Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kumihimo: Rebirth

Part III: The craft nearly lost

Kumihimo survived for hundreds of years in Braiding Houses, which were often composed of families of craftsmen. These houses rarely permitted outsiders access and jealously guarded their braiding diagrams. However, modern technology and modern dress caused a severe depression in the craft. Fewer and fewer women wore the traditional kimono and modern braiding machines made braids faster and cheaper.

Kumihimo as a decorative accessory
In an attempt to keep the craft alive, one House published a few diagrams in the mid-1970's. The patterns were so popular that other Houses rushed to follow suit. Schools were established in the once restricted Braiding Houses and are now well established and offer courses in kumihimo. Continuation of the craft seems assured.

Although many unfamiliar with the craft of kumihimo identify it with the French knitting spool of childhood, it is actually more closely related to bobbin lace and to Victorian hair braiding.

Like kumihimo, bobbin lace—a 16th century European development—uses weighted bobbins for interlacing and interweaving threads. Even more similarities exist between kumihimo and Victorian hair braiding, which was very popular in Germany, France and England in the late 19th century, and even the equipment is very similar to the Japanese marudai and bobbins.

Kumihimo, which is defined as three or more strands crossed or interlaced in a pattern, can create square, round, flat, and even hollow braids. The thread strands run lengthwise with the effect that the braid is very strong and quite elastic. Knots made from handmade braid are more secure and therefore, less likely to come undone. For many years, historical usage in warfare depended upon these factors. Braids made by machine, no matter how sophisticated the equipment, lack these qualities: qualities that can only be achieved by hand.

Traditionally worked on a marudai, or braiding stool, kumihimo braids made in the traditional way use weighted bobbins, counterweights. The hands maintain and control tension during the braiding process. Although there is no doubt that working on a marudai provides the craftsperson with far more control over braiding and supports the creation of more complex braids, a marudai and bobbins are not required to create many kumihimo braids. Using a simple and inexpensive handheld circle that is notched and numbered a craftsperson can create beautiful braids.

*This excerpt is from the historical introduction of Charlene Marietti's workbook, "Kumihimo: A Systematic Approach to the Ancient Art of Japanese Braiding."

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