This summer I attended a workshop at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. As part of the workshop, we has to submit a lesson plan inspired by the objects in the exhibit, From the Lands of Asia: The Sam and Myrna Meyers Collection.
I admit that I planned this lesson in my head before I went to the workshop. I knew the exhibit included Asian costumes and textiles, so I felt fairly confident they would have beautiful kumihimo ornamentation. I was right. I can’t even remember where I first came across this Japanese craft; probably hunting on Pinterest for a textile craft I could use with my 4th, 5th and 6th grade art students. We make our own cardboard looms and weave using inexpensive yarn. My students love it. Now I’m hooked. Here is my lesson plan. Hope you can use it. All the photos are my own.
History of Kumihimo
Kumihimo began as a type of finger braiding that was used in China, Korea and Japan. The oldest form of Kumihimo used in Japanese clothing and religious ceremonies is believed to be from the Nara Period (710 to 794 CE). Like many Asian crafts, Kumihimo is all about detail, with many versions having a specific pattern, use and meaning. There are many types of stands made to hold the strings to weave Kumihimo and many types of fibers can be used, like silk, nylon, hemp and even leather.
Translated as a “gathering of threads”, one of the most widely known and studied versions of Kumihimo are the silk Japanese braids used on Samurai armor in Japan during the Kamakura Period (1185 to1333 CE) through the Muromachi Period (1336 to1573 CE). The cords were used on helmets and to bind the armor plates together. Each suit of armor could require as much as 250 to 300 meters of braid. Kumihimo was also used to bind the hilts of swords and harnesses of horses used in battle.
With the rise of Buddhism during the Heian Period (794 to1185 CE), kumihimo braids were made by the monks for clothing and to decorate temples.
Kumihimo is still used in Japan today as a part of the kimono. The obi, the wide sash used as a belt on the kimono is secured by a Kumihimo braid called an obijime. Hand-made kumihimo obijime are on the decline because of the invention of machine-made Kumihimo, but obijime are still the biggest use of Kumihimo made in Japan today.
Luckily this ancient Asian craft has been popularized around the world today because of the invention of the foam hand-held Kumihimo looms for braid and jewelry making.
Interesting notes about Kumihimo:
- Tea storage containers used in the Japanese tea ceremony were often secured with elaborate Kumihimo braids. The knots used were so elaborately tied it was easy to see if someone had tampered with them, so you could avoid be poisoned. Tamper-free packaging, even then.
- A Kumihimo color pattern of lilac, magenta, blue, green, gold, and an orange specially imported from China was so powerful it could ward off “evil ghosts”. Called “Shōsō-in colors” when these were used in a belt, they were said to ward off bad luck for the wearer.
- According to Yasuhisa Fukushima, owner of the Fukushima Store (a Tokyo kumihimo shop) and the director of the Association for Tokyo Kumihimo, 90 percent of the products created by Tokyo kumihimo artisans are obijime. “We have tried producing other accessories such as ornaments for keyholders and cords for keitaiand glasses, but these are still minor sellers compared to obijime,” he says.
- The Japanese national treasure “Heike Noukyou” is a set of thirty-three sutra scrolls that are tied with elaborate Kumihimo braids.
Directions for kongo gumi (strong braid)– makes one 20 – inch necklace (including end caps and clasp):
- Kumihimo Foam Loom
- Four each of two colors – 1.5-yard (54 inches) pieces of 1mm satin cord (I used 1mm hemp cord in the illustrations) – total of eight pieces
- Eight plastic kumihimo bobbins
- Measuring tape
- E6000 industrial strength adhesive
- Needle nose pliers
- Tooth picks and paper to apply adhesive and protect work surface
- Pendant with 6mm or larger bail (not shown)
- End clasps (5.5 or 6 mm)
- Binding thread (to bind braid before cutting it)
- Flip foam disk over and mark north, south east west positions with sharpie (avoids the confusion of the numbers on the front until you get the basics down)
- Measure and cut your eight 54-inch pieces of cord (four each of two colors)
- Tie knot in one end, place tied end in the center of the hole on the kumihimo foam loom
- Snap strings into place on loom as shown in photo (one color north and south, one color east and west). Put only one string in each slot.
- Wrap loose cord on bobbin to within one inch of loom
Basic braiding technique for kongo gumi:
- Take top right cord and bring it down to the bottom to the slot just right of the two cords at the bottom.
- Take the left-hand cord from the three cords now at the bottom and bring it up to the slot to the left of the one cord at the top.
- Turn the disk one quarter turn and repeat steps 1, 2 and 3. Top-right down, bottom-left up, turn.
If you stop before you finish your braid, always leave the three cords at the bottom. That way you know when you resume, you take the cord on the left, lift it to the top-left position and then turn the disk.
Finishing your necklace:
- Bind the ends of your braids with beading thread so that they will not unravel before your glue on your closures.
- Use a toothpick to apply your E6000 glue to the inside of your closure caps. Be sure to do this over paper to protect your worksurface from any glue.
- Insert your braid ends into the closure caps and let them rest for 24 hours.