KUMIHIMO (Part 1 of 2) [This is part I of RuthMacGregor's feature on Kumihimo. See part II for more information on this craft, including suggested uses and resources]
What is Kumihimo?
"Kumihimo" is a Japanese word (kumi = to plait, himo = string or cord) referring to a number of traditional braid-making techniques used to create beautiful braids. The techniques themselves are not necessarily complicated, but the braids can be stunningly ornate. In ancient Japan, these braids were used for both ceremonial and practical purposes (including the lacing together of Samurai armour!); in modern Japan, they are prized as the cords that hold the beautiful obi in place around kimonos.
I have neither armour nor kimono <g>, but my braids end up as cords for glasses, as jewelry, as trim on handwovens, as sturdy handles, as ties for special bundles... and sometimes just as lovely braids that I can spread out on the table and admire. I am still pretty new at this, so most of my braids have simple structures... but I like them very much.
In addition to the photos in these articles, our forum image gallery contains a growing number of pictures of kumihimo braids and braiding equipment. If you've never seen these braids, take a look; their beauty and variety are quite compelling.
One exceptional aspect of kumihimo is the speed with which a beginner starts making lovely things; your very first braid will be pretty, and it just gets better from there!
Kumihimo braiding uses special equipment; but for most beginners, that equipment can be improvised very easily, so the thought of an up-front investment in equipment is unnecessary and shouldn't keep you from trying your hand at braiding! The equipment most beginners start with consists of a braiding stand (called a "maru dai", which means "round stand"), weighted bobbins, and a little bag containing weights which serves as a counterweight.
Once you've assembled the equipment with which to braid, all you'll need are the materials to be braided! Kumihimo braids were traditionally made from bundles of fine silk threads. Modern braiders use silk, but also rayon threads, knitting ribbon, cotton embroidery floss, handspun yarn, fine, textured cord - even gold and silver wire for jewelry, and stainless steel yarns for sculptural effects. You can get started right away with whatever threads you have on hand, then let your preferences for colour and "feel" guide your future thread choices.
To give you an idea of the many ways to improvise equipment, here's a sampling of home-made braiding stands I've seen: a corrugated cardboard box with a cardboard disk on top; a lampshade carcass inverted and set into a wastebasket; an old wire spool, sanded and gently rearranged to suit the purpose; a cardboard disk placed on top of a plant stand. The possibilities are endless! Perfectly respectable bobbins can be made out of film cans filled with coins; nice bobbins can also be fashioned out of polymer clay. The little counterweight bag can contain anything that brings it to the desired weight: fishing weights, coins, stones, nails, nuts and bolts, marbles.
(Here is one of the author's homemade maru dais - made from a lampshade, a plant stand and a wooden plate.)
Some kumihimo braids can be made on very, very simple equipment: a cardboard disk with a hole in the center and slits around its outer edge. Braiding on a card this way is very portable (you can slip it in your pocket!), and although its rhythms are different from those of braiding on a stand, it has a charm all its own. (See the list of books in Part II for more information on 'kumihimo on a card'.)
Traditional braiding equipment
Easy as it is to improvise the simpler forms of braiding equipment, the traditional braiding stands are things of beauty. In each type of kumihimo, the braids are made using equipment that keeps bundles of threads under tension as the braid is in progress, and you (the braider) manipulate the bundles to create the structure.(This photograph shows the weighted kumihimo bobbins which hold the bundles of thread.)
The braiding stand used by most people as they learn the basics is the maru dai. Even those smitten by kumihimo can spend many years, if not a lifetime, exploring the array of structures and patterns available from braiding on the maru dai; it is not the only kind of braiding stand, however, and many who fall in love with kumihimo go on to work with other types of braiding. The kaku dai (which means "square stand") is a square-topped structure on which the braid forms upward from the top of the stand. The taka dai (which means "high stand") is a large, u-shaped structure which surrounds the braider as s/he sits or kneels to braid. Braiding on the taka dai bears a closer resemblance to weaving than the plaiting performed on either the maru dai or kaku dai, and braids created with it tend to be wider and more band-like. The ayetakedai (which means "bamboo design stand") is a smaller stand with its own allure and appeal. The "bamboo design" in its name comes from the carved pieces of bamboo that support the bobbins.
(The maru dai [this one from Maryse Levenson] is illustrated here; to see photos of other kinds of braiding stands, follow the links from http://www.weavershand.com)
The braids shown in this article (see Part II) were all created using the maru dai. Traditional maru dai are beautiful wooden stands, lovely to the touch, and sized to accommodate a kneeling braider (although they're also just the right height to place on a table, accommodating a standing braider!). Modern "maru dai" braiding stands may be made of acrylic or synthetic materials, or they may be made of wood and set on longer-than-traditional legs. Commercial bobbins, called tama, are made of wood or plastic and filled with a dense material to bring them to a specific, accurate weight; they have a characteristic hourglass shape which holds the thread in place on the bobbin and allows the bobbin to hang "straight". Prices vary radically, so if you're thinking of buying equipment, it's worth taking the time to shop around.
Most of us here are using the "maru dai" - the "round stand" - for our braiding. This small, stool-like table has a round top with a hole in the center. The braid-in-progress hangs down through that hole. On top of the stand, the bundles of thread being plaited to form the braid stretch outward from the hole. The thread bundles are wound onto weighted bobbins, which hang off the outside edge of the round "table" top. The weight of these bobbins is balanced by a counterweight bag that hangs on the braid-in-progress - so the threads are being pulled from both ends, by the weight of the bobbins and by the counterweight on the braid.
Are you still with me? <g> It's not as complicated as it sounds in words, honest! A picture being worth a thousand words, take a look at the photo here of the maru dai "dressed for action", and you'll see the bobbins, stand, threads, and counterweight all at work.
[More in Part II of Ruth's feature on Kumihimo, including suggested uses for braids, books and resources. Part II coming soon.]
(c) 2002 Ruth MacGregor