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Some of the first spinning in history was probably twisting or braiding some long plant fibers together in order to get something long enough to tie something up with. To remember that and then see photos or samples of Japanese kumihimo we can see the evolution of man’s society from simple to complex. Roderick Owen, in his book, BRAIDS, says that “having come out of . . . need, braids became important in their own right. They were symbols of power, valued adjuncts to ritual and ceremony and imbued with meaning.”
Braiding was used worldwide: in Italy and Spain, braids were used as protection against witchcraft and the evil eye; in Nigeria, beaded chief’s costumes resemble Peruvian structures which seem to resemble Japanese, which have similarities to Celtic interlacing. Tibetan and Peruvian sling makers manipulate threads held in the hand, but Peruvian and Bolivian slings are produced with the most intricately designed patterns.
The introduction of braiding into Japan is known to have traveled with Buddhism from Korea in the 7th or early 8th century. When Japan cut ties with China after the 8th century, along with many other aspects of Japanese culture, unique braiding patterns developed.
In the 13th and 14th centuries the demand for elegant braids from the Imperial Court, from the warrior classes and for religious ceremonies was at its highest. 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, thick braids to edge the outer structure. Swords were also adorned with braids: flat, ridged braids with 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. In the 15th and 16th centuries, social changes in Japan encouraged changes in the use of braids. The Tea Ceremony became an important part of Japanese life and beautiful braids decorated the pieces used in the ceremony.
Peaceful times always stimulate the arts and it was like that in Japan from 1600 to 1868. Feudal lords spent alternate years in Edo (now known as Tokyo), increasing the quality of life and providing a ready market for articles related to the Samurai classes. To meet the increased demand for braids, numbers of braidmakers moved to Edo to practice. In 1868, the Samurai class was abolished and the wearing of swords was forbidden. A large market for braids was eliminated, but braidmakers adapted. The obi, a sash band, worn over the woman’s kimono widened considerably. Braids previously used on swords were used to secure the much wider obi, and came to be known as obijime. Priests in temples continued to use the beautiful braids for decorative purposes on sacred scrolls and the theater continued using braids as fastenings, decorative knots and tassels in costuming, Kumihimo survived for hundreds of years in Braiding Houses often composed of families of craftsmen. The secrets were carefully guarded and outsiders were not often welcomed. Modern technology threatened the craft as braiding machines made braids faster and cheaper. In the mid 1970's books were first published by one House to try and save the craft.
Although you may think Kumihimo resembles a child’s French knitting spool, it is more closely related to bobbin lace or Victorian hair braiding. The marudai or kumihimo stand and bobbins set it apart from many of the other cultures with long braiding histories. The rhythm of the movements of the bobbins, the feel of the threads and the growth of the braid make Kumihimo fascinating to watch and soothing to do.