Thursday, January 26, 2012


Kumihimo is a Japanese braid-making technique which dates to about 550 C.E., when the Buddhist religion spread in Japan and people began to use decorative cords in religious ceremonies. Later, people used brightly colored braids to decorate clothing, to hang banners, to lace samurai armor together (esp. in late SCA period, 1400-1600), and to hang knives.

Although kumihimo is particular to Japan, other cultures in history have used similar braids or braid ‘stools’, including the sling braiders of the Andes and hair-braiding stools from Scandinavia. Research is ongoing into the origins of kumihimo and similar braids. There are some similarities between kumihimo and the fingerloop braiding practiced in western Europe during mid- to late-SCA-period.

Except for those who aspire to putting together a set of period Samurai armor, most people who make kumihimo in the SCA use it for decorative purposes. Oddly, it is not usually used in Japanese garb in the SCA, possibly because we don’t have much documentation as to how it was used in costume. (The modern practice of using a kumihimo belt with an obi (sash) on a kimono does not date back to SCA period.)

Some uses I have seen kumihimo put to in the SCA include: site tokens, laces for pouches, trim on Mongolian or other garb, a lacing to keep a hat on or to lace up clothing, closure for a box or instrument case, or as purely decorative pieces for gifts (a piece of kumihimo looks nice tied onto the handle of gift baskets). They can also be given to Royalty to be used as part of Their gifts to individuals or other Royal couples.

There are several different stands used to create kumihimo braids. They are of varying price, complexity and SCA “periodicity”. Due to its simplicity and comparative cheapness, most braids done by SCA members are made on a wooden stand (a marudai or "round stand"), allowing the threads to be draped over a flat doughnut-shaped top called a kagami (Japanese for "mirror"). The individual threads are weighted with wooden bobbins called “tama”, and a bag of weights is tied to the finished braid to produce a balanced tension. Although it is not known how long the Japanese have been using the marudai to create braids, most estimates place it very late in SCA period (around 1575) or later.

In the SCA, many people also use a cardboard disc loom to make maru dai braids. While not a documentable period tool, this disc has the advantages of:
a) obviating the use of weights, since tucking the threads into slots on the edge of the cardboard maintains adequate tension, and
b) being portable. Instructions for a cardboard loom, as well as a homemade cardboard/wire maru dai. I often draw a compass star on the top of my cardboard discs, both for patriotic and practical reasons: with many braids, you need to know which way is up.

With cardboard looms so cheap and easy to make, and so portable, why buy a marudai? My opinion is that you miss out on the tranquillity of this art if you never use a marudai. Unlike the jerky rhythms of moving threads in and out of carboard slits, the flow of braiding on a marudai is very fluid and relaxing. Your body quickly memorizes the movements for your particular braid, and braiding goes much faster. During a two-hour movie, I can easily braid several feet of a simple 8 or 16-strand braid. There is no danger of fraying your threads when they are not abraded by cardboard slits. Marudais are also fairly ergonomic; you can hold them between your legs, put them on the floor or on a table or stool, or purchase an adjustable one so you can shift your position as you go.

Traditionally, untwisted silk threads, in bundles of a certain number of threads or “ends”, would be used in making kumihimo braids. It is possible to buy prepared kumihimo silk, packaged to be unloaded from the pack onto winding posts attached to your table, for minimum accidental twisting. Cotton embroidery floss is a good solid substitute for the silk for our purposes, but you can experiment with other fibers too. Cotton will work well with a cardboard loom; rayon will fray.

The stitch I was first taught was the simple 16-thread rotating stitch, kongo gumi, directions for which were published in Handwoven magazine. This is simple enough for small children, especially if you cut it down to 8 threads, and creates a smooth, even-looking braid without much effort. I have taught this in classes and given away many kits with the stitch pre-set so the recipient can simply pick it up and braid. The recipients are often seen braiding all the way through Court that evening.

Japanese Braiding the Art of Kumihimo

The Japanese concept of combining function and beauty becomes obvious when you consider the Art of Kumihimo. These beautiful braids were used to lace the many small plates of Samurai armor, to attach swords to their sashes and even to wrap the handles of their swords. Braids were also used in temples, shrines and tombs as edging for Buddhist flags and as attachments and ties for scrolls. In late period we see braiding used to tie the obi to prevent slippage.

The earliest evidence of braiding in Japan was in the Jomon period (400 BCE-300 CE). The word Jomon means “rope pattern” and describes the pottery dating to that era. The cords, made from plant fiber, were rolled or pressed into the wet clay to leave decorative impressions. In later periods, pottery figures and paintings showed men and women dressed in clothing adorned with braided cords used as belts, ties and hair adornments. Actual fragments of braids have been found as early as the Nara period (645 CE-784 CE). The Heian period (784 CE-1184 CE) saw the emergence of two types of braids. The Karakumi, a wide flat braid made from plied silk and edged with diamonds and decorated with birds and flowers, was worn by the Emperor and high ranking officials. The other braids, found hidden inside statues in temples, were round braids. The Saidai-ji, a 56 bobbin braid, is an example of these early braids.

In the Kamakura (1185-1333) and the Muromachi (1333-1575), Japan experienced a long period of unrest and many wars. The demand for armor was great which meant the demand for braiding was also great. The braids for lacing armor were usually made of one color, while the braids for wrapping and attaching swords were patterned. The Kikko design, a hexagonal pattern representing the shell of a tortoise, was favored because it symbolized a long life. The Monoyama period (1575-1614) was peaceful, decreasing the need for armor and lacing. More aesthetic uses were found for braids, as in the tea ceremony, in temples and shrines and clothing.

Much of the information on how to make braids and the equipment used was kept secret by the family businesses and it is only in recent times have schools been opened in Japan and other parts of the world to teach this beautiful and useful Art.

Japanese Braiding Terms:
dai - a stand
fukuro - small bag
gumi - to plait or braid (same as kumi)
himo – string, cord, braid
kagami - mirror, the top of a maru dai
kumi - to plait or braid (same as gumi)
kumihimo - plaited or braided cord
kumikata - braiding method
maru – round
marudai – round stand
tama – weighted wooden spools or bobbing

Equipment and Materials:
Traditionally, kumihimo is made on a round-topped loom using bobbins, a silk warp counterweighted by a bag with lead weights calculated on the total weight of the bobbins.

My marudai is made from two wooden plaques and a dowel from AC Moore. My bobbins (tama) are made from wooden spools with round lead fishing weights inside and wooden disks glued over each end. My counterweight bag is made of cloth, with a draw string, a fishing swivel and more lead weights. It was built by my friend Halfdane of Hawkwood.