Kumihimo Braiding in Tokyo with Makiko Tada
Last week, I had the good fortune to experience the ancient art of Kumihimo, while traveling to Japan as part of a cultural exchange with the live coding community there. This was as a guest of Makiko Tada, who kindly invited me to her Texte studio in Tokyo, for a full day of Kumihimo braiding.
It quickly became clear that Tada-Sensei was no ordinary craftsperson. The foam kumihimo plates I’d seen, and indeed the methods for using them, were invented by her, and are now in wide use, responsible for making this ancient craft newly accessible to a new generation of braiders.
That was already impressive, until she showed me a video of her Kumihimo machine, which left me speechless:
The version I saw was clearer (and without the music), but should give you an idea of this machine, which is powered from a single cog. Clearly I’d stumbled into the studio of a world-leading Kumihimo practitioner and innovator.
It quickly became clear that Tada-Sensei’s accomplishments in Kumihimo have interesting parallels with our own work on the PENELOPE project. She has worked on reconstruction of Kumihimo from archaeological finds (including imprints on pottery), has consulted on aeronautical and medical uses of Kumihimo (similarly to professional weaver Leslie Downes who we met during the earlier Weaving Codes project), as well as bringing public understanding to the structures and practice of Kumihimo.
Tada-Sensei quickly threw me into the practice of Kumihimo, first with a basic Yatsu-Kongoh-gumi braid, with eight threads, to become familiar with the process. At first this was on a hand-held foam Kumihimo disc, where one thread is moved at a time, and held in place by the plate, so bobbins are not needed. Once I got the idea, we moved to do the same braid but on the Marudai stand, so I could get the feel of moving two threads at once. On the Marudai, quite a heavy bobbin (or Tama), one per thread, is used to create tension, and picked up by the threads in a certain way – making sure not to actually hold the thread, but rather have it pass over the top of your fingers, so that the tension is kept constant. It is also important not to hit the bobbins against the round top of the Marudai, called the mirror (after traditional Japanese round copper mirrors), to avoid damage to it. If the mirror gets scratched, then the silk thread will start to catch.
On the Kumihimo discs we used wool of a type that I was familiar with from knitting, but on the Marudai each ‘thread’ actually consisted of many thin threads (as thin as sewing thread), that were not spun together – I could see that the tension from the weighted bobbins was necessary to keep these composite threads in order. I should have asked about this, but suppose that using threads that are not spun give a satin-like shininess to the resulting braid.
What immediately struck me was the balance and symmetry of Kumihimo movements. At least in the patterns I was introduced to that day, every action with one hand was paired with the same action with the other hand, either at the same time or alternately. Tada-Sensei quickly corrected me when I at first used the same hand to move two threads in a row; it was important for balance to change hands. As a result I had a pleasant feeling of not having a dominant hand, as I alternated between hands (on the foam disk) or moved hands in symmetrical movements (on the Marudai).
Once I was happy with Yatsu-Kongoh-gumi, I braided Kusari-Tsunagi (literally, chain-connected), Hira-Yatsu (flat-eight), Edo-Yatsu (old name for Tokyo-eight), Yatsu-se (eight-river/stream) and Kara-Yatsu (old name for China-eight) structures, into the same cord on the 8 bobbin/tama Marudai, as well as trying out a 16 tama Marudai.
Interestingly, colour-effect patterns are present in kumihimo just as they are in weaving. The same simple structure that is used to make a spiral Kumihimo can also be used to make a variety of other surprising patterns, including flowers and hearts, just by changing the arrangement of thread colours.
We paused for some lunch, which came with some wine, giving the opportunity to look for before/after changes in the Kumihimo. It seems to be a running joke in the Kumihimo community for a wine break to cause the braid to go haywire, but I think I fared pretty well.
After some hours of work I must have looked rather tired, because Tada-Sensei suggested I rest for a while, and put me in a tatami-floored room for a nap. This was definitely a good thing to do, and has got me thinking about building proper opportunities for rest in workshop activities I do in the future.
Refreshed, I was then directed to the Takadai frame. This was another revelation, and close to weaving, but where diagonal threads alternate between being warp and weft, interlaced to create a v-shaped braid. This reminded me of how weft becomes warp in tablet-woven borders on the warp-weighted loom. Again, there was perfect balance between left and right, with each hand taking turns between the tasks of creating the shed (there were no heddles – my fingers wove over and under the threads to do this), and placing the sword to keep the shed open, picking up the threads to pass through the shed and beating in the thread with the sword.
I was doing a 1-1 braid, which in weaving terms we would call plain weave or tabby. A much more complex braid was already underway on the takadai, and it took a while for the braid to settle into the new pattern. I fully expect that understanding how to transition from one pattern to another properly would be a very advanced topic.
The Takadai threads work their way towards you on pegs, and to make more space you pick up a block of pegs from the back of the frame and move it to the front. This is an extremely pleasing action, with the gravity of the bobbins automatically shunting the blocks up the frame, like a train. Lovely!
My final task was to work on a square rather than round foam Kumihimo plate, in order to observe that the flat braid produced on this device is related to braiding on the Takadai. On the Takadai, I produced a ‘v’ braid pattern, whereas on the square plate it seemed that I produced only one diagonal side of the same 1-1 structure. This is similar to tabby weave, but where the warp threads take turns being the weft thread.
This was an exciting introduction to the practice and structures of Kumihimo, but from the samples that Tada-Sensei showed me (3D structures, braids-within-braids), there is much more to learn, and even after many decades of exploration, Makiko is still developing new Kumihimo structures herself. Indeed this is a thriving research field, with many of the workshops in the Braids conference taking place in Japan in October 2019 already full. I hope this will not be the last of our contact with Tada-Sensei and this remarkable craft!
Warm thanks to Arts Council England, British Council, Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation for their help funding this live coding cultural exchange trip.