What Is Kumihimo?
Kumihimo is a popular craft for jewelry makers and fiber enthusiasts. It’s easy to learn, and modern tools make the projects portable for busy people! How did this contemporary craze get its start?
Kumihimo is Japanese for “gathered threads”, and is an ancient Japanese form of braid-making. Cords and ribbons are made by interlacing strands to make a strong, decorative braided rope.
There are hundreds of different Kumihimo braid patterns, using different numbers of strands from 4 to 100 or more, and using different braiding patterns to produce braids with different cross-sections. Some patterns have more than 400 steps, and braiders must correct errors as they go. Some patterns have as many as 400 steps. Unfortunately, you may not notice until step 76, for example, that you made a mistake at step 35. Backing out is a challenge – also a great learning experience.
But you can make beautiful braids with a much simpler technique. The most common braiding pattern for beginners to learn is the simple 8-thread rotating stitch with two steps and a turn. This produces a round braid, but you can achieve different patterns depending on how you arrange the strands at the beginning.
How Did The Kumihimo Contemporary Craze Get Its Start?
Kumihimo is an ancient craft, dating as far back as the 6th century – some say even earlier. Family members and guilds passed on complex patterns and techniques verbally to keep them secret, a tradition some Kumihimo schools still practice today.
The first Kumihimo artists made cords entirely by hand, using a form of finger-loop braiding. Later, traditional Kumihimo artists created braid on a round wooden stand (marudai, which means “round stand”) or a square wooden frame (takadai, which looks more like a weaving loom and produces flat braids). The threads, which traditionally were bundles of fine silk threads, were wound around bobbins called tama, and were weighted to provide tension on the threads during braiding.
Today’s traditional Kumihimo artists still use these tools.
As Buddhism became the dominant religion in Japan, a vast market for braiders opened up. Exceptionally beautiful cords of varying sizes adorned temple interiors, and the practice has strict rules. Monks did the braiding, and it became a form of meditation. Today’s Kumihimo artists say that the simple repetition of the craft is meditative.
Ancient samurai warriors decorated their armor and sometimes held it together using Kumihimo cords. Kumihimo wrapped sword handles (better grip) and also made halters and armor for horses. A wide variety of designs and widths added interesting details and textures to the braids.
In contemporary Japan, Kumi cords function as ties on haori jackets and obijimes. They tie on an obi (kimono sash) to hold it in place.
Garment closures and hair ornaments also make creative use of contemporary Kumihimo designs.
How Did Kumihimo Become So Accessible for the Modern Crafter?
The modern firm, yet flexible, round Kumihimo foam disk has made it accessible for everyone. The disk is inexpensive, portable and much easier to use than the traditional marudai. It immediately became very popular with crafters around the world, who quickly found contemporary uses for the braid. You can find them (along with classes to get you started) at many local yarn and bead shops. Check with your favorite shop! Square foam plates are available for weaving flat braids. Plastic bobbins keep the fibers under control.
Modern Kumi weavers do not feel constrained to using the traditional bundles of silk threads for their braids and tend to use a much wider and eclectic selection of materials. They include various yarns, imitation silks, rayon cords, ribbons, embroidery threads, Chinese knotting cord, satin “rattail”, wire, beading thread and other assorted cords and fibers to make variations on Kumihimo braids.
Plain braids are just the beginning. You can embellish your braid with beads, charms, slides and decorative clasps. Placement of the colors on the loom and choosing different thicknesses for certain strands give Kumi braiders many choices for their designs.
Kumihimo braids made with a variety of fibers (even chain!) in different patterns:
These bracelets were all woven with the identical 8-warp weave, but they all look very different. The placement of colors when setting up the disk for braiding makes the difference!
With one simple but clever invention, the braids which secured armor and adorned ancient temples found their way to the necks and wrists of 21st century men and women.
To bead or not to bead? That is the question. The only correct answer is the one that makes you happy!