Kumihimo”: Intricate and Highly Functional Braided Cords from Japan That Continue to Evolve in the Present Day

   Many different kinds of cords play a part in a wide range of areas in our lives. We use them to tie up bulky objects for transport, to adjust the waist size of our pants, or as straps for holding bags. Apart from those used as everyday items, there are also beautiful cords that have been handed down as traditional handicrafts up to the present day. These cords are called “Kumihimo.” This article looks at the profound world of Kumihimo in Japan.

Kumihimo” Are Popular for Their Intricate Patterns and Beautiful Colors

   Kumihimo are a type of traditional Japanese cord. The cords are created by taking several bundles with dozens of threads each, wrapping them around bobbins, and then braiding the bundles together in a diagonal criss-cross arrangement. The cords have a long history: their origin in Japan is said to be in around 700 AD, coming in from the Chinese continent and the Korean peninsula together with Buddhism.

   When Kumihimo first came to Japan, they were used to decorate Buddhist items and scrolls. However, owing to their characteristics of being stretchy and of having many threads of different colors and shades braided together to give a beautiful appearance, Kumihimo gradually began to appear in more places. They came to be used in a wide range of areas, including decorations for samurai swords, as Obi-shime for holding the sashes of Kimono in place, or as ornaments for ceramic works.
In an era called the Warring States period around 1500 AD, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a particularly famous warrior in Japan) encouraged the production of artworks, and this in part resulted in people starting to create Kumihimo as their profession. In this way, Kumihimo culture took root in Japan little by little.

Japanese Kumihimo are used in a wide range of areas, such as for tying up pouches, or for decorating swords and armor.

Many threads and strings are braided together in an intricate pattern to create a single cord.

Different Kinds of Kumihimo Are Used in Different Areas

   There are three main kinds of Kumihimo: square-shaped “Kado-uchi Himo,” flat “Hira-uchi Himo,” and round “Maru-uchi Himo.”

Kado-uchi Himo” have a square cross-section.

Hira-uchi Himo” are flat like a ribbon.

Maru-uchi Himo” are round like a rope.

   Kado-uchi Himo are typically used as Obi-shime for holding the sashes of Kimono in place. Japanese Kimono have an appealing aura with style and prestige. They go well with Kado-uchi Himo that offer a sharp impression with their square cross-section.

A sash is used to tie up Kimono, traditional clothing in Japan. Kumihimo, chiefly Kado-uchi Himo, are used to keep this sash in place.

   Hira-uchi Himo have a flat cross-section like a ribbon, and are used in the sashes of Kimono like with Kado-uchi Himo, or to decorate swords and tea utensils. However, recently, these cords have also come to be used more casually as accessories, such as necklaces and good-luck bracelets. In some unusual cases, they are used as shoelaces.

Accessories like good-luck bracelets that use Kumihimo are familiar items around the world.

   Maru-uchi Himo are round like a rope, and are often used in small pouches for putting little items in. You can create a highly original pouch by mixing and matching the colors and patterns of the fabric and Kumihimo.

Maru-uchi Himo are used to tie up pouches. You carry the pouch by holding the cord.

Japanese Kumihimo Are Also Popular with Tourists from Overseas

   Kumihimo have a long history, and you can still find stores in Japanese towns that manufacture and sell them in the present day. Also, there are many different types of Kumihimo stores. Some only handle the threads used for Kumihimo, some sell original sundry goods using variations of Kumihimo, and some hold sessions where you can experience making Kumihimo yourself.

Kiryudo is situated in Asakusa, Tokyo where there are many tourists from overseas. It sells Kumihimo and Japanese-style sundry goods.

   Kyoto, Japan’s iconic former capital, has a museum about Kumihimo too.

   This museum has many different exhibits, with a wide range of different Kumihimo as well as the tools called Kumidai used to make them. Also, it has books and documents related to old tools and Kumihimo.

The Adachi Kumihimo Gallery in Kyoto displays a wide range of items and materials related to Kumihimo, helping you get more familiar with these cords. © 2020 Adachi Kumihimo Gallery

   Apart from letting you see Kumihimo, the museum has a classroom that allows you to actually experience making them yourself. You can make a strap or bracelet, and take it home with you once you have made it.

The Kumihimo creation experience lasts about one hour. The teacher will offer you thorough guidance on how to do it, so you can rest assured even if you are not usually confident in making things with your hands. © 2020 Adachi Kumihimo Gallery

   Kumihimo have also gained increasing attention among people abroad in addition to people in Japan.

   Yuji Haneda, a Kumihimo artisan who works actively in the present day, says that besides Japanese people, tourists from outside Japan also show an interest in Kumihimo and visit his store.

Yuji Haneda is the manager of Kiryudo, and works actively as a Kumihimo artisan.

   “Customers from overseas often do not know what Kumihimo are, but many visit the store because they are interested by the intricacy and beauty unique to these cords. Conversely, there are other people who love Kimono or Japanese swords and make the effort to locate and visit my store to buy Kumihimo for decorating these items. Apart from Kumihimo, Kiryudo also sells accessories that feature these cords, as well as other Japanese-style sundry goods. For this reason, we have a wide range of customers, young and old alike. ”

Apart from Kumihimo products, Kiryudo deals in a wide range of Japanese-style sundry goods, giving it a brightly colored interior.

   Mr. Haneda is a successful Kumihimo artisan, and he said the following about the appeal of these cords:

   “For example, if you view Kimono and Japanese swords as playing a leading role, Kumihimo only play a supporting role to help highlight the leading role. However, precisely because Kumihimo have this role, you can use them in many different ways to captivate people. One unique point of appeal with Kumihimo is that you can come across new discoveries and new possibilities, where you find that you can use Kumihimo in unexpected places or styles. Also, Kumihimo are often hand-made one at a time by artisans, so they have different colors and styles depending on the artisan that made them. Also, the cords can have a different feel to them depending on the region where they were made. For example, Kumihimo with flashy colors like gold or silver are seen as attractive in the western area of Japan, while Kumihimo with subtle, deep colors are preferred in the eastern part of Japan. No two cords are ever the same. You may develop a stronger appreciation for how profound Kumihimo are by looking beyond the finished product itself and focusing on the individual characteristics from each artisan or region. ”

   Kumihimo are created by braided several bundles with dozens of threads each. By changing the color of just one thread, you can greatly alter its appearance and feel. You might have a fun time thinking about the combination of colors that you will love the most.

Kumihimo produce an unlimited range of colors through the unique creativity of each artisan.

   “As Japan grows more Westernized, there is less demand for traditional handicrafts that have been in Japan since ancient times. However, this also means that we can use innovative ideas and take on new challenges, without being restricted to existing frameworks. Going forward, I want to continue exploring the possibilities for Kumihimo as a Tokyo Kumihimo artisan. ”

Kumihimo Are Also Incorporated into Cutting-Edge Fashion

   Kumihimo are used in a wide range of areas and for many different purposes as Japanese traditional handicrafts. Recently, they are also being incorporated into cutting-edge fashion, owing to their beautiful appearance and high functionality.

   Kumihimo continue to evolve in the present day while achieving skillful fusions with cultures outside of Japan. For example, some accessories like hair ornaments and bracelets use actual Kumihimo as decorations, but there are also highly functional items like cellphone straps that incorporate the cords. What’s more, in 2001, a famous sports brand even used Kumihimo as shoelaces.

Japanese Kumihimo are spreading around the world—sometimes in the form of accessories, and other times in the form of handicrafts. For example, an American sports brand used these cords as shoelaces.