Monday, 21 July 2008


Today I thought I'd write a bit about Kumihimo, or the ancient traditional craft of Japanese braiding.

This method of braiding is said to be over 1,000 years old. Traditionally the braids were used to assemble samurai armour, and as 'obijime' and haori ties for kimono outfits. They were usually made from silk.

Kumihimo braiding involves using a frame (either a 'marudai' or a 'takadai'), and bobbins. I do the smaller scale version of kumihimo, which uses the 'marudai' frame.

The top picture shows my marudai, which was given to me by my Grandmother, who inspired my interest in kumihimo. In the picture below that, you can see the other equipment that you need to braid with - the bobbins (or 'tama'), counterweights, a chopstick, and of course the threads to braid with!

Depending on how thick/fat you want the braid to be, you either use 4, 8 or any multiple of 8 bobbins. I only have 16 in total, so that's what my braids are limited to (and to be honest, that's enough - it starts getting pretty complicated and easy to get tangled up!). For more complex flat braids, the bigger frame called a 'takadai' is used.

So, to make a braid, first of all you need to work out how long you want it to be, and also what you want it to be made from. I love texture, so I use lots of non-traditional ingredients in my braids, like chain, beads, wool, ribbon, and various different fibres. You also need to decide what pattern and form the braid will take - it's possible to make round, hollow, square, octagonal, flat, and wedge-shaped braids... and the list goes on. A real expert is Jacqui Carey (who literally wrote the book on the subject) - her books list lots of interesting braid types to try out.

Once you have decided on the braid type, you cut your lengths of fibres that you are going to braid with, one fibre per bobbin (although traditionally several strands of the fibre are used per bobbin - and of course the number you use affects the eventual size and thickness of the braid). Here, the number and type of colours you choose can really make a big difference to the final braid.

After cutting your threads, you attach them to the bobbins and wind the thread up around the bobbins.

Then you tie the loose ends together, and attach the counterweights (I use roughly half the total bobbin weight - but varying this makes for a tighter or looser weave of the braid). Now it's time to arrange the bobbins on the marudai - different braid styles call for different arrangements. When using lots of different texture in a braid, it's important at this point to think about the arrangement of each thread and how this will affect the braid overall. Each style of braid calls for the bobbins to be moved around the marudai in various different directions, working with pairs of bobbins as opposites.

The picture above shows 16 bobbins/threads arranged on the marudai. In the very centre is the 'point of braiding' which helps you keep track of which move you have just made when you get distracted by a cat or cup of tea, etc.

The motion of braiding is very rhythmical, and quite relaxing (as long as things don't get tangled!) - you just keep going until the desired length of braid has been made. Then you tie off the braid just below the point of braiding, and can remove all the bobbins from the threads. The braid is finished!

These pictures show some of my braids - mixed texture and same texture, of various shapes and sizes.

These pictures are of necklaces I have made combining various fibres with chain, for added weight and texture.

I love making braids, but I don't feel I've yet found the best way to show off their lovely colours, patterns and textures. My newest idea is to somehow incorporate small pieces of braid into metal as a jewellery piece - something I hope to be able to explore at my metalsmithing summer school next month :D.

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