONS:  Castille Armory makes lovely swords. I have one of their cut-out clamshell rapiers with a 42" Elite blade, though I'm not getting rid of the 40" crossover blade any time soon as it works for cut & thrust.  

After the gleeful "peer pressure" of friends about when I was going to get one, I fell into some good shopping karma at Great Western War and acquired a rapier-legal katana with a Castille blade and furniture by James the Just*. I also have one of the last wakizashi from James the Just with an Alchem dagger blade. The negative is that the tsuba doesn't provide a lot of hand protection, so it's easier for my opponents to take that hand if I'm not careful. Below left, I am actually remembering to parry with it!

(Below left: photo courtesy of Aaron Sloane. Below right: photo courtesy of Bill Kriner.)

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(*I don't believe James ever intended his tsuba to endure the stresses of SCA cut & thrust. After a particularly stout shot bent it over my right thumb and we discovered it was way too easy to hammer back into shape, I purchased a tsuba from Castille. While I was at it, I acquired some ray skin, silk ito and some brass reproduction menuki through the wonder that is eBay and re-did the whole hilt.) 

When a friend presented me with a steel ribbed kung fu fan, with the idea I might be able to fight with it, I ran with it. 

In its original condition, the fan only had fabric covering the ribs on one side. Said fabric appeared to be some durable but light synthetic and was decorated by a garishly printed, decidedly Chinese looking dragon. It also made an astonishing amount of noise when snapped open or shut. Elephants don’t fart this loudly.

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VERSION 1: As one of our concerns was the risk of snagging blades, I purchased what was sold to me as “rip stop” nylon at JoAnn Fabric: a half yard each of black and white. I also purchased a heavy duty all-purpose glue. I decided to go with the simple decoration of a classic Japanese tessen, with a red sun on the white side and a gold moon on the black.

After tracing the shape of the fan fabric onto my yardage, and cutting it out, I used acrylic fabric paints to create the sun and moon orbs. Once dry, I applied the glue to the exposed ribs on the back side of the fan, laid the white nylon on top and weighted it in place with several books. Several hours later, I turned it over, carefully peeled the old fabric with the dragon off – and discovered it had been attached with what appeared to be some sort of double sided tape. (I wish I’d thought of that – the glue, for all the chemical reek, was not the best adhesive for the job as I would soon discover.) I applied glue to both the ribs and the white nylon, laid the black nylon on top, and weighted as before.


I didn’t like how unevenly the fabric was adhering to the ribs. At all. I decided to stitch the sides together, putting lines of running stitch along the edges of each rib and closing up the top and bottom arcs. I edged the top arc and sides with some electrical tape, to prevent fraying and allay any concerns about ribs poking through the nylon at the business end.

The fan still opened and folded adequately even with the additional layer, however the “elephant fart” effect was significantly dampened. While my compatriots lamented this limitation, I hope to be a lot more subtle in sneaking it open after my opponent thinks I’m just going to use it as a baton.

As a baton it works, having a significant amount of mass, despite being fairly compact when folded. I can parry even heavier blades with it while folded. I need a lot of practice with it though, because a smart opponent will try to take my hand and I’m not very fast with it yet. I also need to practice sliding it open and using it that way. (If you think that sounds easy, remember, I have to do this with my left hand while wearing a glove. I still am prone to thumb cramps at this stage!)

As an open fan, it’s got the benefit of being a visual distraction and something I can also sweep a blade with. Again, I still need a lot of practice, but if I can pull it off, it’ll probably look great to spectators. 

The blade snagging we were concerned about just has not happened. There’s no room to get a tip through the openings between the ribs and such a strike is far more likely to hit me in the hand first. I’d probably let go and call hold if I felt something catch on it, anyway. 

Cons: The nylon on the black side (front) of the fan did not wear well. The ribs are already cutting their way through the fabric in a couple of places. 

VERSION 2: After issues developed with the nylon wearing through around the fan's ribs, I ordered 1.5 ounce nylon from a vendor that sells kite building supplies and set about a rebuild. Instead of glue, I used a double sided product called Hercules Tape on the fan's ribs to stick the nylon to.

Wear and tear on the original fan.

Tracing the fan shape on nylon. 

New nylon cut and ready to apply.

Removing the old nylon.

Applying double sided tape.

Pressing the nylon into place.

Sun side, with Laurel wreath and my name. 

Moon side. 

Photo courtesy of Annina Hausman. 

Photo courtesy of Jeff Cox. 

Subsequent cover based on the Choju Giga scroll. 

Current cover based on Monkey from "Kubo and the Two Strings."

A final note about stresses on a steel fighting fan. Bending the ribs back into a relatively flat state is a constant activity. If your fan is going to fail, it will break at the pivot pin. If you have the right size rivets and tools, it's fixable, and fortunately I know a Nice Duke With Tools. Thanks, Fabe.

Copyright 2013, 2019 Lisa A. Joseph