The history of Kumihimo

Kumihimo: a thread through Japanese history

The history of Kumihimo

Kumihimo is a Japanese braiding technique that interlaces at least three and often many more cords of silk or other threads to form a single plaited cord. Translatable to English as ‘joining threads together’ kumihimo is characterized by its often vivid colours and intricate patterns. This is an art with roots in the cultural currents that flowed along the Silk Roads, and which then subsequently flourished in Japan over the course of hundreds of years.

Braided patterns, and the artistry of varying them, represent one aspect of the enduring appeal of kumihimo. Alongside this, as a technique for combining threads, braiding itself brings strength and elasticity, and these qualities have also been key to the development and continuing use of kumihimo. Today, the principal use of kumihimo is within kimono fashion, but it has in the past been integral to samurai armour and the carrying of swords, with its strength making these samurai articles practical and its beauty making them also objects of display.

Beginnings: roots in Asia

The techniques that are the direct precursors of modern kumihimo find their principle origins outside Japan, in the cultural exchange enabled by the trade routes known as the Silk Roads. The centrally located imperial capital of Nara, in particular, emerged as a centre for cultural and artistic exchange, and the silk braiding techniques brought from Korea and China adopted during this period (538-794 CE) became the foundation for a continuing tradition in Japan. Early Japanese kumihimo modelled on continental Asian cords remain in the temple of Hōryū-ji and the imperial Shōsōin Repository in Nara. These remaining articles provide an insight into both techniques and uses of kumihimo, which would have included hanging pendants, tying bags and the decoration of religious banners and garments.

Change over centuries

Kumihimo evolved over the Heian period (794-1192 CE) to incorporate more complicated interlacing techniques and patterns, which began to depart from the models transmitted from the Asian continent. The diamond-patterned Kara-kumi (lit. ‘Chinese [Tang] braid’) developed during this era is one of the first braids that is distinctively Japanese. More elegant colour schemes were also adopted with the development of variegated dyeing techniques.

Surviving kumihimo objects from the Heian and later Kamakura (1192-1333 CE) periods have mainly been recovered from Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. During these eras kumihimo had both functional and decorative uses, for instance in tying religious texts such as Buddhist sutra scrolls, but also in the clothing of court nobles, interior furnishings and musical instruments.

Samurai and kumihimo

For centuries Kamakura-gumi kumihimo braids were used to secure swords and improve their grip. The hilt often featured an unpatterned, flat but slightly ridged braid to ensure a firm grip, and another decorative braid held the scabbards of swords tightly to the bodies of samurai warriors. In addition kumihimo cords were also widely employed to bind together armour plating. Kumihimo fastenings play a key role in the extraordinary mobility of military armour, allowing multiple plates to protect the wearer with minimum impact on their agility.

During the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), the aristocratic samurai class carried considerable status and wielded great influence in a period of relative peace. Where previously the visual elements of kumihimo incorporated in armour played a practical role in distinguishing armies on the battlefield, its function in battle dress grew increasingly aesthetic, further encouraging the development of kumihimo techniques. A braiding technique known as ayadashi was developed in this era; it allowed for the addition of intricate patterns and even lettering to kumihimo design, which reached a new level of sophistication.

Kimono: Finishing touches

Following the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868, the existing Japanese class system was abolished and sword-wearing prohibited, ending one of the principle uses for kumihimo, in securing samurai swords. Also at this time, changing fashions introduced a very wide obi, or sash, for tying a woman’s kimono, creating the opportunity for a new decorative use for kumihimo. Cords, known as obijime, that were nearly exactly the same length as those that had previously been used to secure swords, now came into use to secure the obi and draw attention to its fabric. Though kimono are no longer as popular as everyday wear in Japan, the obijime remains the principle use for this artform today. These fine silk braids are highly diverse in colour and pattern and can range from plain to highly decorated, often reflecting the changing seasons.