Throwback Thursday: Fun Facts About the Origin of Kumihimo

To most of us, the mention of kumihimo summons mental images of sparkly crystals, colorful cords, slotted foam discs (affiliate link), plastic bobbins, and fancy end caps. But kumihimo wasn’t always so. Let’s take a peek back into the ancient origins of braiding cord.

ABOVE: Kumihimo has a rich though under-documented history, including lacing together samurai armor and binding kimonos.

Modern kumihimo makes use of a variety of tools and materials, including foam disk looms.

Modern kumihimo makes use of a variety of tools and materials, including foam disk looms.

Braiding is an Ancient Practice

Strong, warm, and long-stapled, hemp was one of humanity’s first agricultural crops.

Strong, warm, and long-stapled, hemp was one of humanity’s first agricultural crops.

Cultures have been braiding for centuries and centuries, evidenced by Bronze and Iron Age artwork of ancient peoples with braided hair. Materials for braiding extended far beyond hair, however. South Americans used alpaca and llama wool, North Americans braided bison fibers, and silk featured heavily in Asian cultural traditions. Widely-available plant fibers were also common in braids, from grass to nettle to hemp.

It All Started With Loop Manipulation

Before looms, people would braid fibers with their fingers in a process of loop manipulation. A version of this called kute-uchi kumihimo arose in Japan in the 7th Century. Far from being simple, this loop braiding created multi-layered, square, or round braids.

And what if you wanted to make a complicated pattern involving more strands than you had fingers? No problem; some complex braids required the hands of five or more people at once! What a sight that would be–like an intricately choreographed dance.

Kumihimo’s history is tied up with Buddhist temples and the armor of samurai warriors.

Kumihimo’s history is tied up with Buddhist temples and the armor of samurai warriors.

From Temples to Samurai Armor: Kumihimo in Japanese History

Unfortunately, braids were considered insignificant in comparison to Japan’s rich textile traditions, so patterns and techniques were only passed down verbally. And yet, kumihimo braids were woven deeply into the fabric of society. These strong, silky braids served as adornment for Buddhist temples, as lacing between the iron-plated armor of the samurai, as decorative wraps for sword handles, and as cords to secure the wide sashes of kimonos.

Though we don’t know exactly when, braiding stands eventually appeared in Japan, allowing for even more intricate designs. (Some patterns, recorded in complex notation, required 400 steps to achieve!) The marudai (“round stand”) and the takadai (“high stand”) likely appeared in the Edo period, which began in the early 1600s. The first books documenting kumihimo patterns were also produced in this period.

About 20 inches high, a marudai was designed to be used in a kneeling position.

About 20 inches high, a marudai was designed to be used in a kneeling position.

From the Marudai to the Slotted Disk

Jill Wiseman incorporates many materials into her kumihimo braids.

Jill Wiseman incorporates many materials into her kumihimo braids.

A traditional marudai had no marks to indicate where to place the cords; a braiding artist worked entirely freehand. A weight was placed at the braid base, as well as on each of the working threads to hold them in place, since there were no slots.

Though the marudai is still an option today, foam disks are now widely popular for their affordability, portability, and ease of use. Since spreading to the West within the last century, kumihimo has piqued the interest of artists, and kumihimo as we know it now incorporates many unique materials.

The Interweave store has fascinating kumihimo pattern downloads. From left: Coiled Kumihimo Bangle, Kumihimo Crystal Bracelet, Edgy Kumihimo Bracelet, and Kumihimo Splash Bracelet.

The Interweave store has fascinating kumihimo pattern downloads. From left: Coiled Kumihimo Bangle, Kumihimo Crystal Bracelet, Edgy Kumihimo Bracelet, and Kumihimo Splash Bracelet.

The next time you begin a kumihimo project with cords, gems, beads, or even wire, think back on the amazing history of this art form.

For a demonstration of the basic eight-strand braid on a modern disk, check out this sneak peak from Jill Wiseman’s online workshop Kumihimo with Beads:

 

Go be creative!
— Tamara Kula
Producer, Bead & Jewelry Group


Join in the Kumihimo Tradition at Interweave.com!

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