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08 December 2012

Gi Review - Gimono BJJ Gi

Short Review: I think I can safely say this gi is unique in that it is made of a 36% merino wool and 64% polyester blend, a fabric the creators have dubbed 'Fortitude'. The merino wool is on the inside, making it comfortable to wear. It's also nearly completely plain, probably due to Gimono's history with judo. Having worn it around Texas, I can confirm it's a perfect travel gi: super-light, wraps up tightly and dries in a few hours.

There are only two real problems. Firstly, the collar is easy to grab due to how pliable it is, meaning stripping grips becomes difficult. Secondly, the Gimono gi is currently expensive, with possible hefty customs charges. Available to buy here for NZ$295, which currently works out at £153 ($243) before tax and customs. A blue version is about to be released as well. As of March 2020, they're doing a sale, where the jiu jitsu gi is avaialble for $149 (US $).

Full Review: About a year ago, Aesopian told me about an unusual new gi company called Gimono, who were using wool. I was intrigued, so I'm very pleased to get the opportunity to review one of their gis. The wool is not just any wool, but merino, famous for its high quality: according to Cedric Larson, "the best type of fleece is produced from the Merino, and all other wools are ranked by their relation to it."

If you want to skip to the actual gi specific part of the review, click here

When I visited New Zealand eight years ago, the souvenir shops were stuffed with merino, in keeping with its marketing as an exclusive fabric for connoisseurs. Back in 1995, Merino New Zealand was established, breaking away from the International Wool Secretariat which had marketed merino up until then. As the Financial Times explained in April 1997:

When they pulled out of the IWS, the New Zealand producers were frustrated that their wool was being blended with what they regarded as lower quality fibres from higher volume producers in other countries to improve the average.

As New Zealand wool was swamped by the output of other producers, the prices farmers received were volatile. Furthermore, because New Zealand merino wool had been blended, there was little to differentiate the product in buyers' minds.

According to Mr Andrew Caughey, MNZ's European marketing manager, "merinos are the aristocrats of the sheep world". More than that, he argues that New Zealand merinos grow the finest wool of all.

New Zealand produces around 8,000 tonnes of merino wool a year, only about 8% of the country's total wool production by volume and a tiny proportion of the world's merino output. That scarcity has been turned into a marketing point by stressing the fibre's "exclusivity".

Mr Kym McConnell, MNZ's brand manager, says New Zealand merinos, which mainly live in the high country of South Island, enjoy a cleaner environment and better pasture than others.

New Zealand merino fibres are stronger, making them ideal for suiting material, which requires a combination of strength and softness. The lack of pollution means the fleeces are whiter than others even after they have been washed.

Mr McConnell contends that New Zealand merino compares with cashmere in terms of the fineness of the fibre, measured in microns, and its "handle" - and it is in similarly scarce supply.

Not only does New Zealand merino apparently have considerable cachet for its quality, it also has numerous alleged benefits of a more tangible nature (just like the hemp gi I've reviewed in the past: I'll be putting up a review of yet another hemp gi soon). On the Gimono site, you can find several articles that discuss them at length. For example, here, where it states:

Merino fibers can be bent up to 30,000 times without breaking - so its core structure produces the most amazing blend of properties: exceptional softness and resilience. [...]

It's hydroscopic - which means it is capable of absorbing moisture vapor and repelling liquid at the same time. This explains why when you wear merino next-to-skin, you can sweat a lot but not feel damp and clammy. The merino, which is capable of storing around a third of its own dry weight in water vapor, draws sweat away from your skin (a process known as wicking), absorbs and desorbs the vapors, speeding up the body's own cooling system while remaining dry to touch. [...]

Moreover, with its unique physical and chemical structure, merino is naturally odor and soiling resistant, and anti-bacterial to boot.

Australians managed to nab the domain, meaning they can claim that their merino is in fact the best, listing the following further benefits to merino:

- natural breathability
- keeps you warm in winter, yet cool in summer
- drapes beautifully and resists creasing
- shrugs off stains and keeps its colour when washed
- benefits from natural anti-static and anti-odour properties. goes into greater detail over in the 'unique properties' section of the website, where each of the benefits gets its own icon. The list is longer, including soft, elastic, breathable, static resistant, easy to care for, odour resistant, stain resistant, machine washable, anti-wrinkle, natural barrier to UV, biodegradable and (somewhat bizarrely) fire resistant.

Merino is often used in base layers, so you'll see it advertised for hikers, mountain climbers and the like. That gives the media yet another chance to extol the virtues of merino, such as this piece by Wendy Warburton:

Merino wool undies also let your sweat evaporate, although not as quickly. But unlike poly, wool keeps you warm even when it does get damp and it doesn't smell. It's great for less-experienced winter athletes, outdoor skaters and alpine skiers. It's also natural and renewable since it comes from merino sheep, a breed of sheep that lives in the high alpine.

It should be kept in mind that all of those benefits, whether or not they're being overblown, are related to merino specifically as opposed to Fortitude, a polyester/merino blend. However, there is plenty of cross-over. In a factsheet I was sent by Gimono about Fortitude, it has a comparable summary of benefits:

• Superior next-to-skin physiological comfort: A fine layer of merino worn next to skin provides natural odour resistance. An anti-microbial treatment helps prevent attacks by microorganisms such as bacteria.
• High burst strength: Engineered to last, Fortitude™ offers an astounding strength-to-weight ratio without compromising comfort or aesthetics.
• Excellent breathability: Originally designed for the world’s toughest contact sports, Fortitude™ offers high levels of breathability and moisture management.
• Good dimensional stability: Fortitude™ combines the softness and drape of a knit with the stability and strength of a woven fabric – making it extremely versatile.
• Attractive surface texture
• Lively drape
• Superb handle
• Easy care: Fortitude™ is machine washable and shrink resistant. Ideal for domestic, commercial and industrial applications.

The genesis of the Fortitude material came in 2005, when Gimono co-founder Grant Scott was training judo in Tokyo. He was frustrated that at the end of his training, he was left with a "smelly, blood-stained gi." He teamed up with experienced businesswoman Lavinia Calvert, who among her packed CV has fifteen years with Reuters. Given that high-performance materials had been developed for use in many other sports, the pair sought to do the same for martial arts.

The majority of gis are still made of cotton, although there have been some innovations, such as ripstop, hemp and bamboo. These have now been joined by Fortitude. A piece in the Otago Daily Times from July 2010 describes the process Calvert and Scott went through to develop their material:

They started looking at existing textiles, but nothing met their list of needs of being comfortable, strong, able to stretch and recover from being gripped, pulled and tugged during bouts, did not shrink, can be washed and retain its colour.

Wool was widely used in the active outdoor market, because it had similar qualities required by martial arts, but it stretched, so Ms Calvert asked AgResearch Textile for help.

In 2007, they had their first sample fabric, a wool-polyester blend, which has since been refined to a final product that is a third the weight of cotton Gis and met their list of requirements. The wool layer is next to the skin.

A patent is pending on the fabric, with Gis selling for between $300 and $400, similar to a top-priced cotton garment. [...]

Ms Calvert said they made jackets, shorts and pants, with the fabric made in Auckland and garments in Christchurch.

Fortitude looks beyond the world of martial arts too, with applications in equestrian sports and the catwalks of fashion. I will obviously be focusing on how Fortitude functions on the jiu jitsu mat. Getting into the technical details, the material is 330gsm, which while technically a little heavier than my lightest gi (the Gorilla ripstop, which is 250gsm), it does not feel any bulkier. It also is not a typical jiu jitsu gi weave, so looks quite different as well as feeling unlike any other gi you've ever worn.

That is due to the wool/polyester mix. Calvert sent me a helpful email when I asked about the specific choice of blend, stating that:

You'll see that the merino/polyester composition is 36%/64%. When we were developing the fabric we tried different compositions, including a higher percentage of merino, but to achieve the desired performance attributes (strength, stretch, weight, breathability, thickness etc) the optimal blend turned out to be 36%/64%.

I also asked her if the gi was legal for IBJJF competition. The answer is no, which does not surprise me as the IBJJF isn't exactly renowned for being an organisation open to change from the mainstream. A completely atypical weave and material like Fortitude (see the close-up above) is therefore going to be a tough sell. Still, there is always a chance that may change, though personally I would recommend this gi for travel rather than competing. Nevertheless, the Gimono position is that the company is attempting to meet every other requirement outside of material and weave:

Regarding competition rules, the short answer is 'no' – simply because Fortitude isn't cotton or cotton-like, and it's not a woven fabric. However, as far as uniform measurements go, we have worked hard to ensure that our gi's meet the standard requirements (lapel width, sleeve opening at full extension, jacket length, sleeve length etc). [...]

Because we know our product is pushing some pretty entrenched traditional boundaries, we haven't yet approached the IBJJF (or the IJF for that matter) about getting acceptance for what we've developed. [...] While we fully appreciate why such rules exist, we believe it will take considerable time, money and influence to bring about change at the administration levels of the sport. That's not to say it can't or won't happen eventually ... just that we don't think the time is quite right for us to take that issue on!

In time, yes – we'd welcome the opportunity to have the conversation – but in reality I think we have a little way to go before a top-down approach would work in our favor! We'd rather see how the market responds, get the concept understood and accepted by practitioners themselves and then address the issue of competition compliance. Granted, there will be a segment of the market that won't be prepared to try an alternative like Gimono because it doesn't fully comply with the rules, but we're okay with that. We're in this for the long haul and we don't see any reason why this type of innovation won't eventually be more broadly accepted in the sport ... it's just going to take time and patience, that's all.

I'm no stranger to gis made of unusual materials, although I was a little concerned about the wool. I never wear wool. The few times my parents tried to put me in a wool jumper back when I was even smaller than I am now, I found it unbearably itchy. Fortunately, merino is different. According to Deb Acord, it has "longer fibers that make it virtually itch-free." That proved true for the Gimono, which had none of wool's dreaded abrasion.

I got a size 3, which is roughly equivalent to an A1: they use judo sizing, probably because one of the co-founders is a judoka. The fit was superlative, with a slightly longer skirt than average for BJJ gis (personally I like that, as I'm fond of using the gi skirt for chokes), but still relatively tight to the body rather than a baggy judo-style. The reinforcements are entirely distinct from what you would normally see (except on the jacket vents, which have the usual additional material at the top), due to the material being equally distinct from any other gi. Instead of those triangular patches inside the armpit, the Gimono has lots of seams running along the length of the sleeves and down the trouser legs.

I have not noticed much shrinkage at all after three washes. The pre-wash measurements were close to my Gorilla ripstop: from cuff to cuff the Gimono started at 150cm, the trousers at 92cm and from shoulder to hem it was 80cm (slightly longer than the Gorilla, which is 76cm). I then did two washes in Georgette's machine on cold (which she said was about 25 degrees celsius), followed by 30 minutes at 30 degrees celsius back home in Bristol. Both the trousers and shoulder to hem length stayed the same after two washes. The cuff to cuff length shrunk by about 1cm or so. After the third wash in Bristol, there was still no notable shrinkage, as the measurements had not changed.

The Gimono has much more elasticity than I'm used to, but not so much that it affects training. It does make the measurements slightly harder to confirm, as you have to try and stretch it the same amount each time: my marker was the point at which I felt tension. It is almost as light as the Gorilla, at a mere 1.2kg, and just as thin. The Gimono is therefore brilliant for travel, particularly as this is either as fast-drying as the Gorilla or maybe faster.

In Texas, the Gimono took less than three hours to go from straight out of the washing machine to completely bone dry. It isn't especially wet when you first take it out of the machine, which was enough to convince me the Gimono is indeed hydroscopic. Judging by that, you could wear your Gimono to class in the morning, wash it, then wear it again for the evening class. Georgette's house is clearly much warmer than mine, as in the UK it took more like six hours to dry, but then that's without the heating on and a temperature of around 5 degrees celsius outside.

As the co-founder of Gimono warned me, this gi is completely different from anything you will have worn before in BJJ, so it will take a bit of getting used to. It feels like a quality pair of pyjamas, or as several people in Texas described it, a polyester suit from the '70s. It is also shiny white, which I like, but may put off those who prefer a darker colour (though I imagine Gimono will eventually have models in blue and perhaps other shades as well).

Of the handful of reviews I've seen so far (mainly going off the Gimono Facebook page), the main complaint was directed at the collar: several people mentioned that the thin Gimono collar cut into their neck. Those reviews were from a year ago, so it's Gimono might have made some modification since then. When I tested the Gimono BJJ gi, I found that although the collar was extremely easy to grab, it did not cut into my neck. Calvert is aware of the issues with the collar and it is something she is looking to address:

The one area where we have further improvements to make and that we are still working on getting right (but that isn't a rule-breaker per se), is the thickness and construction of the lapel itself. While we have made significant improvements in our second generation design (an example of which you have), we are aware of the need to stiffen up the lapel, make it a little thicker still, and to possibly change the way we've constructed it so as to prevent burning. The current issues with it are partly due to our fabric being so much lighter-weight and softer – which is good for some things, but not so good for others – so as with all these things it's about finding the right balance.

I should emphasise that I did not experience that burning, just the difficulty of removing grips. The soft nature of the material has some advantages too. Though there are seams on the back, which is becoming rare in BJJ gis, I did not find they dug into my back. The seams aren't the typical huge joins you would see on a cotton gi (e.g., as on the Padilla & Sons single weave), but thin strips. Interestingly, after I rolled with Jeff Rockwell, he mentioned that it was hard for him to get a grip on my hips, which potentially goes some way to counteracting the ease of grip on the collar.

The design appeals to me, as somebody who appreciates a clean look. There are almost no patches at all on the outside of the gi. The only externally visible patches are on the back of the lower trouser leg and at the end of the lapel. Inside, there are some washing instructions backing the lapel patch, while the joining seam along the middle has 'Fight For You Rights!' written across it (in case you're wondering, those rights relate to comfort, not anything political ;D). Again, that seam does not result in any abrasion or discomfort while rolling.

I found that the drawstrings were a good length, perhaps because they are the flat type instead of a bungee cord (the cord in my experience has a tendency to be overly long and dangle, such as with the otherwise excellent Tatami Nova). Personally, I prefer the flat type, though there has been a growing trend to use rope instead. There are also typically multiple belt loops on BJJ gi trousers: the Gimono only has one. That's not unusual for judo gi trousers, but I can't remember seeing that arrangement in a BJJ gi. I didn't mind the solo loop, but your mileage may vary.

In regards to some of the alleged benefits claimed for Fortitude, I can agree with comfort and easy care: the drying time is what impressed me most. There is a specific claim in the Fortitude factsheet that proudly announces "Merino wool can absorb up to 35% of its dry weight in moisture before it becomes wet. This keeps the wearer drier and less clammy from perspiration." I wasn't completely convinced of that, as I felt clammy during one of my training sessions in Texas (to be fair, this is Texas, so it was still relatively hot in November by UK standards). The only way to test that properly would be to do the same set of exercise that results in sweat wearing both a Gimono and some other gi. So that's what I did, although back in the UK.

I worked up a slight sweat by doing a load of press-ups and sit-ups followed by running up and down the stairs for four minutes. The lightweight cotton gi I used for comparison stayed fairly dry, but I could feel some minor moisture in the ripstop trousers. I decided that was enough to test the Gimono. As soon as I put it on, I noticed another benefit: it's cold in the UK, but the Gimono immediately warmed me up. That's probably unsurprising, given merino's common use as a base layer for hiking and the like. During and after the exercise, the Gimono seemed to regulate the temperature and moisture more effectively. It was only slight, but there was a noticeable difference. I'd need to do hard rolling in both to really test it, but unfortunately my leg isn't up to that.

The Gimono arrives in its own branded bag, consisting of a large main pocket plus a zip slot on the front, along with a detachable shoulder strap. It looks similar to a laptop bag, except the dimensions are not the same: one previous reviewer described it as a 'shoe box'. It demonstrates how compact the Gimono can be: the Gimono has none of the bulk of a typical gi, much like my Gorilla ripstop. This is definitely going into my travel gi rotation.

The glaring issue for potential customers is that a Gimono is currently quite expensive, and you need to consider customs and tax if you're outside New Zealand. I ended up being charged £90.92 in fees (which I should note Calvert kindly reimbursed: it was a pleasure dealing with her throughout), so if you're paying full price, that would mean you're laying out £240 for the gi. Gimono may come up with a solution to reduce that cost for those of us based outside of Australasia, but I'm sure it's not an easy thing to arrange.

There is the argument that if Fortitude can live up to its claims of durability and last significantly longer than a standard cotton counterpart, a high price could be justified to a degree (the same is true of hemp and bamboo gis, which are also both currently expensive). That remains to be seen and will be a major test for all non-standard gi materials. Available to buy here. As of March 2020, they're doing a sale, where the jiu jitsu gi is avaialble for $149 (US $).

Update March 2020: I've now used this gi (and other products from GIMONO) regularly for 8 years, all over the world, it is still holding up well. It's even survived my various attacks on it with dye and patches. I like it so much that I now have several gis from GIMONO, hopefully I'll be able to afford to buy more in the future. Handily, you can buy the trousers separately, which for me are the best travel gi trousers on the market.

Here's a video of the GIMONO in action, although as usual I'm pairing my 2012 GIMONO jacket with some ripstop trousers:


'Terms of the Men's Apparel Industry', Cedric Larson, American Speech, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec., 1952)

'NZ Puts Upmarket Spin on Merino Wool', Financial Times, 16th April 1997

'In From The Cold', Wendy Warburton, Calgary Herald, 29th November 2007

'Sock Market Boom', Deb Acord, The Gazette, 15th August 2002

'New fabric has more than fighting chance', Carolyn Enting, Dominion Post, 25th August 2010

'Merino finds a new niche in martial arts', Neal Wallace, Otago Daily Times, 10th July 2010

'Fortitude Fact Sheet', Fortitude Textiles Ltd, Lavinia Calvert email

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