One of today's most popular ways to tie an obi was invented by a Geisha in 1817. She lead a parade in celebration of the completion of a bridge called Taiko Bashi (drum bridge). Her invention is known today as Otaiko Musubi (drum bow). What makes this style so unique is that it requires a cord to help secure the obi knot.
The Samurai, who no longer had to fight battles, began to wear "costumes" styled after the ancient forms of armor. The armor, often using platelets covered with gold leaf and elaborate color designs in the sleeve armor, was meant to impress people in the court. Since, by this time, it took a thousand meters to lace together one of these antique styles of armor, this became an era of mass production in braid making.
Life changed dramatically in the 1850's when Commodore Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Japanese harbors and demanded that doors be opened to trade with foreign countries. Treaties were signed the following year with Europe, Russia, and the United States. By this time, the samurai had become ineffectual leaders and the power of authority shifted back to the Emperor Meiji who ascended the throne in 1867.
Emperor Meiji outlawed the carrying of swords in the streets, and samurai armor, once a symbol of power, became the stuff of museum collections. This must have produced a massive unemployment problem for skilled braiders. It seems likely the braiders sought help in popularizing the Otaiko Musubi, as it soon became the standardized form for tying the obi. Braiders focused their skill on creating braids for obijime and haori ties, and making cords for decorative purposes.
Kumihimo makers use specialized tools to create cords and braids. The equipment includes a stand for mounting the braiding elements and weighted spools (tama) to control the working ends of thread in each braiding element. Braiders, using the marudai and kakudai stands, make braids by moving the weighted spools around or across the face of the braiding stand. A counterweight is attached to the braid to provide tension during the braiding process. Braiders, using the ayatake dai and takadai, make braids by raising a portion of the braiding elements. Through the opening created by the lowered and raised elements, they pass a supplementary weft or another braiding element which is beat into place with a sword or stick. Braids made on the Ayatake dai use the supplementary weft.
Today the field of braid making continues to attract artists and scholars throughout the world. Artists are experimenting with unusual materials and finding new ways to incorporate braids in their work. Scholars are examining braids and creating a new vocabulary to describe their structures. Scholars are studying historical examples of braids and posing new theories about methods of construction. Books abound with instructions and photographic examples for creating sumptuous braids. This is truly an exciting time to be a braid maker.
Read about Rosalie Neilson's new book called Kongo Gumi - A Cacophony of Spots - Coils - Zags - Lines
(written by Rosalie Neilson ©1997 tor Braid Runner Pamphlet)
Just as birds flew off the assembly line knowing how to interweave sticks and vines to make nests, humans had the innate ability to ply together materials to make cords and string. What makes the human different from the bird is that birds never modified their original nest design. Humans, on the other hand, have continued to evolve new ways of making cords and new ways of using them. A visit to any recreational store shows the results of this evolution - climbing ropes and bungee cords plaited in elaborate patterns using materials straight from the chemist's laboratory.
The study of kumihimo, a name associated with the plaited silk cords of Japan, is a study of the evolution of cord making and braiding. The earliest examples of cords can be found from the era that began 9,000 years ago, the Jimon Jidai or Straw-Rope Pattern period. Pottery from this era reveals a decorative surface design made by impressing straw-rope into the clay. Designs were made by rope with two, three and four strands.
Evidence of how cords were used comes from the Old Grave Mound Period, an era spanning the 4th to 7th centuries. Clay figures called haniwa were found in old burial mounds. These sculpted human figures feature many practical and decorative uses for cords - lacing cords for armor, closure cords for clothing, and cords on arrows and quivers.
More decorative uses of cords are evident in the Nara period which ended in 794. During this time China had a great influence on the cultural arts of Japan including the introduction of Buddhism. With this new religion came a number of items adorned by cords - scrolls, rosaries, and priests' robes.
Japan continued to devise new ways to braid, learning complex braid structures and complicated color patterns from China and Korea. Much of this innovation can be seen in a large collection of braids at the Shosoin Repository in Nara. Presented to the Todaiji temple in 759 and again in 950, these braids show how sophisticated the braid makers' skill had become. Braids range from simple cords to complex structures using as many as 32, 72, and even 132 strands.
The most interesting era for the study of kumihimo is the Kamakura era from 1185 to 1333. Known as the Age of Battles, family clans were waging war among themselves as well as protecting Japanese harbors from invaders. The samurai (warriors) wore a type of armor which had evolved into a highly flexible garment for battle. Japanese armor consisted of small platelets (originally lacquered leather and later lacquered iron pieces) which were laced together by flat braids, forming horizontal bands overlapping one another. These overlapping bands were held together by intricately patterned flat "edge" braids. The lacing cords were originally hide thongs but later they were gradually replaced by flat silk braids. Many other types of braids are found on the armor, from tiny square edging cords to huge round cords tied in elaborate knots. Thus, with the passage of time, the manufacture of armor required ever more development of increasingly artistic braids.
By the close of the Kamakura era, the samurai had become the political rulers of Japan, relegating the emperor to a marginal role. During the Edo period, which began in the early 1600's until 1867, the samurai ruling class began to enjoy a sense of luxury. Internal strife began to subside and in 1639, Japan entered a period of isolation by closing its harbors to European traders (except for one small port with the Hollanders).
During this period free of outside influence, the arts flourished. Practitioners of the cultural arts found ways to embellish costumes and objects connected with their fields. The actors of Noh and Kabuki theater, followers of tea ceremony, and the professional entertainers Geisha knew how to tie decorative knots with the braids.