Thursday, May 14, 2015

Kumihimo: A craft for war and beauty

Part II: The Asian route

Bushi warrrior armor
The introduction of braiding into Japan is known to have traveled with the movement of Buddism through Korea into Japan from T'ang China in the late 7th or early 8th century. When Japan cut all ties with China after the 8th century, Japanese culture became established as unique and separate from its former source of influence. With the growth of increased nationalism, the culture became more introspective and its society more insular which enabled art forms to develop independent of outside influences. During this time, the unique Japanese braid patterns developed.

The aesthetic ideal of beauty and function in harmonious combination was epitomized by the 13th and 14th centuries when the demand for elegant braids from the Imperial Court, from the warrior classes, and for religious ceremonies was at its zenith. Patterns were developed that were associated with, and defined by, rank and ceremony, particularly within the military.

As the numbers of Bushi warriors increased, the demand for armor and sword braids grew. The traditional suit of samurai armor required two types of braids: flat, flexible silk braids to attach the layers upon layers of small, flat metal or lacquer plates and hard, tight braids to edge the outer structure.

Braids were also used on swords for both practical and fashionable purposes. Flat, ridged braids without patterns were wound around the hilt to provide a good grip and strong and thick, decorated braids were used to attach the scabbard to the warrior's armor.

As social changes evolved in Japan, so did demand and uses for braids. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Tea Ceremony became an important part of Japanese life, and braids, always beautiful, were an integral part of this event.

Tightly tied to cultural and political changes, braids and braid quality reflected the times. Periods of internal political turbulence, for example, caused braid quality to suffer when demand for braids exceeded the capabilities of the craft industry.

With political stabilization in the second half of the 16th century, braiding and other fine arts and crafts regained their former value. The Tea Ceremony was re-established as an important social custom with brought renewed enthusiasm to the beautiful braids that were part of the presentation. Inspired by the braids on tea canisters, the reigning ruler adapted the braids to keep his Haori jacket closed in the front, thus giving birth to the Haori braid.

The period of peace in Japan from 1600 to 1868 was a stimulating environment for artists and their arts. Feudal lords spent alternate years in Edo (now named Tokyo), improving the quality of life and providing a ready market for articles related to the Samurai warrior classes. Since the sword was their spiritual symbol, great attention was assigned to the braids for sword knots. It was not uncommon for them to be braided with individual's names or with the family crest. To meet the increased demand for braids, large numbers of braidmakers moved to Edo to practice their craft.

But the market crashed with the abolition of the Samurai classes in 1868. The wearing of swords was forbidden and demand for braids collapsed. A small number of braidmakers adapted their craft to fashion and in the subtle shift in women's dress style. For braidmakers, the change in the width of in the sash band, or obi, which is worn over the kimono, was significant. To secure the wider obi , fashionable Japanese women quickly adopted the braids previously used on swords. These braids then came to be known as obijime.

Priests in temples continued to use the beautiful braids for decorative purposes on sacred scrolls as did traditional Japanese theater (Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraki), which used the decorated braids in costuming as fastenings, decorative knots, and tassels.

Next week, Part III: A craft nearly lost

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

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