Kyo braided cords Kyo kumihimo
A graceful culture of knotted braids born in Kyoto
Handcraft combining refinement and practicality
What is Kyo braided cords ?
Kyo Kumihimo (Kyoto-style braided cords) are made in the cities of Kyoto and Uji, Kyoto Prefecture. Since the Heian period (794-1192), Kyo Kumihimo have been found on prestigious or sacred articles, such as those seen on Buddhist and Shinto altar fittings; they were also typically used as ornamental accessories by members of the Imperial family, aristocrats, and high ranking personages. It was natural for Kyo Kumihimo production to center close to the seat of power and the court in the capital city Kyoto. A stunning range of beautiful cord patterns are hand-braided from silk, gold, and silver threads; it is claimed some 300 or so different braiding techniques are used and according to purpose, flat, round, square, or sazanami (herringbone patterns) braided cords are produced. Such a broad range of cords naturally gave rise to a diverse collection of specific tools and looms.
Kyo Kumihimo are distinguished by their exquisite intricate braid patterns and knots and the soft elegant sheen of the silk threads. Not only do the cords look beautiful, they are also extremely durable, do not easily fray, and stay firmly knotted when tied such as when used for fixing obi (kimono sashes). Today they have found their way into modern life appearing as mobile phone straps, key rings, and the like.
Kumihimo are first found in the ancient Jomon period (ca. 14,000-ca. 300 BC) in the form of simple braided cords; in the Asuka (592-710) and Nara (710-794) periods, advanced braiding techniques were introduced from the Asian mainland, and kumihimo developed as a skilled craftwork. Kumihimo showing evidence of advanced techniques from that time are among the many artifacts stored in the Shosoin Treasure House. With the rise of a distinctive Heian (794-1192) culture, the designs evolved from those with a strong Chinese influence to those showing strong Japanese-style tastes, and were a reflection of the growing elegant culture of the Heian nobility; kumihimo are found as silken tassels adorning crown type head pieces and as ornaments for kimono but with richer colors and more intricate braid patterns.
In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), under the influence of the tea ceremony, the spirit of wabi sabi (simplicity and refinement) came to the fore and designs transformed from splendid extravagance to austere elegance and simplicity. Moreover, with the increasing power of the samurai, Kyo Kumihimo being both beautiful and very practical were used to secure weapons, armor and helmets. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Kyo Kumihimo were no longer the exclusive province of people of high standing and their use spread among the common people. Since the Meiji period (1868-1912), Kyo Kumihimo have been essential as obijime cords to secure sashes for kimono.
General Production Process
- 1. Itowari (Yarn and Thread Preparation) Once the type, length, and style of the cord to be made have been determined, from among silk, cotton, gold, and silver threads, materials are selected, weighed, and classified according to the chosen design.
- 2. Dyeing Dyeing is highly skilled work and is done by specialists; according to a predetermined and detailed order of precedence, yarns are dyed many times to attain the right shades, gradations, and depths of color.
- 3. Itokuri (Spooling) The dyed yarns are then machine-spun onto a single frame known as a kowaku.
- 4. Heijaku (Measuring) The yarns are measured to the right length of the design and spun again onto a heijaku frame. Combination of several yarns (goshi) are always worked together, not singly, and spun. Depending on the design, goshi is prepared with several colors to give depth to the yarn color.
- 5. Yorikake (Twisting) The threads with uniform length and color are twisted and spun onto reels using a machine called haccho nenshiki. Twisting the threads increases their strength and creates sheen. Only after completing this task are the preliminary preparations needed for braiding cords finished.
- 6. Kumiage (Braiding) The twisted threads are braided and according to the pattern, different braiding looms are used such as round, square, or high looms. There are many braiding methods and the main categories are hira-gumi (flat), kaku-gumi (square), and maru-gumi (round), which also includes yotsu-gumi (four reel), yatsu-gumi (eight reel), and edo-gumi (finer grade eight reel). A reel wound with several threads is called a tama, and some braiding methods use up to 100 of them. Kumihimo is different from right-angle woven cords, and characterized by diagonal braiding to give a three-dimensional effect. Moreover, during the braiding work, the same tension must be maintained to prevent uneven patterns, which requires great concentration. Even so, much of the basic work is simple repetition that can be learned by beginners, and in recent years, the making of the simpler Kyo Kumihimo braids has become popular as a hands-on event for tourists.
- 7. Finishing
To finish the cord, decorative tassels are teased out from both cord ends by careful hand-loosening of individual threads. The base of the tassels is firmly tied and the tassel lengths are evenly cut to length. Then, the tassels are steamed to smooth and to adjust the thread condition, followed by rolling to ensure the braids are even and uniform.
The completed Kyo Kumihimo are often used for obijime (sash bands); however, by knotting the cords to a designed form, they are used for decorating furnishings. From olden times traditional motifs such as butterflies and auspicious motifs have been regarded as adornments representing one’s status or as a form of lucky charm; they were of course used in armor and also to adorn Shinto altar fittings. In addition, each noble household had their own knotting patterns used to bind boxes; only family members or retainers would know the exact techniques and knotting sequences, so if a box and its cords were tampered with, it would be immediately apparent, and so such knotting fulfilled a security role.
Where to Buy & More Information
Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts
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