Beginning Kumihimo

Class taught by THL Lady Eliane Halevy
Woodland Romp, June 8, 2002
Stellar University of the Northshield, November 9, 2002
Armorgeddon, September 13, 2003
©2002-2006, J. Friedman

First off, feel free to contact me with any questions (contact info at bottom of page). If you see me at an SCA event, come show me the braiding you have done!

Kumihimo is a Japanese braid-making technique which dates to about 550 C.E., when the Buddhist religion spread in Japan and people began to use decorative cords in religious ceremonies (1). Later, people used brightly colored braids to decorate clothing, to hang banners, to lace samurai armor together (esp. in late SCA period, 1400-1600), and to hang knives (2).

Traditionally, this type of braid would have been made with untwisted silk threads on a wooden frame (a maru dai or "round stand"), allowing the threads to be draped over a flat doughnut-shaped top called a kagami (Japanese for "mirror"). The individual threads, as well as the finished part of the braid, would be carefully weighted to produce a balanced tension. Cotton embroidery floss is a good solid substitute for the silk for our purposes, but you can experiment with other fibers too. The cardboard loom you will use today is NOT period, but it's cheap, allows for portability and keeps the threads from being jostled out of order by your cat or small inquisitive child.

There are hundreds of different kumihimo stitches, some simple and some very complex, using different numbers of strands from 4 to 100. The stitch I was first taught was the simple 16-thread rotating stitch, which you'll learn today (called in Japanese: Kongo Gumi). The pattern that you get depends on how you arrange the strands when you are first starting out. See braid #9 in the Martin book (3) or #45 in the Owen book (1).

Before working the braid, assemble the kit as instructed. You'll need to choose 4 ziploc bags of 4 floss bobbins each (4 different colors is best when you're starting out, but you could experiment with using some of the same color). Please don't break up the packs of 4--it's not fair to make others work with an uneven number of bobbins per color so early in the game. You'll also get a cardboard loom.

To put together your kit:

  1. Hold the ends of two threads between your thumb and forefinger so they are even.
  2. One at a time, add the rest of the threads until all 16 are between your thumb and forefinger.
  3. Carefully tie them all in a single knot. Make sure none of the threads is outside the knot. This is easier if you don't tie the knot too close to the ends. 2" or more is suggested.
  4. Hold the loom, top side facing up. Put the knot through the hole of the loom, top to bottom. Hold it there with one hand under the loom.
  5. With the other hand, arrange the threads so that they look like the first picture below: pairs of threads, across from other pairs of threads. Seat each thread in a slot so the bobbins hang below.
If you have received a kit from me, already assembled, this is what your kit looks like from above: Picture 0
Your threads are probably not the same color as in the picture, nor are they necessarily arranged in pairs of the same color across from each other (though it'd be a good idea when you're first starting out).

Notice that there are 8 pairs of threads. Notice also that the pairs are across from each other. In this example, the red pairs are across from each other. You will work with two pairs at a time, and they will be across from each other.

To work the braid:

  1. Pick a color to start with (it doesn't matter which). Hold the kit so the threads of that color are on the top and bottom (in the example, this would be the green threads).
  2. Take the left-hand thread of the lower threads (a), and remove it from the slot in the cardboard. Lift it up and put it in the slot to the left of the upper threads (b). (See picture 1.) Picture 1
  3. Next, take the right-hand thread of the upper threads (c), lift it up and put it in the slot to the right of the lower threads (d). (See picture 2.)Picture 2
  4. You just did your first stitch! You might want to move the threads over a spot if they look a little out-of-whack, so the pairs are still straight across from each other.
  5. Now, rotate the loom counter-clockwise until the next threads are at the top and bottom (red in the example). Repeat steps 2-5 until you run out of thread. Unwrap thread from the bobbins if the thread is getting too short.
  6. Peek under the loom often, so you can see your braid grow!
To end your braid, cut off the bobbins, pull the threads out of the loom slots, and tie a single knot close to the braid. Make sure you get all the threads inside the knot. The traditional finishing involves wrapping an additional thread around the end to create a tight binding, then trimming the ends of the work threads to form a tassel. For ordinary use (esp. with cotton threads) a knot will hold fine, and you can still trim the ends for a tassel.

Possible uses for your braids (note, these are not necessarily period uses!):

Bibliography: These are the main books readily available in print in the U.S. Not all are immediately available--try's used bookstore service, or put in a back-order at your local bookstore. Or, to borrow them at your library, ask your librarian--if copies aren't in your local collection, you can order them on interlibrary loan. (1) and (3) are most readily available on interlibary loan in Wisconsin, but (4) (and two other Jacqui Carey books, one on beaded kumihimo and another beginner's guide) is becoming better known in libraries. Carey's "Beginner's Guide" is probably the easiest to find through bookstores, being most recently published.

  1. Braids: 250 patterns from Japan, Peru & beyond. By Rodrick Owen. Published by Interweave Press in 1995. ISBN: 1-883010-06-3. (Out-of-print as of 7/27/2003. Try Pennsic, or set your local used bookstore to looking for it. These are very much in demand. The author's website promises he will be putting out a reprinted edition in the next year or so. Hope so, because this is by far the easiest-to-use and most comprehensive resource for those learning braid patterns.)
  2. Kumi himo: techniques of Japanese plaiting. By Jules & Kaethe Kliot. Published by Lacis in 1977; 6th printing in 1999. ISBN: 0-916896-11-0. (hint: is the publisher. They also sell other kumihimo supplies, maru dai, a foam plastic 'braid board' with concise directions, and many, many good supplies for SCA costumers/needleworkers.)
  3. Kumihimo: Japanese silk braiding techniques. By Catherine Martin. Published by Lark Books in 1986. ISBN: 0-937274-59-3.
  4. Beginner's guide to braiding: the craft of Kumihimo. By Jacqui Carey. Published by Search Press in 1997; reprinted in 1998. ISBN: 085532828-2.
  5. Creative kumihimo. By Jacqui Carey. Published by Unicorn Books & Crafts in 1994. ISBN: 0952322501. This is a bit more advanced than Jacqui Carey's beginners book (see previous).

See also:

Please contact me at gflower AT with questions.

Back to Jennifer/Eliane's main webpage.
To a slightly more comprehensive handout on kumihimo.
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This page ©2002-2007, Jennifer Friedman. Last modified on 11/4/07.