The art of kumihimo is ancient. Remnants of braids appear as impressions on clay pots from 4th century Korea. Kumihimo was decorative as well as functional, rising to an art form in Japan in the 15th century. It was used for lacing together all the pieces of a Samurai's armor. The braids provided flexibility and padding, and identified the rank and affiliation of the individual. The various braid structures were not only beautiful but choices of colour and pattern imbued them with meaning. Braids fashioned into decorative knots embellished both everyday and ceremonial items such as fans and bell cords, gifts and scrolls. Today, kumihimo is best known for the decorative silk cord which fastens an obi in place around a traditional kimono.
As with other traditional art forms in Japan, kumihimo instruction was ritualized; patterns were kept secret and passed from master to apprentice. Few outsiders, foreign or Japanese, had access to this information. The 1980's brought change with the publication of a series of books in Japanese. A few foreigners studied kumihimo in Japan and books in English soon appeared to intrigue the Western fiber community. Far from the Japanese context and without formal training, braiders began to make non-traditional braids, using the materials at hand in place of the fine silk threads used since ancient times.Formal and informal study groups emerged. One way of sharing knowledge within the groups has been the sample exchange. A "swapmeister" or leader sets a topic for the group. Each member makes a braid that relates to the topic and cuts it into pieces about six inches long. She/he then writes up the braiding process, not only giving useful technical details but also thoughts and ideas that arose while working. These documents with a short segment of braid attached, are sent to the group leader, who redistributes them so that each member receives a sample of all the braids. Largely thanks to the Internet, several of these sample exchanges have become international. (Shirley and Carol Goodwin have edited a book about 60 such braids. See Sixty Sensational Samples in the Publications rubric of this site.)
In Japan, braiding is done on a marudai, a smooth wooden stand made especially with a bevel towards the center. The silk threads are wound on heavy wooden bobbins filled with lead. A counterweight bag with weights in it hangs from the braid. The braiding process, moving the bobbins with two hands rhythmically across and around the top of the stand, is elegant and relaxing.
Using bits of card or foam to make braids allows us to share techniques with others, often in offices or on planes and ferries! Braiding becomes a take-along project, losing some of its elegance in the process, but nothing of its magic. Children (of all ages) can be initiated into the wonder of threads and colours. Some braids are too complicated to make one-handed on a card but there are many ways of making improvised equipment using cardboard, an old stool or finds from the hardware store.
Braids can be functional or frivolous. Around the world and down the ages, braids are still made in many ways, both using equipment and simply braiding in the hand. They don't take a lot of yarn and all sorts of materials can be used. Just one warning - braiding is addictive. As you braid, you'll feel the questions nudging in. "What would happen if .... ?", "How would this look in just one colour?" Yessir, your next braid is already in waiting. Have fun!